Road to 2016: Vice President Joe Biden

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Vice President Joe Biden

There have been 21 polls taken since August 2013 asking whom Democratic voters believe should receive the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.  In every one of these polls, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has led.  In every one of these polls, Secretary Clinton has received more than 60% support.  Vice President Joe Biden, also ostensibly interested in the presidency, has not polled above 14% in the past year.  However, with the right steps, Biden’s presidential campaign is far from dead in the water.  In fact, if Biden runs a good primary campaign, he could be an even more formidable general election contender than Hillary.

The deficit that Biden currently finds himself in is nearly unprecedented in modern American history.  The only incumbent vice president in the last 90 years to seek his party’s nomination and fail to receive it was Harry Truman’s Vice President, Alben Barkley.  Dangerously for Biden, one can draw a number of parallels between Barkley’s failed campaign and Biden’s own pre-nascent one.  Barkley too was a former Senator and ended up having his candidacy dismissed due to his age.  At 74 in 1952, he was the same age that Biden will be in 2016.

However, Biden’s true worry in the primary is not his age, but the potential candidacy of Hillary Clinton.  If she runs for president, political forecasters like Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight.com find it hard to see a path forward for the Vice President.  However, by leveraging the power of the vice presidency, Joe Biden still has the ability to surge towards the nomination and, with luck, to the Oval Office.

The first step in any Biden campaign needs to be a response to the overwhelming wave of endorsements for Secretary Clinton.  Many political scientists have shown the influence that party insiders and interest groups have in eventually determining who receives each party’s presidential nomination.  While Hillary Clinton has racked up dozens and dozens of endorsements, ranging from Mayor Rahm Emanuel to Senator Claire McCaskill, Biden has not received a single prominent endorsement for 2016.  Though this sounds rather damning, it doesn’t need to be.  Biden was a Senator for nearly 40 years, renowned for his prowess in making friends on both sides of the aisle.  Senator John McCain is on record praising Biden as is former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.  Older senators on the Democratic side such as Senator Patrick Leahy have more of a relationship with Biden than they do with Clinton and may be more inclined to support him in a primary battle.  Even semi-official words of public praise from bipartisan allies such as McCain and Bloomberg could help convince people that Biden is truly serious about seeking the presidency.  An endorsement from a respected Democrat like Leahy would help change the current narrative of Hillary’s inevitability.

Another key step for Biden in countering Hillary’s aura of inevitability is a slightly more distasteful one.  Just as Clinton currently has the Ready for Hillary SuperPAC supporting her candidacy, Biden needs a financial organization to begin raising money and laying the framework for a primary fight.  One difficulty of starting these SuperPACs is that they are not supposed to have official contact with the candidate that they support.  Luckily, Joe Biden has the perfect confidant to run his SuperPAC.  Biden’s former chief of staff, the man who was appointed to serve as his replacement in the Senate, and his best friend, Ted Kaufman, now teaches at Duke Law School and serves on several influential boards.  It would not, presumably, take much doing to convince Senator Kaufman to take on a job unofficially helping out his old friend.  One great advantage of the SuperPAC is that it will not have to disclose much of its fundraising information.  While a single endorsement may look embarrassingly small next to Clinton’s army of supporters, a secretive SuperPAC could hide some of its funding information and remain a potentially harmful force in the eyes of Clinton supporters.

The two steps advised above would serve to help Biden fight a presumably powerful Clinton candidacy.  However, by taking another step, Biden could help ensure that he receives the nomination if Clinton chooses not to run.  President Obama has easily avoided answering questions about who he supports for 2016 thus far by claiming that both Clinton and Biden are exceedingly well-qualified.  Biden must convince the President to make a statement that Clinton and Biden are the only two, or easily the best two Democratic candidates for 2016.  While the statement may seem somewhat self-evident on its face, it is still an important one.  Hillary Clinton has had some recent health problems and would be nearly as old as Biden in 2016.  She also will have a granddaughter soon.  If she chooses not to run, for health or other reasons, the Democratic field will be blown wide open.  Biden leads Democratic polls that exclude Hillary Clinton, but not by dominating margins.  A statement by President Obama now would provide Biden with an important endorsement heading into a less competitive primary season.  Extracting such a statement from the President would also probably prove less difficult than the first two tasks on this list.  Biden could simply ask the President to make it, or, if that is unrealistic, “get out in front” of the President on this issue as he did on gay marriage.  In recent months, Biden has been profiled by numerous news organizations, including GQ, Politico, and the New York Times.  In his next profile, Biden could make a statement implying that both he and the President know that Clinton is the only viable candidate other than himself.  The pressure would then be shifted to the President who would almost certainly be forced to agree.  The dream scenario for Biden of Clinton not running does not seem overly likely at this point, however, and he must prepare for the most difficult primary campaign.

