One of the big questions that haunts the Who The Fuck Are All These Fucks? series is: when does someone get a profile? Does it come when they’ve announced their candidacy? When they announce an exploratory committee? When they are very, very, obviously considering a run, Joseph?
The answer has been, mostly, when they start some kind of campaign. For some, that’s been exploratory committee time, for others, its been when they make the real announcement.
But for former vice president and two-time presidential candidate Joe Biden, memories of profiles and articles about the 2016 campaign that never happened remind us that no matter how obvious it looks, we can’t be certain that someone will seek the highest office in the land.
For Americans of a certain age, the prototypical version of this is Lyndon B. Johnson, who remains the only eligible incumbent president since Franklin Roosevelt to not seek re-election. Johnson was concerned about sinking polls numbers and his own personal health – he died just days after his second term would have ended – so he opted to sit out of the 1968 presidential election.
So rather than a candidate profile, let’s consider who Joe Biden is and why he might want to be a candidate. And why he might not get as far as it seems.
The Scrappy Upstart
Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1942. Biden, who is English-Irish, moved around a bit before settling in Delaware. He went to a couple colleges, ultimately graduating from Syracuse Law in 1969.
Biden was a liberal and, in the 1960s, a Republican, something that wasn’t quite as odd as it sounds today. He ran for office for the first time in 1969 as a Democrat because of his opposition to President Nixon, securing a spot on a county council. Three years later, became a United States Senator.
Biden was 30 years old when he was elected to the Senate in 1972. His youth was a big advantage over his opponent, incumbent J. Caleb Boggs, who had tried to retire but was pressured by Republicans including Nixon to keep his seat.
Just weeks after the election, a tractor-trailer struck Biden’s wife’s car, killing her and their one-year-old daughter. He would later write in his book Promises to Keep that he tried to put himself into situations after that where he could get into fights. “I had not known I was capable of such rage,” he wrote. “I felt God has played a horrible trick on me.” His staffers took bets on when he would resign.
Whichever staffer had “January 20, 2009” won.
The Man Who Would Be King
Biden became the 47th Vice President of the United States after the successful 2008 election. But it wasn’t his first try for the White House. Biden ran for president in 1988, but that run was derailed because of his penchant for lifting parts of his speeches from others. If that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out he was lifting whole parts of his life from others – or, more accurately, making them up entirely. His candidacy lasted just a few months. “Although it’s awfully clear to me what choice I have to make, I have to tell you honestly, I do it with incredible reluctance, and it makes me angry,” he told a press conference in Delaware, where he blamed “the exaggerated shadow” of past mistakes that had ” begun to obscure the essence of my candidacy and the essence of Joe Biden.”
Two decades later, Biden tried again. He was now an elder statesman of the party, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a popular fundraiser. When rumors swirled suggesting that another candidate might make Biden the Secretary of State, he pushed back. “Are you prepared to vote for anyone – at this moment in our history – as president who is not capable of being secretary of state? Who among my opponents would you consider appointing secretary of state? Seriously. Think about it.”
But Biden faced two popular rivals: Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama. Clinton was well-known, universally highly regarded among Democrats, a career lawyer and politician, and well-connected to key donors. Obama was an upstart, arguably mounting what he thought would be the first of a couple campaigns for higher office, and the kind of youthful candidate that appealed to deep pockets in Hollywood and New York. And while Biden was an old white man from wealthy Delaware, Clinton was a woman who had political connections in the northeast and the midwest and Obama was a mixed race guy from Hawaii and Chicago. Clinton seemed like a political matriarch. Obama seemed like just a real chill dude. Biden was, voters recalled, the guy who said, “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.”
Biden’s appeal to centrist, working class voters, though, was undeniable. So when Barack Obama became the nominee, he picked Biden for vice president. And Biden, you know, said no.
The Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is a big job and one that carries a lot of responsibilities, a lot of prestige, and a lot of power. The Vice President’s job is “don’t die” and that’s really it. If it wasn’t for a budding personal friendship between Obama and Biden, he’d probably still be in the U.S. Senate. But that friendship motivated Biden to accept the post, and his role in the election – as party and political elder to the youthful, comparatively inexperienced Obama – was likely vital to the ticket’s victory.
