Could Joe Biden be the man for this season?
The vice president has been running for president since Hillary Clinton was first lady of Arkansas. His first campaign, in 1988, fizzled over allegations of plagiarism.
His second, in 2008, limped to a humiliating close with Biden winning less than 1 percent of voters in the Iowa caucuses. He received most attention for unwise comments about Indian Americans (“You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts [in Delaware] unless you have a slight Indian accent”) and Barack Obama (“articulate and bright and clean.”)
But there is an argument that 2016 could be Biden’s year — a moment that will reward, even celebrate, his loose-lipped authenticity and his from-the-gut middle-class politics. In Iowa the other day, Donald Trump received thunderous applause when he proposed outlawing teleprompters. In 2016, Biden’s unscriptedness could be appealing.
Look at the latest polling. Matched up against Trump, Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, Biden outperforms Clinton in the new Quinnipiac poll.
Sure, there are stumbling blocks, even leaving aside the still-dominant position of Clinton and the daunting mechanical challenges of instantly assembling the necessary staff and money.
His career is one obstacle: At a time when the public is sour on politicians, Biden has been in elective office for 45 years, since being elected to Delaware’s New Castle County Council in 1970.
His age is another: At 74 on Inauguration Day, Biden would be the oldest president ever, including Ronald Reagan at his second term (just shy of 74).
But these are surmountable issues — capable, even, of being turned to some advantage. One person’s career politician is another’s devoted public servant: Biden has never spun through the revolving door to vacuum up six-figure speaking fees. A delicate topic, to be sure, but a comparison with a Certain Other Candidate that others might make.
The matter of age prompts my broader theory of Biden’s case: He should run as Biden Unbound. He can, pardon the phrase, trump concerns about age by announcing that he’ll seek just a single term — and picking a strong, preferably female, running mate. (Elizabeth Warren would be a tempting choice but probably not an optimal one. She’d be divisive in a general election and, at 66, reinforces the age issue.)
One-term Biden wouldn’t have to worry about satisfying constituencies or winning reelection. One-term Biden, this argument would go, would be free to craft the kind of bipartisan deals that only a Senate veteran can pull off — although, in my view, Biden’s chief deal-making claim to fame as vice president, the fiscal-cliff agreement, gave away too much to Republicans.
An alternative, or perhaps complementary, theory is that Biden could run to Clinton’s left, seeking to seize on the base energy evoked by Warren and, in her stead, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
This approach makes less sense. Yes, on matters of foreign engagement, Biden can argue that he is more appropriately hesitant than Clinton to become embroiled in conflicts. (Of course, that argument can cut against him as well, especially in the case of Biden’s thumbs-down on the successful raid on Osama bin Laden.)
But on domestic matters, Biden is no Warren. He (and Clinton) voted for the bankruptcy bill that she labored to defeat. He voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement. He authored the 1994 crime bill that has now become a symbol of over-criminalization. Yes, he championed the Violence Against Women Act, but a contest with Clinton could end up reviving debate on the handling of the Anita Hill hearings over which Biden presided, not to his credit.
Better for Biden to run as Biden — authentic, experienced, progressive but not too doctrinaire to cut a deal. If he has ideas for helping the middle class that are different from, or bolder than, Clinton’s, let’s hear them.
Biden seems truly undecided, in particular about whether, after his son Beau’s death, he has the “emotional fuel” to run. The vice president doesn’t want to suffer another embarrassment like 2008. Even more, he worries about his family and the impact of a bruising race.
Then again, consider Biden’s 1987 memoir, “Promises to Keep,” which takes its name from the phrase in Robert Frost’s celebrated poem. Biden opens with an epigraph from Frost: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have . . . miles to go before I sleep.”
Frost uses the line twice. It is easy to imagine Biden running a third time. And the campaign, at this point, would benefit from another voice, and a credible alternative.