Why Biden 2016 makes no sense

Biden's isn't running for president, let alone as a one-term president

Unlike its Republican counterpart, the basic contours of the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination are fundamentally uninteresting. Hillary Clinton, barring an act of force majeure, will be the nominee. Bernie Sanders has done yeoman work injecting some real economic liberalism into the primary discourse and may even be able to win New Hampshire, but he's not capable of assembling a coalition that can beat Clinton.

But what fun is there in that story? The media prefers drama, and so we get an overblown email scandal and an attempt to pretend that a Joe Biden candidacy is viable.

As Matthew Yglesias of Vox observes, the general media reaction to the latest Quinnipiac University poll is a case in point. The poll shows Clinton with a commanding lead in the Democratic primary, and it shows her beating every Republican candidate she was polled against (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump) head-to-head. In front in both the primary and general election polling — that's where you want to be, right?

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Instead, most reactions focused on one potentially negative fact about the polling: Clinton did not do as well against her hypothetical Republican opponents as Vice President Joe Biden, and also had slightly lower favorability ratings among Democratic voters.

So should a Biden candidacy be considered a thing? Not really. For one, there really is no reason to believe that he will actually enter the contest. As Ed Kilgore wonderfully puts it at Talking Points Memo, "The more you look at the Biden bandwagon, it looks more like a ghost ship being pulled through the mist by a combination of hungry political reporters, Hillary haters (including most of the conservative media), and Delaware-based Friends of Joe who, of course, would love to see him run." If Biden were serious about running, he almost certainly would have entered the race by now.

But even if he did run, there's little reason to believe he'd be a serious threat to Clinton. He would have no discernible policy rationale for running, and his last two attempts to seek the Democratic nomination were fiascoes. He's already run against Clinton once, and he ended up in a rather pathetic battle with Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd to avoid finishing in last place in Iowa. He would probably do better with the vice presidency under his belt, but not that much better. And if he ran, his favorability ratings would take the same hit that Clinton's did.

So why on Earth would Democratic voters prefer Biden to Clinton? Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post offers this possibility:

The matter of age prompts my broader theory of Biden's case: He should run as Biden Unbound. He can, pardon the phrase, trump concerns about age by announcing that he'll seek just a single term — and picking a strong, preferably female, running mate…One-term Biden wouldn't have to worry about satisfying constituencies or winning re-election. One-term Biden, this argument would go, would be free to craft the kind of bipartisan deals that only a Senate veteran can pull off — although, in my view, Biden's chief deal-making claim to fame as vice president, the fiscal-cliff agreement, gave away too much to Republicans. [The Washington Post]

Biden, Marcus argues, should emulate the Jackson-era president James K. Polk by promising an accomplished first term and then getting out. Does this make any sense? Not at all.

The most serious problem with Marcus' analysis is the idea that if Biden preemptively declared himself a lame duck he "wouldn't have to worry about satisfying constituencies." A president always has to worry about this, at least to the extent that he wants to accomplish anything. Contemporary presidents, by definition, lead national coalitions and all presidents need collaboration with Congress to get legislation passed, to staff the legislative and executive branches, etc.

For that matter, it's not true that Biden wouldn't have to worry about re-election; presumably he would care who wins the White House in 2020, and the popularity of the incumbent is certainly pertinent to this result. If Biden genuinely didn't care about the next election, this would in itself be a disqualifying factor.

One suspects that what Marcus really has in mind is the possibility that a one-term Biden would be in a better position to fight the one constituency she opposes: the strong majority of the public that is against Social Security cuts. I have no idea if a one-term Biden would be more likely to reach a substantively and politically disastrous "Grand Bargain" to cut Social Security, but if so that's another reason to oppose his candidacy.

Fortunately, the whole question is almost certainly moot. Biden is very, very unlikely to run, and if he did he wouldn't win. Pundits who want excitement still have the chaotic Republican race to look at.

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Scott Lemieux

Scott Lemieux is a professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y., with a focus on the Supreme Court and constitutional law. He is a frequent contributor to the American Prospect and blogs for Lawyers, Guns and Money.