NBC described it as a bombshell political story in the making. The New York Times thinks they have the scoop via an article by Maureen Dowd. ABC reports that according to a trusted Joe Biden adviser, the Vice President is “90% in.” Largely unnoticed in most press coverage of the 2016 election is the fact that there exists a very vocal and adamant contingent of Democrats who have been urging Biden to enter the race. A grassroots political action committee has been quietly gaining donations and Josh Alcorn, Biden’s deceased son Beau’s political adviser, recently joined that PAC.
Inevitably, we will have to endure stories about Beau Biden’s death and, if Dowd is correct, his son had a deathbed wish that his father run for president. It makes for great drama and probably a heart-wrenching NBC movie at some point. We are hearing about how the family is still grieving the death and one hopes that if Biden actually enters the race a deathbed wish will not be parlayed into political advantage. And let’s put this in perspective. Beau Biden was an innocuous state attorney general in a small blue state who was likely going to be the next Governor. With a name like Biden in a state like Delaware, that is hardly a great political feat. Yes it is unfortunate that his son died a premature death, but Beau Biden was hardly the second coming of Christ. Personally, I am tired of hearing references to his death.
The key question is whether it makes sense for Biden to run not only personally, but from the standpoint of the Democratic Party. Hillary has said for months that the nomination process was going to be competitive. That is lip service and downplaying the fact that she is the Democratic anointed one. Her campaign was hardly a major surprise to anyone with a modicum of political awareness. The fact is that the Democrats have precious little other than Hillary Clinton and that includes Joe Biden.
Head to head match ups in polls indicate that although Biden could beat Bernie Sanders in a realistic three-person race, he remains light years behind Hillary Clinton (55-13%) overall among Democrats. So why the speculation now?
The reason may have to do with a Democratic insurance policy dynamic. Most troublesome for Hillary Clinton is her unfavorability rating which stands at about 56%. Among Democrats, she maintains a very high favorability rating near 80%, one of the highest among the party faithful for non-incumbent candidates since 1972. Her problem is not with Democrats; it is with independent voters and it is this segment of the voting population that decides general elections. These figures have to worry not only Clinton, but also the Democratic Party. And try as they may, they cannot change the woman who comes off as cold, calculating, and not very authentic.
The only remotely viable option to Clinton in the Democratic Party at this point in time is Bernie Sanders. Despite the media hoopla over his rising crowd counts and favorability ratings, he would likely be crushed outside the friendly confines of all but the bluest of blue states. Given that Clinton’s numbers have seriously slipped among independents and that Sanders is pulling in the Left wing support, the Democratic Party may see Biden as a safety valve should Clinton not improve her ratings, or if something comes along (like an e-mail revelation, her Benghazi testimony, Bill, etc.) that could put another nail in her closing coffin.
Some liken this dynamic to 1968. After Eugene McCarthy finished a close second to Lyndon Johnson in Iowa, the incumbent president withdrew from the race. In this scenario, Clinton is the LBJ character and Sanders plays the role of McCarthy. Biden is some mix of Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey without the drama of assassination. There is one major problem with that analogy.
In 1968, Johnson had favorability ratings among Democrats between 50 and 60%. Most of this was attributable to the Vietnam War and we have no Vietnam today. By contrast, Democrats have a favorable view of Hillary Clinton to the tune of 75-80%. Again, that is one of the highest rankings for a non-incumbent candidate in recent memory. Even though her overall numbers have slipped seriously, in Iowa they still stand at 80% among Democrats despite Bernie’ surge and even though they have slipped slightly in New Hampshire to the advantage of Sanders, they still are a very healthy 75%. Hence, if everything stays the same come February 1st, 2016 when the Iowa caucuses are held, Bernie Sanders will not even be this year’s Eugene McCarthy. As for the RFK/Humphrey composite riding in on his horse (Biden) his favorabaility ratings are not that much better than Clinton’s although up of late (can you say, “sympathy?”).
Some have suggested that Biden received recent words of encouragement from family and friends after the death of his son, but kind friendly words to a grieving father are a far cry from ringing endorsements of “Run, Joe, Run!” What may play into Biden’s ultimate decision are two factors. Although he had a cordial relationship with Clinton in the Senate and in the Obama administration, Clinton’s brand of politics- rack up the endorsements and ramp up the cash machine- is not Biden’s brand of politics and there are reports that he secretly dislikes this about her. Clinton rants against money in politics while holding her hand out and taking that cash; Biden, like Sanders, really hates it. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight notes that Clinton has essentially won the endorsement game among politicians, but we have to take that with a grain of salt. If we use that parameter, then Chris Christie should be the GOP nominee. Further, endorsements (and money) can change especially if there are damaging revelations about Clinton that further question her integrity.
But, Biden does bring some things to the table that Clinton cannot. He clearly has better relations with the press. Can you imagine Clinton having an annual barbecue with members of the press? There would be rope lines in her backyard and serving hamburgers and hot dogs would become a choreographed affair. Biden also has more charisma than Clinton. His ad lib, off-the-cuff remarks sometimes land him in hot water (even his scripted comments contain gaffes), but that is what makes him appear authentic with the public. It is the same thing that fuels Donald Trump’s current wave of popularity. Moving Iowa back to February 1st gives Biden some time to ramp up his campaign if he runs. Some claim, given Clinton’s endorsements and $68 million haul last quarter, that this puts Biden at a disadvantage. But some money is sitting on the sidelines and it certainly is not going to Sanders who refuses it any way.
There are two major considerations here. First, 55-60% of voters in Democratic primaries and caucuses are women. Despite Biden’s long record of supporting women’s rights issues, does anyone believe that this important segment of the Democratic electorate is going to choose Biden over an actual woman with a similar record in that area? A vote for Biden would be removing the only thing Clinton potentially has going for her- being the first female President. Biden would eliminate that important gender card from the discussion.
The second consideration is a saying among political pundits: Vice Presidents win Party nominations, but lose general elections. Since 1960, only one sitting vice-president, George H.W. Bush, broke that pattern. Even then, he rode the popularity of Reagan to the nomination and general election victory (well, OK- the Democrats gave us Mike Dukakis and that had something to do with it also). And Biden cannot rely on the popularity of his boss in the White House.
Despite the alleged death bed pleas and despite the insurance policy theory or Clinton’s unauthentic assertion that this is “going to be a difficult process,” Biden is five years older than Clinton. It is time for retirement on an up note of sorts. Why put yourself through the torture of a presidential campaign where the odds of losing are considerably greater than the odds of winning? This would be his third attempt and likely to end as the others. If the Democratic Party is serious about Biden, then their problems are more serious than anyone imagined. Their policies and their solutions are like their candidates- old and yesterday’s news trying to be relevant today. Thanks for the laughs Joe, but Delaware is calling you home.