Mr. Vice President, enough is enough. The first Democratic presidential debate is in five days. Tell us what you’re going to do already.
Everybody seems to like Joe Biden, and not just because of his “zany, fun-loving Uncle Joe” persona. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting with him, you know he’s very different in person: his contemplative manner and his moral ruminations about difficult policy dilemmas catch you off guard, contrasting sharply with the image that television presents of him. The camera often renders Biden goofier than he really is. This has perhaps helped thwart his grandest ambitions. But Biden’s serious side continues to surprise us. Having lost a wife and daughter many decades ago, and another son a few months ago, he has repeatedly plumbed unimaginable depths of grief, before rising to the surface to show us how to cope with some of the very worst life can throw at you. As Glenn Trush captured beautifully, Biden’s recent mourning has suffused his deliberations over whether to run for president in a way that has captivated and inspired friends and ideological foes alike.
Biden surely can draw on a deep reservoir of goodwill among Democratic voters. When Biden debated Paul Ryan in 2012, people mocked his blinding klieg-light-reflecting grin, but Dems knew he’d delivered hard blows just when the rank and file needed a boost. When Biden pronounced the signing of Obamacare a “BFD” in 2010, people laughed, but coming from someone who has spent many decades in the trenches of major policy battles, it somehow conveyed just how big a “BFD” we should understand it to be. Liberals have had many differences with him, but he is a profound believer in government as a force for improving people’s lives, and he’s devoted much of his life to this mission. If he wants to run for president, many Democrats will welcome him to the grand argument.
But the game Joe Biden is playing now, in holding back on making his decision and telling us what he plans to do, just has to end, and fast. At best it’s becoming a farcical distraction that is beneath him. At worst it’s becoming a serious waste of our time.
The first Democratic debate on October 13th marks the start of a new phase in this campaign. The candidates who are in the race will be coping with a new level of intensity. The last thing they need — the last thing the frontrunner in particular needs, and an enormous amount is riding on her — is the distraction of gaming out strategies and positions in part around what would happen if Biden does enter the race. Democratic primary voters — and the national audience — will hopefully be tuning in with a new level of attention. The Republican candidates are eating up a lot of national coverage, and the Democratic candidates would benefit from as much media attention to their policy agendas as possible. So would the Democratic Party overall, particularly at a moment when GOP chaos and infighting seems to be heading into hyper-drive.
Yet the Biden deliberations continue to be a distraction on multiple levels. As Ed Kilgore argues, all the parlor whispering and leaks to the press may be hurting the party at this point. This may or may not be Biden’s fault. But as Kilgore points out, one thing is true: he could put an end to it.
Nor is it clear there is a groundswell for him to enter the race, or even a particularly obvious rationale for his candidacy. Hillary Clinton may be facing a stiff challenge from Bernie Sanders, but she remains very well liked by liberal voters, and the party will easily unite behind her if she wins the nomination, as still remains very likely. Biden is often said to have populist appeal to blue collar voters. But Clinton has moved in a populist direction on economic issues, minimizing the differences between her and Sanders, even as she continues to appeal to moderate and blue collar Democrats. Is there a lane for Biden somewhere in there?
It’s often said that Biden could be the unabashed champion of the Obama agenda. But while Clinton has broken with Obama on the TPP, she is fully committed to building on Obamacare, on the President’s climate agenda, on the Iran deal, on Cuba detente, and on Obama’s version of Wall Street reform, and she’s almost exactly where he is on immigration and on guns. Where is the policy lane for Biden?
Biden would have to emphasize his role as Obama’s Veep to peel off minority support from Clinton, which she is counting on to win more diverse contests after Iowa and New Hampshire, but Democrats and black elected officials see this as unlikely to work. Alternatively, as Nate Cohn points out, it’s not clear a Biden play for more moderate and older Democrats would change the fact that she remains the heavy, heavy favorite even among those voters.
It was right and good that Democrats gave Biden plenty of space to make his decision. But at this point, every additional day that goes by makes his own viability that much less realistic. He’d have to ramp up a campaign organization and raise a huge amount of money in a ridiculously short amount of time. At what point do we get to say that a Biden candidacy is no longer plausible?
If Biden wants to tell us that he’s prepared to enter the race down the line, but only if it really looks like Sanders is going to win the nomination, that’s fine — at that point, all bets would be off anyway. We just need him to say something more concrete. One last point from Kilgore:
It’s time for the vice president to publicly say “Yes,” “No” or “Maybe” to a presidential run instead of letting this bizarre speculation continue perpetually. “Maybe’s” fine with me; I’d personally be fine with him admitting he’s offering himself as a fallback option if something terrible happens to the field. But sorta kinda running for president via media hints that are turned into attacks on Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and the Democratic Party itself should no longer be an option.
There are five days until the campaign enters a new, much more serious phase. Tell us what you’re going to do, Mr. Vice President.