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Sorry, Joe, but we just don't need you: Biden isn't Bernie Sanders and brings nothing new to the race

Biden isn't Bernie Sanders. He doesn't add anything to the race, and could do a lot to turn things sour


Amanda Marcotte
October 8, 2015 1:59PM (UTC)

Media excitement is growing over the potential for a Joe Biden run, with Politico taking the lead in stoking rumors that Biden will be announcing next week. Even though the whole thing is kicking off with an icky story about Biden himself leaking a story to Maureen Dowd about how his dying son asked him to run, the potential for more conflict---and therefore higher ratings and more news story clicks---is enough to keep hopes high that Biden will run and add some real drama to the primary proceedings. But the ugly truth is that Democrats should hope that Biden chooses not to run this year. His candidacy would add nothing of value to the race and could end up stoking unnecessary ugliness to what has, so far, been a fairly cordial campaign season for the Democrats.

It is true that a heated primary season brings more media attention, which helps familiarize the voters with your eventual candidate. The Republican primary season is certainly evidence of this. By the time voting season comes around, names like Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina will have more voter recognition than names like Martin O'Malley or Jim Webb, even though the latter two have more political experience. But it's really hard to imagine that Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton need this boost of public recognition, as they are two of the most famous politicians in the country already.

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The main reason, however, to oppose a Biden run is that he adds nothing to this race. Most media outlets are comparing him to Hillary Clinton as a candidate, but a more fruitful path would be to compare him to Bernie Sanders. Sanders adds something positive to the race, something even those who don't support him have to agree. He has notable and easy-to-articulate policy differences with Clinton, and his status as the more left-leaning candidate is by far the main reason that he is giving her a real contest in primary polling. He pushes a combination of novel ideas, like free college tuition, and liberal standard-bearers, like single payer health care, that help him stand in contrast with the front-runner and will make the upcoming debates genuinely interesting.

Biden doesn't offer any of this. Unlike Sanders, Biden's policy positions are largely identical to Clinton's. His public profile is basically the same as well: A successful career working with the Obama administration, preceded by a successful career in Congress. He doesn't offer anything different or exciting. In a debate with her, he'd mostly fade into the background, agreeing with her on most policy points.

Indeed, the only real difference between Biden and Clinton is that he's not as strong on reproductive rights as she is, and even voted against legal abortion in 1982. Being squishy on this issue is bad for a Democrat in any election season, but it's particularly troubling this time around, when Republicans are ramping up the war on women. Sanders, in contrast, has a solid pro-choice history.

Biden often makes a point of underlining his personal opposition to abortion even while assuring voters he remains pro-choice. Sanders has no use for such mushiness around the issue. "But all of you know what they mean by family values," he said of Republicans in a recent speech on the issue. "And what they mean by family values is that the women of this country should not have the right to control their own bodies."

By running, Sanders offers primary voters an actual choice. And even if he doesn't have a chance of beating Clinton, adds real value to the campaign process. He forces Clinton to move to the left in some instances and, in others, such as the college tuition debate, he forces her to articulate her reasoning for her policies more clearly.

Beyond just policy, the argument for Biden is that he's somehow more electable than Clinton. At first glance, this seems to be a meaningful argument. After all, Clinton and Barack Obama were nearly identical, policy-wise, in 2008, but primary voters flocked to Obama on a hunch, which turned out to be correct, that he was going to pull general election voters to his side.

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The problem with this argument is that Joe Biden is not Barack Obama, no matter how often he stands near him. Obama had a killer combination of off-the-charts charisma and a lack of political baggage that made him feel fresh compared to Clinton. But Biden can't really differentiate himself from Clinton in this way. Worried about her political baggage? Biden has plenty of his own. Whoever the candidate is needs to be able to rally black and female voters to the polls. While Biden has done some good things for women, videos of his condescending behavior towards Anita Hill in 1991 on the subject of sexual harassment are still out there, and if they get a wide viewing during the campaign, it could reduce voter turnout from these crucial demographic groups.

Nor does Biden have the charisma to smooth things over that Obama brought to the table. Biden has a well-known gaffe problem, the sort of thing that will make Democrats start longing for Clinton's well-polished media handling abilities, no matter how much pundits complain that she seems inauthentic.

Joe Biden just isn't Bernie Sanders. Sanders can offer a meaningful challenge to Clinton that will open up dialogue, generate enthusiasm, sharpen both candidates' arguments and let the victor emerge as a stronger general election candidate for it. The only thing Biden has to offer is that he's not a woman and he has a big mouth, neither of which Democrats should consider an electoral strength. His entrance into the race won't induce hearty debate over the issues, and because of this, candidates will feel more pressure to differentiate themselves through mud-slinging and other sleazy tactics. Democrats have a chance for a relatively clean primary campaign that is focused on the issues. Joe Biden needs to let them have it, something he can best accomplish by staying far away from the presidential campaign.


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. Her new book, "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself," is out now. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

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