It looks increasingly likely that Joe Biden won't run for president. The window hasn’t closed completely, but it’s getting there. Now that the first debate is out of the way, the pressure on Biden to make a decision is overwhelming. Process-wise there’s still time, but in terms of solidifying donors and building an organization, it’s probably already too late.
Hillary Clinton knows it, too. After her strong performance at the debate, her supporters have become noticeably more vocal about the need for Biden to make a decision. Echoing a commonly held sentiment, Sen. Barbara Boxer said on Wednesday that “there’s no rationale for his campaign” at this point. “I think he should endorse Hillary and go out that way,” she added.
Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, had a similar message for Biden following Tuesday’s debate:
If Vice President Biden wants to enter and compete for the presidency, then it is time he make that decision…I think he’s been through a tremendous tragedy. And we’ve been respectful about that. And I think he deserves the space and the time to think that through about whether it was best for him to begin this new challenge to try to mount a presidential campaign. But I think the time has come for a decision so that at the next debate, if he does decide to get in, there will be six podiums on the stage.
The sudden urgency from Clinton’s people suggests two things: they feel very good about where they are now, and they realize it’s basically unrealistic for Biden to jump in at this point. And they’re probably right.
So that means we’re down to Clinton and Sanders. On the surface, Biden’s absence looks good for Clinton and bad for Sanders, and in a certain sense that’s true. Biden, like Clinton, is a center-left establishment candidate. His presence in the race would siphon votes from Clinton, and he’d be competing for many of the same donors. Without Biden, Hillary's lead over Sanders grows, according to recent polling.
Ultimately, though, a two-candidate race is a good thing for Sanders and the Democratic Party in general. It means we’ll get two clear and contrasting visions. With Biden in the mix, pundits (myself included) would spend too much of our time discussing the superfluous, boiling the race down as much to personality as policy – Is Hillary as likable as Biden? Why doesn’t she emote as well as he does? Is Biden more authentic? Who is the better establishment candidate?
These would be the dominant narratives, and none of them really matter.
The best thing about Bernie is that he doesn’t play the same game as everyone else. We saw this the other night when he said enough with the “damn emails.” Sanders will only talk about the issues, about the policies he’s advocating. And he won’t let the media drag him into the muck. That’s what makes him so refreshing and necessary. A debate between Sanders and Clinton will be a serious conversation, as it was the other night. It’s not that Biden isn’t a serious person; it’s that his presence makes the race more about who’s the most palatable general election candidate, Biden or Clinton? It would be too easy for the media to marginalize Sanders in that case. Without Biden, that’s not really possible.
Biden and Clinton would also be indistinguishable on many of the issues – not so with Sanders and Clinton. There are real differences on financial reform and foreign policy and drug legalization and free trade and domestic surveillance. And if the only people on the stage that matter are Clinton and Sanders, Clinton has no choice but to engage Sanders directly on the issues. And that’s great for the debate, no matter who you support.
So it’s true that Biden’s absence will tilt the political math in Clinton’s favor, but it will also make the debate more about substantive issues, which is Sanders’ strength -- and the focus of his campaign. Sanders entered this race to contrast his vision with Clinton’s as much as possible, and let the voters decide for themselves.
The way it looks now, that’s exactly what will happen. And that’s a win for everyone.