It’s started again, if it ever ended.
Speculation over Joe Biden’s presidential ambitions is ramping up along with his ambitious midterm political schedule (most notably his appearances with Pennsylvania special election candidate Conor Lamb). And it’s entirely unsurprising. Biden has never made his hopes to become president a secret: He ran for the job twice and came pretty close to jumping in once again in 2016.
There’s also a superficial plausibility to the idea that he’s what his party and his country want and need. A lot of observers look at those Rust Belt white, working-class areas that gave Donald Trump the presidency and figure Biden would have won had he not been distracted by his son’s illness and death and outmaneuvered by Hillary Clinton’s head start. He’s ahead in early 2020 polls of Democratic possibilities, though you have to figure a lot of this is the result of sky-high name ID after two terms as vice-president and what seems like an eternity in the Senate (the presiding officer in the Senate when Biden was sworn in was Spiro T. Agnew, for God’s sake; Jesse Helms was a fellow member of Biden’s freshman class in the chamber).
That long, long résumé points to the biggest problem with the idea of Biden 2020, bigger than lefty mistrust of him or his rep as being a tad “handsy” or his occasional gaffe-itis: He’s been walking the earth for three-quarters of a century, and if elected in 2020, would turn 80 halfway through his first term.
This hasn’t been an instant disqualifier for Biden, partly because Donald Trump is a septuagenarian as well, and doesn’t seem particularly more robust than his potential rival. And Biden has the very good fortune of the “age issue” being muted to a considerable extent by fans of Bernie Sanders, who is even older.
Still, Biden and his people understand his age is a problem, along with the associated sense (outside the People of the Bern) that Democrats need a fresh face to take on the insanely unconventional Trump. Biden’s two previous unsuccessful runs for the presidency are also a relevant data point. If Hillary Clinton was a blast from the past when voters wanted change, what about Biden, who was already in Congress when HRC was a law student dating this smart young dude from Arkansas named Bill?
According to Politico, Team Biden is “brainstorming a range of tear-up-the-playbook ideas for a White House run.”
The one that most directly addresses his age problem is the hoary gimmick of the one-term pledge, which three presidents made and kept in the 19th century, and that relative oldsters like Bob Dole and John McCain have considered (but rejected) more recently.
[S]ome donors and supporters have been pitching Biden directly for month [the idea to] kick off by announcing that he’d only run for one term. One person who’s pitched the idea said Biden would try to sell voters on “a reset presidency.” The former vice-president would pick a younger Democratic running mate and argue that he’d be the elder statesman to get the country and government back in order post-Trump and be the bridge to the next generation.
The one-term pledge probably makes more sense for Biden than many other “unconventional” strategies, but it sounds like he’s already ruled it out on grounds that “he doesn’t want to be a lame duck from Day One.” He needs the threat that he’ll be around to kick ass and take names all the way until 2025, when he’ll 86. That is indeed a sobering prospect.
Some other “unconventional” ideas for Biden 2020 uncovered by Politico have varying degrees of promise:
“Skipping Iowa and New Hampshire and going straight to South Carolina, where he has always had a strong base of support.”
That’s an idea that many candidates over the years have considered and rejected, for the very good reason that it runs the risk of letting a rival (or rivals) build up a head of steam in the massively covered first two events, making a late start suicidal. The last Democratic candidate to actually try it was Al Gore in 1988. It failed miserably, as Gore’s plan to sweep a southern regional super-primary fell prey to a pincers movement from Mike Dukakis (who won in New Hampshire) and Jesse Jackson. Besides, someone purporting to be a party-unifying éminence grise can’t really skip major contests and expect to maintain the required reverence from activists and media. Some candidates (mostly Republicans) have skipped or underplayed Iowa without catastrophic effects, mostly to save money, which is not likely to be Biden’s problem. He’s as good a retail politician as anyone else, and looks very natural at the Iowa State Fair with a pork chop in his hand. If he’s going to run, skipping Iowa and New Hampshire’s a bad idea.
“Announcing a running mate right out of the gate and possibly picking one from outside of politics.”
Unlike the late-start notion, this is something no major candidate has actually tried. There’s probably a good reason for that. Setting up a ticket from the get-go, unless it’s just a dazzling no-brainer, is mostly an attention-getting device, and again, Joe Biden doesn’t need that. And it sacrifices the tactical flexibility that can be useful to a putative nominee seeking to unify the party and send a distinct message to the general electorate. If the idea is simply that Biden needs a running mate to counter his age or his ultimate-Washingtonian image, he can make it known he’s inclined to that direction without naming names, and potentially giving himself a dual problem. The age issue means that any Biden running mate will be examined more closely than the usual veep because she or he will be more likely — actuarially — to get the big job than the usual veep. And dumping a veep choice during the campaign itself would be a catastrophe, as the late George McGovern proved.
It’s telling that the only two early running-mate announcements in living memory were by desperate candidates looking for a half-court hook shot at the buzzer: Ronald Reagan in 1976, whose startling choice of moderate Senator Richard Schweiker was designed to shake loose some delegates in Pennsylvania; and Ted Cruz in 2016, who announced Carly Fiorina as a prospective veep only after he had been mathematically eliminated from the nominating contest. Desperation is not a good look for Joe Biden, which may be the problem with all these “outside-the-box” strategies.
“Making a pitch that he can be a bridge not just to disaffected Democrats, but to Republicans revolting against President Donald Trump.”
This, of course, isn’t that audacious a strategic idea. To the extent it involves outreach to Republicans in the primary season, it will run up against both polarized partisan voting habits and (in some states, as Bernie Sanders discovered) closed primaries and caucuses. And there could be a backlash if Biden is perceived as less than loyal to his party.
If the idea is simply that Biden advertises himself as having a better chance than other Democrats to attract Republican voters in the general election, that’s even more conventional: It’s usually called an “electability argument.” Public-opinion research suggests that electability is generally overrated as a voting consideration. And candidates who overemphasize this quality are perpetually at the mercy of polls showing them doing more poorly than their rivals in general election trial heats (as happened to Nelson Rockefeller on the eve of the 1968 GOP convention).
The more closely you examine these allegedly “far-out options,” as Politico’s headline writer calls them, the more it seems Biden might do better just running a regular campaign and seeing how he does in the first few contests. Assuming the field is as large as it looks to be right now, his name ID alone should give him a puncher’s chance of surviving to the post–New Hampshire primaries.
But I have an even better idea: Biden should just keep doing what he’s doing, building up good will across the party, and staying out of the presidential race’s long and agonizing “invisible primary.” Thanks to the probable size of the field and Democrats’ strict use of proportional delegate awards, 2020 could be the year when we finally see a stalemated nomination battle where no one has it all locked down in the late going, possibly aggravated by ideological or insider/outsider splits like the ones we saw in 2016. That’s when a party-unifying Candidate of National Salvation like Joe Biden could be just what the donkey orders, particularly if it looks like the existential threat of a second Trump term is otherwise likely. And then there’s always the possibility of a nominee or putative nominee self-destructing. Who else are you going to call on in that situation?
Yes, that’s a very long shot; a legitimate draft is a rare beast in American politics. But it sounds like Biden and his people realize a long shot is what they’ve got over anyone. Why not avoid the grief of a grueling, party-rending knife fight and stay home? If his party needs Joe Biden, they will know where to find him.