If he declares his candidacy, Biden will have to separate his image from that of Clinton. He can do this in three key ways.  First, he has to construct a narrative emphasizing that he “got there first”.  Second, he needs to take advantage of his position as President of the Senate.  Finally, he needs to tie himself inextricably to President Obama.  Though these tactics (particularly the third) are risky, they represent the best chance that Biden has of securing the nomination.  In terms of “getting there first”, Biden has arguments that trump many of Clinton’s, particularly among key Democratic demographics.  Biden wrote and passed the Violence against Women Act before Clinton was a Senator, he endorsed gay marriage before Clinton did, he was an influential chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before Clinton became Secretary of State and he stopped the nomination of Robert Bork before Clinton ever had her voice heard nationally on social issues.  Biden’s body of work in the Senate on Foreign Relations and Judiciary prepared him extraordinarily well for the executive branch and he needs to leverage his many Senate accomplishments (including lobbying President Clinton for action in the Balkans) to counter Clinton’s claims on qualifications.

Control of the Senate after the 2014 midterm elections is still very much up for grabs.  While the Democrats currently hold a 55-45 majority in the upper house, they have far more vulnerable incumbents than the Republicans and risk losing their majority.  However, there is one permutation of election results that could greatly increase Biden’s national profile and image ahead of primary season.  As President of the Senate, the Vice President normally exercises only nominal powers.  However, in the case of a tie, the Vice President casts the tiebreaking vote.  Coincidentally, the New York Times currently projects a 50-50 tie as the most likely party breakdown of the Senate after the 2014 midterms.  Such a tie would showcase Biden’s continuing clout in Washington, contrasting with other Democratic challengers for the presidential nomination.  This influence could especially contrast with Clinton who will have been out of public office for nearly three years by the time of the Iowa caucuses.  While the chances of a Senate tie are not overwhelming (estimated by the New York Times at about 19% as of June 1, 2014), they are compelling.  A Senate tie could provide a springboard to a 2016 presidential run for Biden and he should be hoping for that deadlock.

Biden has to tie himself closely to Obama because, frankly, as his vice president, he will be unable to get away from the President if things go south.  The only way that he can differentiate himself from Clinton is by tying himself even closer to Obama than Clinton can.  If the economy continues recovering, that will help him.  Additionally, a close bond with Obama through two full terms will also potentially help him with African-American primary voters who carried Obama to the nomination in 2008.  Biden can solidify this support by continuing to help Obama over the next 2 years, but also by reminding voters of the past.  In 2008, Obama offered Biden his choice of positions, either Vice President or Secretary of State.  Clinton was an afterthought for both.  President Obama chose Biden over Clinton once for a reason, and not just because of the bruising 2008 primary fight.  Biden was his first choice, for his knowledge and for his experience.  Reminding voters of that past will also help Biden in the nomination fight.

Biden has weaknesses entering the 2016 campaign, that much is undeniable.  He’s starting off the race in a deep hole.  Hillary has the jump on him in polling, fundraising and endorsements.  Additionally, Biden starts off at a disadvantage in terms of his campaign staff.  Biden’s campaigns have always been run by family and friends.  His sister, Valerie Biden Owens, has done an incredible job running his campaigns since the 1970s.  The only campaign that Biden has ever lost in any meaningful sense is the 1988 Democratic primary, a race he led before accusations of plagiarism and bad sourcing submarined his candidacy.   However, times have changed, and Biden needs top-tier political talent with experience in recent primaries and in harnessing the power of the Internet if he hopes to take down Clinton.  It will be a challenge to pry this talent free from the front-runner, but it is necessary to do so if he hopes to win the primary.

Joe Biden used to have a stutter, a debilitating one.  He’d start a sentence and find himself unable to finish it, mumbling out the same syllable over and over again.  Like Demosthenes, he spoke with stones in his mouth, training himself to defeat his disability.  (Admittedly, Biden only tried the stones trick once.)  Now, the worst thing that the Vice President can do before 2016 is stutter.  When he kicks off his campaign (if he kicks off his campaign), he must not hesitate.  If he acts with speed, precision, and cunning in commencing his race for the Presidency, Biden can win the Democratic nomination in 2016.  Joe Biden has accomplished an incredible amount in his time as a public servant.  He has come farther than anyone could have predicted for a middle-class boy from Scranton.

Biden has said that he can die happy without having served as the President of the United States.  Still, the chance lies before him, and seems closer than it has in the last 20 years.  To try and fail is forgivable, to not want the job is enviable, but the one thing that Biden cannot do is back down out of fear.  If there is a Democratic nomination fight in 2016, it will be a good one.