To run or not to run? That is the question Joe Biden is pondering during this month of August (and of Donald Trump), as the tentacles of the great email controversy wrap themselves ever tighter around Hillary Clinton and swathes of the Democratic party beg him to throw his hat into the ring for the party’s 2016 nomination.
In fact, the extrovert Vice President is the least Hamlet-like figure imaginable, and that’s what makes his possible entry into the race so appealing to so many. In this strange political year in the US, when voters on both sides seem to have turned against the establishment and robotic, eternally on-message candidates, “authenticity” is what counts (see Trump for the Republicans and Bernie Sanders for the Democrats).
Biden has “authenticity” and Clinton does not. Bill could fake it; she can’t. For that reason, Biden is trusted as she never will be, despite – or perhaps because of – his celebrated proclivity for gaffes, otherwise known as accidentally blurting out the truth. In 2015, gaffes and lurching off-messsage (see Trump, D, passim) are in. Yes, Biden is part of the fabric of establishment Washington, having served as a senator from Delaware for 36 years. But everybody likes him. And if he were to resent all the attention lavished on Clinton, a senator for just eight years, could you blame him?
After all, it’s now the norm for vice presidents, from Richard Nixon to Al Gore, to seek the top job for themselves. Dick Cheney, éminence grise of the George W Bush administration, was the exception that proves the rule. So, Biden must be asking himself, why not me? He also has an extra card to play. Fondly remembered and much respected on Capitol Hill, he knows the place inside out. Few would be better placed to improve today’s wretched relations between the White House and Congress.
Family tragedy, too, may be propelling him. In May Biden lost his eldest son, Beau, then Delaware’s attorney-general, to brain cancer. Talented and handsome, Beau looked set to pick up the national political torch of the Bidens. According to several reports, the dying Beau implored his father to run. For a devastated parent, such entreaties are hard to ignore.
Most important, there’s at least the glimmer of an opening. Even without declaring his candidacy, Biden is running at about 15 per cent in the polls. Meanwhile Clinton’s travails only grow, and surveys last week showed him outperforming her in match-ups against Republican opponents in the swing states of Florida and Ohio. Outspoken and of modest origins, Biden appeals to the white, blue-collar Democrats with whom Obama, and to a lesser extent Clinton, have difficulty.
The obstacles that face him, though, are at least as great. Age is merely the most obvious. He’ll be 74 on inauguration day 2017; Ronald Reagan was a mere stripling of 69 when he entered the White House. No wonder some Bidenites are already floating the notion of a one-term presidency.
The Irish blood in his veins means that Biden loves the hurly-burly of the campaign trail. But he’s far behind Clinton (and probably now Sanders as well) in terms of fundraising and organisation in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote. And can his family put up with the exhausting, all-consuming grind of a presidential campaign – even as they grieve Beau?
This would be Biden’s third attempt at the White House, and the previous two weren’t exactly glorious. He sought the 1988 Democratic nomination but was forced to quit before a primary vote was cast, after it was revealed that he had plagiarised Neil Kinnock, of all people. The second time around, in 2008, he performed well in debates against Clinton, Obama and John Edwards and seemed to be making inroads – until he finished with less than 1 per cent in the Iowa caucus and bowed out that same night. In 2015, Democrats tell pollsters they want Biden to run. But that doesn’t mean they’ll vote for him.
And what of his own “legacy”? Yes, vice presidents as well as presidents worry about such things. The office itself has long since ceased to be the irrelevant backwater that John Nance Garner, who served two terms under Franklin Roosevelt, famously deemed “not worth a bucket of warm piss”. Biden has been an effective, influential and popular number two, as well as a vital means of liaison with Congress.
There is an improbable but undeniable chemistry between the cerebral and cautious Obama and his garrulous, glad-handing vice president. But whether that bond extends to another Biden White House run is unclear. Normally, an incumbent would wholeheartedly back his vice-president. But Obama is, if anything, even more invested in Clinton, who swallowed the bitter pill of defeat in 2008 to become his Secretary of State.
She has been officially running for months now, and several of the President’s senior aides have left to work for her. All political careers end in failure, Enoch Powell once said. But does Biden really want a failed – and perhaps dismally failed – presidential bid to be the final chapter of a glittering political career?
Meanwhile, August wears on and Biden and his people are putting out feelers to donors and other potential backers. The family is still weighing the pros and cons, but a Draft Biden political action committee is up and running. The unofficial deadline is the first Democratic candidates’ debate on 13 October. A decision, however, will surely be made public by the middle of next month.
What will it be? In a rational world, Biden would throw his hat into the ring as the saviour of the party only in the event that Clinton’s campaign was fatally wounded, by scandal or health issues. But politics is rarely an entirely rational world (see Trump, D, passim). Biden’s head surely says he shouldn’t. And so, for that matter, does mine. But I’ll bet his gut says go for it.Reuse content