The consensus among political pundits and Democratic operatives is that there is only one way for Vice President Joe Biden to avoid being the first sitting veep since Alben Barkley to be denied his party’s nomination for president: don’t run. Barkley, whose grandchildren invented the term veep to refer to the vice presidency, was a typical example of a No. 2 of that era. He had been put on the Democratic ticket in 1948 for the purpose of geographic balance and was given nothing to do other than to preside over the Senate and go to funerals. The reason why the 74-year-old former Kentucky senator thought he could win the presidency has been lost to antiquity, but in those days the idea that the post, which was held in general disrepute, was a stepping-stone for the presidency was an eccentric notion. Since then several veeps have won their party’s nominations and a couple have won the presidency (Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush). Since Barkley’s day, presidents have given their running mates much more responsibility and the job has become far more visible and influential rather than the source of humor.
But with Hillary Clinton gearing up for another presidential run that has most of her party already enthused about the prospect of the first female commander in chief, what chance has Biden got? Polls already show her leading other Democrats by huge margins. So what exactly was Biden’s camp up to feeding the Wall Street Journal the line that the vice president is “confident” and plans to run in 2016 no matter what Hillary does? The front-page story in today’s Journal that cites sources close to Biden and his political team might be interpreted as a tactical message to Democrats that the vice president is ready to run if the former first lady and secretary of state disappoints her loyalists and doesn’t try. Given that most Democrats think the real competition will be for Hillary’s choice to replace Biden rather than the top spot, that makes sense. But I think that’s a mistake. Biden may be a huge underdog who would be at a clear disadvantage against Clinton, but I think his camp’s effort to get this message out in such a prominent forum should be seen as a shot fired over the bow of the Clinton juggernaut. It’s a reminder to Democrats that the man whose ego is bigger than the small state that sent him to the Senate for 36 years isn’t inclined to go quietly into the night as the Obama presidency winds down. The vice president has spent his life itching for the Oval Office and if you think he will be deterred from running by long odds, you don’t know Joe Biden.
Handicapping Biden’s intentions for 2016 are really no different than understanding why he ran in 2008. Few gave him much of a chance and his abortive campaign to win the Democratic nomination was a colossal flop. Back in 1988 when he made his first run for the presidency, he had been briefly considered a first-tier contender in a race that was eventually won by Michael Dukakis. But his candidacy didn’t survive when Biden was exposed as a serial plagiarizer. His stump speech was found to be a copy of the one used by Neil Kinnock, then the head of Britain’s Labor Party. It soon came out that he had also plagiarized a law school paper. That seemed to put an end to his presidential ambition, but the fever still burned inside him. When, seemingly close to the end of a lengthy political career, he tried again, it was not the result of any groundswell on his behalf. Rather, it was the act of a politician with enormous self-regard. The 2008 run was not so much his last hurrah as it was Biden deciding to make a sacrifice and give the American people one last chance to do the right thing and make him president. Unfortunately for him, nobody else felt that way.
Barack Obama’s decision that he needed Biden’s gravitas and foreign-policy experience (a laughable notion since virtually every position Biden had taken had been largely discredited) got him closer to his goal than anybody (other than Biden) thought he would achieve. But Clinton’s strength is such that the general assumption is that she would clear the field and run as a virtual incumbent in the 2016 primaries. Given the fact that they would have to draw upon much of the same sources for funding and political support, conventional wisdom would indicate that Biden should step aside rather than get run over. But that sort of thinking does not take into account Biden’s hunger for the presidency or his sense that it is his destiny.
Does Biden have a chance to actually upset Hillary? Not really. He would probably be able to raise enough money to run and, as he has already shown with his trips to the early voting states, will work hard in Iowa and New Hampshire. But Clinton has too much going for her to be stopped by a man who, however much affection he has earned among the Democratic grass roots for his hyper-partisanship, is still generally regarded as an embarrassing gas bag in much of the country. But just as Biden is undeterred by his frequent gaffes, no one should be surprised if he persists in running despite the odds. Joe Biden thinks he should be president, and nothing the Clintons do is likely to persuade him otherwise.