(AP/Susan Walsh)

The real lesson in Joe Biden's decision not to run: Our elections have become interminable, money-soaked disgraces

The VP says he didn't have the time to mount a winning campaign. He's right, but that's a dismaying commentary

Sean Illing
October 21, 2015 10:33PM (UTC)

Confirming what many predicted, Joe Biden will not run for president. There are several reasons why his decision makes sense: He’s failed twice before, the process is grueling, he just lost his son, and organizationally the other candidates are light years ahead of him. The main reason, though, as Biden himself acknowledged in his announcement speech today, is time. Here’s Biden in his own words:

As the family and I have worked through the grieving process, I've said all along what I've said time and again to others: that it may very well be that that process, by the time we get through it, closes the window on mounting a realistic campaign for president. That it might close. I've concluded it has closed. I know from previous experience that there's no timetable for this process. The process doesn't respect or much care about things like filing deadlines or debates and primaries and caucuses….Unfortunately, I believe we’re out of time, the time necessary to mount a winning campaign for the nomination.

Consider how insane it is that the door has closed for Biden despite the fact that we’re 4.5 months away from the first primary and over a year removed from the actual election. How is that possible? What need is there for a process as bloated and gratuitous as this? Who benefits?


This doesn’t happen in other developed countries, where elections are less about optics and money and more about the issues. Canada, for example, just elected a new Prime Minister after a 78-day campaign, the longest they’ve had since 1872. In Britain, elections are short, cheap, and mostly quiet – the longest campaign in British history lasted only six weeks. Part of the reason for this is that Britain is a parliamentary democracy, which means the campaign process is vastly different. But that’s not the only reason. Besides, other European systems similarly impose limits on spending and campaign periods.

American presidential campaigns, by contrast, now begin in earnest roughly two years before the election, and sometimes longer. But “it hasn’t always been this way,” as the New York Times reported earlier this year. “The public process has slowly lengthened in recent decades – a product of rule changes that spurred the adoption of primaries and the competition among states for influence. The length of the campaigns has had the effect of increasing the amount of money required to participate.”

This is a national embarrassment. Whether Biden should run or could win is irrelevant now. The point is that he’s forced not to run because he didn’t start campaigning a year ago. That’s a pretty damning commentary on what’s become of our political process. There’s no platform or policy position that requires more than a year to explain to the American people, so there’s no reason why Biden or anyone else should be out of time.


Sure, the frontloading of primaries is a big reason for this dilemma. But, like nearly every other problem in our political system, it’s also about money and the media. Candidates have to compete earlier and earlier for key endorsements and valuable staff members, and because our campaign finance system is hopelessly corrupt, the candidates spend most of their time courting rich people rather than explaining themselves to voters. And the 24-hour news cycle demands that every jot and tittle of the horse race be covered constantly, without end, and as soon as possible, which applies even more pressure on candidates to announce earlier.

The result of all this is a protracted farce that rewards the wrong candidates for the wrong reasons and does nothing to incentivize sanity in our process. Instead, we’re left with an absurd endurance race between candidates whose only real ambition is to collect money and avoid errors in an impossibly long contest.

I have no idea who benefits from this, but I’m confident it’s not the voters.


Joe Biden Isn't Running For President, But His Speech Was Presidential

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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