As President Obama’s second term came to a close, it was clear that Hillary Clinton – his 2008 rival and his first Secretary of State – would mount her second bid for the White House.
Just says after Hillary announced, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders unveiled his own campaign. Sanders had been floated as a possible candidate before, and not always with the Democrats. An independent, Sanders was a member of the Senate Democratic Caucus but did not participate in the party outside Capitol Hill.
Although others waded in, it was clear early on that the fight between Sanders and Clinton would dominate the election. But nearly universally, political pundits expected that Joe Biden would join them.
He never did.
Why Biden didn’t run remains something of a mystery, possibly even to Biden himself who said in January 2016 that he regretted not running. His son, Beau, died on May 30, 2015, of brain cancer, which sent him into mourning, but he has maintained that didn’t affect his decision not to run. He personally liked – and eventually endorsed – Hillary Clinton, but said in 2017 he thought he would have been a better candidate.
Instead, what had happened was that he stalled so long that the moment passed. And he’s running out the clock on 2020, too.
The Elder Statesman
Joe Biden had declined to run in the 2016 election on October 21, 2015. That was one day after Jim Webb withdrew from the primaries, and two days before Lincoln Chafee did. By the time Biden announced he wasn’t running, it was already a two-person race. He polled at 16% when he withdrew, far behind Hillary Clinton’s 45% and Bernie Sanders’ 29%.
Today, he polls ahead of the pack. He and Bernie Sanders are the only candidates to reliably poll in the double digits and he enjoys far more name recognition than most other candidates in the race. But time is running out.
Let’s get this out of the way: Joe Biden is old. He’s 76. President Trump is 72, Bernie Sanders is 77. They’re all grandfathers. And this is their last presidential election. Biden and Sanders will be into their 80s by the 2024 election, and Trump will either be term limited or, you know, we don’t take kindly to people who try to come back for the presidency after losing (except when we do). This is Biden’s last shot at the White House, something he’s grasped for his whole life, and it’s clear to see why that’s so tempting.
Time is also running out, though, for Biden’s brand of politics. The Democratic Party has become more willing to embrace hints of social democracy. It’s willing to cast aside older politicians who haven’t advanced along with the party’s younger electorate. Biden, who backed tough on crime legislation in the 1990s and who, again, suggested in 2006 that you can’t go into a 7-Eleven unless “you have a slight Indian accent”, increasingly doesn’t fit with the modern Democratic Party.
This isn’t because we’re suddenly seeing Democrats lurch leftwards. And, despite the hopes of Twitter users, it isn’t because we’re in the death throes of capitalism. It’s just a kind of ongoing trend towards social liberalization that we’ve been watching happen, glacially, for most of the past century. For Joe Biden, born seventy-two years ago, he’s been part of it. He participated in sit-ins and has long been pro-choice. But “angry old white man” isn’t the brand that young Democrats want, they want diversity and compassion and Biden just doesn’t scream either of those things.
There are centrist and moderate Democrats, the people who have formed Biden’s base, still in the party. There are a lot of them. Around a third of Democrats say they consider themselves moderates. So there’s space for Biden. But that space is already kind of occupied: moderates like Kamala Harris. They like Beto O’Rourke. These voters have candidates already. If Biden runs he might be able to lure them away from those candidates, sure, but it’s less clear that he can lure them away from Sanders, Warren, or Gillibrand, candidates who have the support of voters who want to see progressive change and – if possible – a little gender diversity.
It’s certainly true that the bulk of Democratic voters will support the eventual nominee. While around 15% of 2016 Sanders voters backed Trump or other candidates and around 28% of 2008 Clinton voters backed McCain or other candidates, the majority of Democrats are Democrats and will be in November 2020. But Biden, wary of another 2016 nomination process with him in Clinton’s seat, needs to know that he can easily clear the field. And it isn’t clear how he would do that.
Also he gets real handsy
Yeah also that.