Joe Biden, forgotten man

Why do we have to keep reminding ourselves that the vice president is a legitimate prospect for 2016?

Topics: Opening Shot, Joe Biden, 2016, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Al Gore, George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Bill Bradley, Editor's Picks,

In a column this week, Ezra Klein hailed Joe Biden’s “heavyweight” credentials as a campaigner, dealmaker and talent evaluator, and touted him as a 2016 White House contender.

In theory, there should be nothing noteworthy about that last part. Biden is a sitting vice president in a second-term administration; he should be a natural prospect to run for the top job in the next election – something, he’s made clear, that he’s interested in doing. Of the three most recent two-term veeps, two – George H.W. Bush and Al Gore – used the office to clear relatively easy paths to presidential nominations, while the third – Dick Cheney – never seriously toyed with running on his own.

And, as Klein’s piece demonstrates, Biden’s credentials are even stronger when you consider the unusually consequential role he’s played in the Obama White House. He’s now the point-man on a major initiative on gun violence, and just before that was deputized to secure a last-minute fiscal cliff deal with Mitch McConnell. In fact, he’s been a key player in all of the White House’s various fiscal battles with the GOP, and let’s not forget the time he forced his boss’s hand on gay marriage. Biden hasn’t claimed the singular power that Cheney enjoyed in George W. Bush’s first term (and here’s hoping no vice president ever does again), but beyond that it’s hard to think of a No. 2 who’s loomed as large in an administration as he has.

So why do we keep having to remind ourselves to include him in the ‘16 mix? There are two obvious reasons. The first is age: Biden turned 70 last month, meaning that if he runs in the next election, he’ll be 73 during the campaign and 74 on his inauguration – meaning he’d be the oldest person ever to be sworn in as president. (Ronald Reagan didn’t turn 74 until a few weeks after his second inaugural.)

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This was enough to create an impression from the moment Biden joined Obama’s ticket in 2008 that V.P. would be his career-capping role, a perception Biden has been trying (to the degree he can while remaining a loyal No. 2) to shake off. The good news for Biden is that age probably isn’t quite the obstacle it used to be. In 1952, for instance, Alben Barkley, Harry Truman’s 74-year-old V.P., believed he was next in line for the Democratic presidential nomination and badly wanted it, only to be bluntly told by party leaders that he was too old. Six decades later, the stigma has probably faded – especially for a septuagenarian like Biden, who has the energy and sharpness of someone many years younger. On the whole, Biden’s age complicates his ’16 ambition but doesn’t by itself kill it.

The other reason Biden is overlooked is more serious: Hillary. The outgoing secretary of state, if she chooses to run, has the potential to be a primary season front-runner like we’ve never before seen. Yes, I know, we heard the same thing in the run-up to 2008, and look how that turned out. But Clinton’s two major weaknesses in that race – her vote for the Iraq War that her party base vehemently opposed and claims that she was too polarizing and would jeopardize the party’s general election prospects – have vanished. (She has Republicans to thank for that second neutralized weakness.) Nor is there an Obama-like figure ready to swoop in and unite the Clinton-skeptic wing of the party.

To date, the most dominant modern-era front-runner for an open seat Democratic nomination was Gore in 2000, who used his vice presidency to scare all but one potential opponent away. He then won an easy victory over Bill Bradley in the Iowa caucuses, gutted out a 5-point New Hampshire win, then absolutely demolished Bradley on Super Tuesday. Gore won every primary and caucus that year – the only candidate to pull off that feat in an open seat contest.

Clinton has the potential to one-up Gore and clear the field entirely. Because of her near-miss loss to Obama in ’08 and her run as his secretary of state, she could claim the role that would normally go to Biden: heir apparent. Biden would be free to fight her, but she’d clearly have the upper hand in lining up donors, elected officials, coalition group leaders and opinion-shapers. Realistically, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Biden – or almost anyone else, except perhaps an ambitious up-and-comer looking for name recognition – runs against Clinton. If she runs.

And in light of her recent medical scare, that’s an if that seems to be getting bigger. Clinton has insisted repeatedly that she has no plans to run in ’16 and that she just wants to take some serious time off after leaving the State Department. Maybe her break will fill her with energy for another national campaign. It could also lead her to decide: I’m 66 years old, I still have some good years left, and I’ve proven all I need to prove in public life – time to try something else.

The decision Clinton ultimately makes will continue to be the subject of endless speculation for months to come. And for all the ways that he’s distinguished himself these past four years, it’s the single-most important factor in determining whether Biden will get to run a presidential race he very much wants to run.

Steve Kornacki
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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