It would be good for the country and the Democratic Party for Joe Biden to run for president. But it could be hell on him.
Moreover, as a noncandidate, Biden would hang over the rest of the field like an absent giant who makes everyone else look small. The heart often longs for what it can’t have. Instead of being “too old to run,” Biden would become the missing and longed-for “elder statesman.” Cries of “Where is Biden?” would rise up whenever a major candidate stumbled. And, God forbid, if President Trump were reelected, we would again live through the “If only Joe had run” lamentations.
All of this would be disastrous for Democrats and progressives. The only way to know for certain if Biden is, in fact, the best candidate to beat Trump is for him to get in the race — to prove he can appeal to young voters despite his age; to demonstrate he can navigate a party that has changed dramatically since he entered the Senate in 1973; and to show he can absorb all the blows that will come his way courtesy of opposition research into his astonishingly long career on the public stage.
If he can pass these tests, he will be more formidable for it. But, to put it gently, the experience will not be pleasant. And, yes, it’s entirely fair to ask whether a 76-year-old can successfully navigate our changing mores and win over the younger voters Democrats need.
As Paul Starr, a professor at Princeton University, argued shrewdly last week in the American Prospect, “norms and beliefs about race, gender, and related issues have shifted dramatically among Democrats in recent decades.” As a result, “the very means by which Democrats won elections in the past are now seen as disqualifying by many in the party, though not necessarily by the public at large.”
Meaning, for example, that Biden’s support for the 1994 crime bill, which he could once wave proudly as a banner of toughness, is now a liability. Most on the left (and many on the right) see overincarceration, especially of African Americans, as both a problem and an injustice.
And behavior patterns once seen by many as signs of Biden’s warm humanity are now condemned as “handsiness” or much worse. These complaints are not new, but women are less willing than ever to stay silent about behavior most of them disliked in the first place. Last week, Biden released a video pledging to be “more mindful and respectful of people’s personal space.”
Affection for him is sufficiently widespread among Democrats that he seems to have weathered the latest challenge. But he didn’t help himself by joking about the issue (twice) on Friday before a union crowd. And he will be further criticized about how he dealt with Anita Hill’s accusations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, and about his support for a regressive bankruptcy bill.
These are real problems, but they will be stacked against Biden’s authentic contributions. In June 2008, I made a case for Biden as Barack Obama’s running mate. I argued he was a “happy warrior” who would reinforce Obama’s upbeat appeal. As a Catholic from a blue-collar world, the son of Scranton, Pa., would strengthen Obama with constituencies where he needed help. Biden’s background on foreign policy, I said then, would enhance Obama’s ability to handle national security issues.
Since opinion writers often get things very wrong, I am grateful that subsequent events ratified my instincts: Biden was an asset in the campaign and throughout Obama’s time in office. This still matters to a lot of Democrats.
The bottom line is that Biden belongs in this fight. He represents important components of the coalition that will have to come together to defeat the president. He could help Democrats solve a strategic dilemma: how to be tough as nails on Trump while still promising the more harmonious political future that middle-of-the-road voters long for. And if he fails, the ultimate nominee will be far better off for having faced down Biden and not be haunted by the ghost of a candidacy that never was.