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Why not Biden?

- September 21, 2014

Ezra Klein is wondering why Joe Biden is trailing Hillary Clinton by 44 points in early match-ups for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. It’s a good question, especially since, as Ezra notes, Biden has been, by just about any measure, a good vice president. He’s served his president faithfully and been an effective cheerleader for party and administration priorities.

Ezra’s suggestion is, notably, not that Biden’s presidential campaign is a non-starter because he’s prone to gaffes. Yes, he’s gaffe-prone, but so are a lot of politicians, as is pretty much anyone who spends a lot of their day near microphones. And yes, he may be something of a joke in many circles, but so is basically every vice president. As Jonathan Bernstein noted, the vice presidency is a very weird and largely undefined job. The vice president is famous and recognizable but has no clear set of responsibilities or tasks, other than occasionally casting tie-breaking Senate votes and waiting for the best-protected person in the nation to die. So some simplistic media shortcut eventually takes over. Quayle the dolt, Gore the nerd, Cheney the warmonger, Biden the party animal, etc.

As Ezra rightly argues, the question isn’t whether Biden has flaws; the question is why those flaws are a problem for Biden’s presidential prospects. Ezra thinks the reason has something to do with demography: “Biden is an old-school, white, male politician in a party that’s increasingly young, multicultural, and female.”

That’s not altogether wrong, but I think Ezra focuses too much on the candidate’s skills:

Biden isn’t much older than Clinton, but she’s been more adept at signaling cultural affinity with young Democrats than he’s been…. Clinton isn’t inevitable, and Biden should, by all rights, pose a real threat to her. But, though Biden’s always been known as a great speaker, he needs to learn to talk to a different party than the one he grew up in.

The answer is in some ways much simpler: Biden isn’t doing well in presidential polls because almost no one of consequence in the Democratic Party, other than Biden, is talking seriously about his presidential prospects. Few Democratic elites have made public endorsements for 2016 yet, but the early signals are pretty clear. Priorities USA Action, the super PAC that threw so much money and effort behind Obama in 2012, has signaled its support for Hillary Clinton, and past Obama campaign leaders like Jim Messina and Jeremy Bird have fallen in for her. This is about as close as you can get at this point in the cycle to a full-throated endorsement from President Obama and the Democratic establishment.

Potential also-ran Elizabeth Warren has the backing of some notable individuals, such as former congressman Barney Frank and TV financial guru Suze Orman. This isn’t much to build a presidential run on, but it does suggest at least some support for the Massachusetts senator, perhaps enough for a minor candidacy to advance some issues of importance to her. But who is backing Biden?

Suffice it to say that if a broad swathe of members of Congress and governors signaled their support for a Biden presidential run, his age, race, gender, and even the occasional gaffe would not be much of an issue. Older white men, even those who occasionally put their feet in their mouths, are still well represented within the Democratic Party. (Note the contested Senate races right now in Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, and Michigan; all the Democratic nominees are white men over 50.) Obama pulled the occasional gaffe in 2008, and George W. Bush certainly had his share in 2000, but those didn’t really hurt their nomination prospects because so many party insiders were already behind them.

Now, this of course begs the question as to why insiders aren’t backing Biden. All these factors mentioned above may play a role in that, but it’s fair to remember that this would be (or is) Biden’s third run for the White House. He put in valiant efforts in 1988 and 2008 and was never even among the finalists. Scandal ended his first run before anyone had even voted, and he withdrew in early 2008 after a poor showing in the Iowa Caucus. It would be hard to make the case that demography or gaffes cost him those races. It seems fair to say that the party isn’t seriously considering him for the presidency in 2016 because it’s already considered him twice before and, for any number of reasons, found him wanting.