The Washington Post’s flattering profile of Joe Biden that was published today didn’t tell us much we didn’t already know about the vice president and the consuming ambition that has driven his long career in politics. The big question hanging over the piece is whether Biden will run for president in 2016. But the only line you really had to read in the piece was the one attributed to several of his friends. While acknowledging the long odds facing him if he chose to run for president whether or not Hillary Clinton runs, “For Biden, who has been running for office since his 20s, not running would feel unnatural.”
Unnatural or not, the Post makes clear what has been increasingly apparent: Clinton’s entry into the field would make a Biden candidacy highly unlikely. Though the memory of her “inevitable” election to the presidency in 2008 must not be forgotten, Clinton’s absence from the political fray during four years as a popular if ineffectual secretary of state has given her the kind of commanding position that hasn’t been seen in presidential politics since Dwight Eisenhower bided his time waiting for his opportunity during the Truman administration. The former first lady may not be a hero of the greatest war in history, but her potential to be the first woman president gives her the kind of politically correct status in her party that will make it all but impossible for any serious Democrat to oppose her. That’s why all the speculation about Biden is largely pointless.
As the Post reminds us, the vice president has been an unexpected success in office. While most political observers had come to rightly view him as a poster child for term limits and a gasbag who had flopped miserably in two attempts to win the presidency, it was precisely his conviviality and decades of experience in Washington that made him an essential aide to President Obama. With the cerebral and ice-cold commander-in-chief unwilling or unable to deign to bargain, let alone banter, with members of Congress, it has fallen to Biden to be the prime minister of this administration. It is no exaggeration to say that without him, the slim roster of the president’s legislative achievements would be a great deal slimmer.
But the avuncular “good old Joe,” who can cut a deal with former Senate colleagues, rouse the rabble at Democratic rallies (often by engaging in outrageous hyperbole such as his classic warning to a black audience in Virginia that Republicans were planning to “put y’all back in chains”) and weep on cue when meeting family members of victims of mass shootings, is no match for Clinton in 2016.
The main takeaway from the talk about Biden or any of the lesser Democratic possibilities for 2016 is that Clinton’s continuing absence from the fray is only making her stronger. The more we talk about other Democrats, the more we realize that none of them are positioned to compete with her increasingly untouchable position as the person whose main qualification to be president will be her gender.
That’s the genius of a Clinton strategy that centers on the candidate keeping quiet for as long as possible. Without her in the picture, the discussion about other candidates will remain more about Clinton than her rivals. As long as she is not engaging in the back and forth of political discourse during which her less than perfect temperament and conventional liberal beliefs would hamper her, as they did in 2008, she can sweep the field and persuade all serious opposition to evaporate.
If anything, all this should convince Clinton to keep under wraps these next two years. Other than sallying forth for lucrative speaking engagements, her advisors should be telling her to stay at home–at least until the fall of 2015 if not later. The longer she keeps Democrats waiting, the easier it will be for her to recreate what is essentially a 19th-century presidential campaign dynamic in which the party will beg her to be its nominee, rather than the other way around. There is no more certain template for a Clinton presidential nomination than for her to stay on her front porch and let the nation come to her. Absent ill health or some factor about which we currently know nothing, I think the chances of her not running are minimal. How could anyone as ambitious as Hillary resist a race that will be more of a queen’s coronation than a presidential nomination contest?