The news that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is giving serious consideration to running for president spread like wildfire over the weekend.
That is understandable. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, has not exactly performed like a winner, and growing questions about her character, forthrightness and judgment have produced plenty of negative coverage in the media, which feeds on controversy.
Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders may be an adequate stand-in until someone credible enters the Democratic contest, but as I argued in late April , he isn’t formidable enough to deny the Democratic nomination to Clinton, who will never excite progressives. And former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley so far has been a bust, unable to get past, around or through the true-believing Sanders.
Biden, who served six terms in the Senate (and was elected to a seventh in 2008), would be a plausible alternative to Clinton. At least there is a case that he could threaten, or even overtake, her.
If you still think of Biden as a joke’s punchline, you aren’t remembering the whole story. A former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees, Biden has plenty of credentials and credibility. While he can put his foot in his mouth at times, he is an energetic and enthusiastic campaigner with an engaging personality.
But being the second banana for eight years has its downsides.
Biden will get much of the blame, but relatively little of the credit for what happened over the past eight years. He’s part of the administration and can’t distance himself from President Barack Obama’s decisions even if he wants to, but it is difficult for him to take credit for the Affordable Care Act or the president’s executive actions.
Vice presidents running for president always face difficult challenges balancing their roles as loyal members of an administration and candidates who want to create their own agendas. The fact that Obama is a historic president means Biden’s position is particularly difficult.
If Biden decides to enter the Democratic contest, he will deserve to be taken seriously. But his prospects will still depend on how Clinton performs between now and the first contests in February.
Clinton’s problems remain on the left, but Biden certainly isn’t an automatic heir to progressives who see her as part of the political establishment and have lined up behind Sanders or remained on the sidelines.
Critics of the vice president can point out that he voted for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution in both 1995 and 1997, and like Clinton and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, he voted for the 2002 Iraq War resolution. (Sanders voted against the resolution, while Obama criticized Clinton for her vote during their 2008 contest.)
They could even note that Biden chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, when that committee conducted hearings on Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court and referred the nomination to the full Senate, though without a recommendation.
“Biden’s chatty, deferential approach to Thomas did nothing to inspire fellow Democrats on the panel and did not begin to counter the hard-edged attack on [Anita] Hill,” according to 1998's "CQ’s Politics in America."
If Biden can’t threaten Clinton from the left, can he go straight at her, rallying mainstream Democrats around his bid? Maybe, but that seems unlikely unless Clinton’s star plunges much, much further.
Clinton’s gender makes her a potentially historic figure for many Democrats, many of whom would see her nomination and election as a vote for equality and women’s rights. Her last name is also an asset in the African-American community. And her reputation as smart and feisty is an asset.
Moreover, Democrats like Clinton and are ready to support her. The most recent Quinnipiac University national poll shows little movement among Democrats away from her. You wouldn’t know that if you watched political talk shows and news programs, all of which emphasize Clinton’s weaknesses, stumbles and vulnerabilities.
In fact, the former first lady can deflect much of the criticism (as she has done in the past) by blaming Republicans and conservatives for engaging in a vendetta against her. That explanation won’t satisfy progressives or many of us in the national media, but it is easy to understand and will resonate with Democrats already inclined to support her.
None of this means Clinton is home free. Additional stumbles could hurt her standing in the polls, and that could bring other Democrats into the race — including some who could be a real threat to her.
If Biden decides to enter the race, he will have lots of work to do, both in organizing the early states and in fundraising. He deserves to be taken seriously. But while Clinton’s road to the presidency has been bumpier than her friends would have liked, Biden's entry would not change the fact that she is still the prohibitive favorite for the nomination.
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