This wasn’t supposed to be Joe Biden’s night, at least not in the mind of the two-term vice president and former chairman of two major congressional committees.
Biden was supposed to be speaking tomorrow night, accepting the presidential nomination of a party grateful for his service to its goals and to President Barack Obama.
If anyone was in line for the Democratic presidential nomination, it was Biden. If anyone paid his or her dues, it was Biden. If anyone figured out how to roll with the evolution of the Democratic Party, from moderate to liberal to third way to progressive, it was Biden. If there’s anyone still eligible for the presidency who is best suited to rally Democrats on the campaign trail and cut deals with Republicans on Capitol Hill, it’s Biden. And if there’s anyone to whom President Obama owes unflinching loyalty, it’s Biden.
It’s not hard to imagine Biden accepting the Democratic nomination for president here in Philadelphia, less than an hour’s drive from his house in Delaware and not too far from his native Scranton, Pennsylvania. He would have been a returning prodigal son. What a story that would have been, from the hardscrabble upbringing to a lifetime of public service representing Delaware in Congress to a major party’s presidential nomination. It would be hard avoid getting caught up in the sentimentality of a Biden nomination — especially because virtually everyone who knows him roots for him.
He’s the antithesis of Hillary Clinton as a politician: Smooth, charming and oppressively likable. If he stretches the truth, no one cares. But, for a variety of reasons, he never gained traction in his presidential campaigns.
There are few things Biden wanted more than the presidency. And there can be little doubt that he still thinks he should be the one accepting the party’s nomination on Thursday night. But he also knows that he had a much better chance of playing spoiler — of splintering Clinton’s coalition — than of defeating both her and Bernie Sanders. The threat of that was real enough to keep Clintonworld up at night last fall and to factor into Biden’s decision not to run.
By the time he sat down to take a hard look at the 2016 campaign, Clinton had already locked up so much support within the party that it would have been hard for him to build a credible operation. Part of that was the suspension of Biden’s decision-making when his son Beau died, but part of it was simply Clinton’s preparation and hard work in assuming command of the party machinery. (It’s been reported that Beau Biden wanted him to run.)
So, Biden did what was best for Clinton, best for himself and best for the party. He didn’t complain publicly that the White House, including Obama, refused to help position him for the presidency. There was no visible sulking when White House officials declined to identify him as a favorite of the president or even push back hard on the idea that Obama had twice told the nation Biden was the next-best person to be president and didn’t feel that way heading into 2016.
He conducted himself with honor and redefined loyalty, even in the face of Obama’s tacit betrayal. A two-term vice president has every right to feel entitled to the support of the president — however tepid — when the administration is coming to an end. Not Biden. He had been cut out by the marriage of the Obama and Clinton political worlds.
Despite all his years of service and loyalty, Biden drew the short straw this year — a Wednesday night speaking slot in which he’s sure to make the case for Clinton, even though he certainly believes he’d make a better president.
Democrats will cheer him heartily, handing him the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award rather than a shot at the presidency. They will recognize his service as they put a capstone on a political rise that began the year that Richard Nixon was re-elected to the presidency.
Their applause will be bittersweet for Biden. But he should bask in it. He did what Clinton always says she wants to do: all the good he could, by all the means he could, at all the times he could and in all the places he could.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.