In the current campaign, Biden has continued to be the administration’s best envoy to the old Democratic constituency that suffered serious erosion in the Reagan era. After Bill Clinton’s eight White House years, it slipped back into decline, only to be revived temporarily by the Obama magic of 2008.
Though Biden has also served as an effective cheerleader in chief (recall his convention speech describing how “night after night, I sat beside [Obama] as he made one gutsy decision after the other”), he is still is regarded as a loose cannon on the stump and bears the brunt of much ridicule in Republican quarters over his gaffes and loquaciousness. Ryan needled him on that Thursday night when Biden mocked Romney’s “47 percent” remarks.
As a veteran of many a debate during six Senate terms and two presidential and now vice presidential bids, Biden has been surprisingly disciplined in such verbal encounters. In his 2008 debate with his Republican counterpart, Sarah Palin, he avoided being overbearing or condescending toward her, a newcomer to the national stage. (Though while taking the fight to Ryan, he may have seemed a bit of both.)
Biden’s political career has seemed on the verge of ending more than once — whether because of the plagiarism allegations that drove him from his first presidential bid in 1987 or his dismal rerun in 2008. But he’s always found a way back.
After he dropped out of the 1988 presidential race, Biden revived his reputation through his leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, which won him laurels from fellow liberals. Later, the controversial hearings that put Clarence Thomas on the highest bench brought him mixed reviews overall but high marks within the party.
Biden never really had a chance in his second bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, running into the Obama-Hillary Rodham Clinton buzz saw. His occasional gaffes continued to be a drag, seized on by opponents who saw him as easy pickings despite his solid work in the Senate. And in the public eye, his perceived lack of discipline masked his knowledge and experience in domestic and foreign affairs.
His vice presidency may have helped him overcome all that. As Biden approaches his 70th birthday in November, one hears talk — certainly not discouraged by him — of a third presidential try in 2016. At 73, he would be one of the oldest Americans to seek his country’s highest office, surpassing Reagan’s 69 in 1980 and equaling Reagan’s age at reelection.
Much of Biden’s political future, of course, will depend not only on his reelection with Obama next month but also on the administration’s performance — and his own — over the ensuing four years. And then there is the looming specter of Hillary Clinton. Or Mark Warner. Or Martin O’Malley. Or Andrew Cuomo.
Even a reelected Biden would need a substantial improvement in the economy over that time to remain in the speculation about 2016. And his continued subordinate role to a sitting president could pose a problem, as Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Gore in 2000 all discovered.
Any dramatic closing chapter to the Biden saga would depend as much on Obama as on the man who has been his loyal and active No. 2. For all of Biden’s efforts against Ryan, it remains the president’s job in his debate rematch with Romney on Tuesday night to put their campaign back on track. And, for that matter, to keep alive whatever presidential dreams Biden may yet entertain.
Jules Witcover, a veteran Washington journalist, is the author of “Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption.”
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