Where Joe Biden Is Coming From

The vice president's emotion-laden impulses may lead him to challenge Hillary Clinton, no matter how stark the electoral realities are.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden delivers remarks after receiving the Green Jobs Champion Award during the Good Jobs Green Jobs National Conference at the Washington Hilton April 13, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Three years ago, in mid-August 2012, I spent several days in close quarters with Joe Biden for a magazine profile I was writing. In an interview in his cabin aboard Air Force Two, I asked Biden about a topic much discussed back then, and even more so—to put it mildly—at this moment: the possibility that he might run for president in 2016.

“I give you my word as a Biden—a serious answer,” he said. “If the Lord Almighty came down and sat at that coffee table and said, ‘I guarantee you’re the nominee if you say yes now,’ I wouldn’t say yes now. Because I don’t know what the hell four years from now, three years from now, is gonna be like. But I know one thing: I have no intention, if I feel as good and have the same mind-set I have today, of my just saying, ‘Well, you know, I put my years in, and I am proud of what I did. And now, you know, I’m going to play a lot more golf.’”

One person who adamantly wanted Biden to take the plunge (again) was his beloved eldest son, Beau. He told me so at the time, and as the world now knows, Beau was urging, even imploring, his father to challenge Hillary Clinton right up until his death in May.

For Joe Biden, Beau’s long, valiant, futile struggle with brain cancer hammered home in brutal fashion the truth of the vice president’s observation about the unknowability of the future. Beau’s plea has had a profound effect on his father’s thinking—and, always as important when it comes to Joe Biden, his feeling—about the decision before him. That his younger son, Hunter, holds the same view as his late brother matters greatly to Biden, too. (Where his wife, Jill, stands remains a mystery even to family friends.) But equally significant, according to several people close to Biden, is his mounting sense of dismay about the Clintons: over their controversial politico-philanthropic endeavors, their enthusiastic money-making activities, and their le parti est le nôtre, nous sommes le parti sense of entitlement.

Set against Biden’s emotion-laden impulses are the stark electoral realities that would make taking on Clinton a terrifically daunting endeavor. The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza summed up the hurdles with this:

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An argument could be made that Biden is, in fact, a superior campaigner to Clinton—or at least a more joyful and authentic one. By some measures, his standing with the electorate is stronger, too. In a Quinnipiac University national poll released late last week, Biden’s favorable/unfavorable and honest/trustworthy numbers were considerably better than Clinton’s. And while her ratings by such metrics have been gradually worsening, Biden’s have been steadily improving; his favorability score is now the healthiest it has been since shortly after Election Day 2008, according to Quinnipiac.

The Clintons and their adjutants have always understood that a Biden challenge was possible. In the long run, they believe, their candidate—with her financial and organizational advantages, her head start, the official backing of wide swaths of the Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate, and her strength with virtually every demographic group that matters in her party’s nominating electorate—would withstand it. But they also comprehend, if dimly, that in the short term a Biden entry would make their lives sheer hell, and in the medium term could be quite dangerous, for three reasons beyond the obvious.

Hillary Clinton speaks to the media about her private e-mail server on March 10, 2015, in New York City.

Hillary Clinton speaks to the media about her private e-mail server on March 10, 2015, in New York City.

Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images

First, it would radically exacerbate an already punishing set of media dynamics for Clinton. Whereas everything she does is viewed by much of the press corps through a prism of suspicion and cynicism, Biden is seen through precisely the opposite sort of lens. Between his underdog status, warm relationships with countless national reporters and pundits, and the irresistible narrative of a father running to fulfill his cancer-stricken son’s deathbed wish, the vice president would be all but guaranteed many weeks, if not months, of soft, forgiving, at times gushing coverage.

Second, a Biden candidacy would escalate the Bernie Sanders threat. In terms of their ideological moorings and policy stances, not much separates Clinton and Biden. They are basically mainstream liberals, and would find themselves competing for the same mainstream liberal votes. But it is possible, indeed likely, that Sanders’s further-left base of support would remain unmolested by a Biden candidacy. Could Sanders beat Clinton (or for that matter, Biden) head-to-head in Iowa, New Hampshire, or both? Maybe, maybe not. But his chances of doing so in a three-way contest would increase appreciably.

Third, with Biden in the race, the Democratic establishment would have a viable alternative. The absence of a plausible fallback option has been no small part of the reason the party’s panjandrums have been laboring to suppress their misgivings about the swirl of controversies around Clinton’s e-mail practices and her family’s foundation. The mere presence of Biden in the mix would free those anxieties to float closer to the surface—perhaps even to bubble over. Remember, even in the absence of any scandal, the establishment’s supposedly rock-solid loyalty to the Clintons crumbled quickly in 2008 with the rise of Barack Obama. Biden is no Obama, but the atmosphere around Clinton today is far more toxic than it was then. If the roof above her seems to be caving in, the establishment will want an exit. Biden would offer one.

Of course, for all of the talk of the past 48 hours, it’s conceivable, and even likely, that Biden will forego a run. He is keenly aware of the obstacles he would face in, and relative liabilities he would bring to, a campaign—and has long been reluctant to conclude his career in public life by being the damn fool who placed himself in the path of an oncoming train. His darkening assessment of the Clintons only makes the prospect of losing to her, to them, that much more unappetizing.

On the other hand, it would make winning all the sweeter. The emergence in the press of the details of his conversations with Beau and deliberations about launching a bid was obviously not an accident. It was a purpose pitch aimed directly at the Clintons from within his innermost circle. One of Biden's favorite sayings is, “You're either on the way up or on your way down.” Whatever he finally decides, it's clear that Biden isn't ready to concede that he's on his way down just yet.