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The Debate Was Great for Joe Biden

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Everyone but presidency scholar Matthew Dickinson is getting it completely wrong in analyzing the effects of Tuesday night's Democratic debate on Joe Biden: 

The vice president has already "run" for the 2016 Democratic nomination. He lost relatively early in the invisible primary -- the period that starts soon after the last presidential election when prospective candidates start appealing to the people most involved in party politics.

By early this year, it was already clear that Hillary Clinton was the consensus choice within the party. We can't know for sure what has been in Biden's mind for the past two-plus months. But the reality is that he has been running to be Clinton's understudy -- the candidate most Democratic party actors support, should something happen that makes her impossible to nominate.

He had to know a debate wasn't going to change any of that. Even if Clinton had done badly -- and given her skill level, no one anticipated that -- debates are nothing like boxing matches (forgive my metaphor on Tuesday night). There are no knockouts.

So the idea that Biden was waiting to see how Clinton did in the debate before he decided is probably nonsense. He could have guessed she would get good reviews, especially compared with the others on stage.

Why, then, was the debate good for Biden? Because Martin O'Malley is probably his chief rival for Clinton's understudy. Bernie Sanders isn't right for the job. Even if he's barely within the party's mainstream in his positions on public policy, the Vermont socialist is widely (and probably correctly) viewed as too liberal to be a strong general-election candidate. 

And while O'Malley's performance wasn't a joke or anything, he failed to stand out, and he's unlikely to receive a post-debate public-opinion surge.

For Biden, the perpetual trial balloon phase of his understudy campaign was already at the end of its useful life. When Stephen Colbert starts ridiculing you, and sober commentators compare you to Mario Cuomo, it's time to shut it down. Nothing much will change once he's officially "not running." Biden has secured his position.  The rest of it has always been more about the media's interest in pretending there's a competitive contest than anything else.

  1. Perhaps he thought he could defeat Clinton; it's even possible he'll formally enter the race now. But there's no reason to believe he would be a serious threat, and that's been true ever since the media stakeout of him began in August.

  2. How that would happen would depend on when in the campaign cycle she (hypothetically) dropped out. If it was next week, Biden would simply enter. Near the end of the year, he would miss filing deadlines, true, but in most states he could still get on the ballot and collect delegates. If it happened after the primaries began, he would probably just win the loyalties of Clinton's already-selected delegates. Depending on the specifics, it might get tricky -- but if Clinton's current supporters were unified behind him, the details would be only minor obstacles. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net