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The Unrealized Promise of Joe Biden

Many Democratic operatives see the former vice president as a potential 2020 presidential nominee. But he would come with plenty of baggage.
Vice President Joe Biden arrives for the unveiling of the portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., on February 12th, 2018.

Vice President Joe Biden arrives for the unveiling of the portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., on February 12th, 2018.

Vice President Joe Biden isn't out of the headlines—or Democrats' hearts—just yet.

Recent polls suggest that roughly a quarter of Democrats have Biden as their favorite for the next presidential nomination. That puts him far ahead of other contenders. Now, presidential primary polls are notoriously unreliable, often just reflecting who has the greatest name identification, and primary polls two years before the first primaries and caucuses begin have basically zero predictive value.

But it's not just the rank and file saying this. For my current book project, I've been interviewing Democratic activists in early primary and caucus states about the last presidential election and the next one. More than half of my subjects have brought up Biden as a potential nominee.

Quite a few of my subjects have conveyed a deep fondness and reverence for Biden. Activists in South Carolina noted that Biden has done a lot of outreach to their state over the years, and see him as a candidate who can bridge racial divides. They noted that he has visited the Palmetto State both to eulogize Strom Thurmond and to speak at an National Association for the Advancement of Colored People meeting. One described him as "Safe Uncle Joe."

Others I have spoken to, including several of my current undergraduates, think extremely highly of Biden. Many believe he could have defeated Donald Trump in 2016. Some think he would help unify not only a fragmented Democratic Party, but a fragmented nation. They think of him as re-assuring and competent—the opposite of the current administration. They see Biden as experienced but not compromised, political but not cynical, charming but sincere.

I am extremely skeptical of such claims. Mind you, I have no particular reasons to denigrate Biden; he was a solid vice president, to the extent we can judge such things, and has a public service record to be proud of. But he is thought of fondly by Democrats today in many ways because he is "the one who got away." Democrats are evaluating him not on his actual record, but on their imaginations of what that record might someday look like.

This seems odd, given his length of service. To review the actual record, he has run for president three times—1988, 2008, and 2016—losing because the Democratic Party decided it didn't want him as its nominee. In 2008, he made it to only one contest, withdrawing shortly after a fifth-place finish in Iowa. In the other two, he withdrew before any voting even occurred. Michael Dukakis made a hash of him in his first run, attacking Biden for plagiarizing Neil Kinnock's speeches. The 2016 case evokes more sympathy, given the passing of Biden's son Beau, but in fact the Democratic Party had long since converged on Hillary Clinton.

Back in 2015, Ezra Klein wrote an interesting piece about why Clinton seemed to be defeating Biden for the nomination. Klein suggested that Clinton had some skills that Biden lacked: "Biden isn't much older than Clinton, but she's been more adept at signaling cultural affinity with young Democrats than he's been." I doubt most political observers would write such a thing today. It's Clinton who's seen as out of touch with young voters, while Biden can charm anyone.

But these perceptions aren't based on the candidates' actual relative strengths. It's simply that we're viewing them in light of new information. Clinton looked to be in touch because she was winning. Today, she seems out of touch because she lost. It's the win or loss that's driving our perceptions, rather than the candidates' own skills driving their victories.

Were Biden to run a full-throated presidential campaign for 2020, he would immediately draw fire, both from a crowded Democratic field and from Republicans. His many years of off-color comments, his plagiarism scandal, his regrettable stewardship of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, his occasionally "handsy" behavior, and other things accrued over half a century of public service would be brought up. No, they aren't worse than the things Trump says and does on any given morning, but presumably that won't be the standard to which Democrats hold their next presidential nominee, given the range of choices they have available for the post. And yes, his age would likely be an issue.

This is not to say that Biden couldn't win the nomination, or the presidency. He certainly could. But this would be his fourth time knocking on a door that has been closed to him in the past. Chances are, if it were going to open, it would have done so already.