As Vice President Joe Biden inches his way agonizingly toward a decision of whether or not to run for president, he has provoked a great deal of hand-wringing about his possible entry into the race. He's being attacked vigorously from the left for his moderate-to-conservative record as a senator, particularly on racial issues and on his support for the finance industry. And he's being called to task for his longstanding habit of putting his hands on, arms around, even nose in the hair of women he doesn't really know.
Those objections are certainly not irrelevant. But they aren't reasons not to run. And there's one way in which a Biden candidacy could significantly improve the quality of the race that should make even those who oppose him want to see him in the lists.
Take Biden's personal behavior first. I've argued before that politicians who have issues like Biden's should not avoid scrutiny either by denying reality with the help of a pliant partisan media or by resigning or not running in the first place. Rather, they should face the music before the voters, so that they can decide how important these issues are relative to the many other considerations in choosing a nominee.
That process has now begun to happen. Biden has said that he never intended to offend or upset anyone, and never intended this affection sexually, and that he will change his behavior in light of changing norms. If Biden runs, the question of whether that's adequate or not will be answered by the results — and that will serve as a guide for subsequent candidates.
As for Biden's long and complicated record, it's absurd to rule out a candidate because he's out of step with the voters — we have primaries partly so voters can let us know where they really stand, so we don't have to guess. And Biden doesn't have to choose between running on that record, behaving as if nothing has changed in the world or in his mind since the 1970s when he was opposing school busing, or conducting an endless apology tour in which he prostrates himself before the gods of Twitter and promises never to stray from the party line. On the contrary: If anybody has the stature to stand for whatever he actually believes now, it's surely Biden, and if anybody can plausibly articulate a change of heart, it's also Biden, who has wandered over most of the political map in the course of his long career.
Biden's senate career is by now ancient history. But if Biden ran, there's one aspect of his career and his record that he couldn't simply move on from without that change of heart having real political significance. That's his record as vice president, and by extension the record of the Obama administration.
If Biden runs, he will immediately and properly be seen as a candidate of restoration, a walking argument that things were better under Obama, and that if we want to restore America to herself we should restore the White House to its last good stewards.
That's a mostly comfortable position for Democrats to take, and it's not obviously a message that the country as a whole would reject. Obama is widely popular not only among Democrats but in the country at large, leaving office with a 59 percent approval rating and preferred to Trump by a whopping supermajority of Americans.
But the Obama administration's popularity coexists with considerable disagreement about whether that administration was actually leading the country the right way. In Biden's absence, the strong tendency among contenders for the nomination will be to pretend that whatever they are running on is in continuity with their last popular standard-bearer, and that very obscurity will make it harder to hold the winner to account for what voters thought they were voting for. Those who want to see a real change in direction should welcome a debate that shines a spotlight not only on Trump's crimes and follies, but on the Obama administration's own failures. Biden, because he was Obama's vice president, is in a unique position to open that debate.
Take the financial crisis, for example. Biden can reasonably be tarred with having helped pave the way for both the bubble and the crash with his support for deregulation. In response, Biden has already said that one of his greatest regrets involves the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the Roosevelt-era law that enforced a separation between the securities industry and commercial banking. And he supported the Dodd-Frank regulatory reform and the creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau — Elizabeth Warren's brainchild — in its wake. If Biden were a senator, he could tell a story about how his views on finance had evolved without having to get too far into the weeds.
But Biden wasn't just a senator. He was a key player within the Obama administration's response to the financial crisis. There's a powerful argument from the left that said response was woefully inadequate, both in terms of responding to the economic contraction (we needed a much larger fiscal and/or monetary stimulus) and addressing the underwater housing market (the administration's response prioritized helping banks who held the underwater mortgages over helping distressed homeowners).
Biden is the only candidate who could be forced either to defend the administration's record in this area, or to disavow it. Either way, his presence on stage would significantly improve the debate about the left's economic criticisms of the center.
Or take foreign policy. Most of the declared candidates have had no material role in the great foreign policy decisions of our era. They can comfortably run against Donald Trump without being terribly specific about what course they'd follow instead.
Biden has a long track record in foreign policy as well. But the most important part of that record isn't from his time as a senator, when he supported the Iraq War (and, before that, opposed the Persian Gulf War). It's from his period in the Obama administration. The surge in Afghanistan, the expansion of America's drone war, the Libyan adventure, support for the Saudi war in Yemen — Biden was in the room where all of that happened.
In many cases — the Afghan surge, the Libyan war — Biden was a dissenter in the room. But whether he defends Obama's calls or disavows them, Biden can't avoid addressing them. So having him in the race would, again, improve the quality of foreign policy debate, forcing everyone to debate whether an Obama restoration would actually be a good thing, and not merely whether it was better than what Trump has wrought.
On a variety of social and cultural issues, Biden can readily talk about how he has evolved, but that's something every politician has had to do, even a fossil like Sanders, who has had to address sexual harassment on his 2016 campaign staff and his purported tin ear for contemporary racial politics. But with him in the race, the Obama record cannot so easily be retconned on these questions to match where liberal activists want the party to be today.
Nowhere is that more salient than on immigration. The actual Obama record on immigration is of having stepped up deportations (specifically focusing on criminals and recent unauthorized border crossers), and then proceeded to seek comprehensive immigration reform and an amnesty for at least some large categories of undocumented immigrants. The record, in other words, affirmed the principle that America has every right to decide who can come in and who can't, but an expansive appreciation of who it might be worthwhile to accept as full members of our polity.
In this case, I'm more doubtful that any other candidate in the race will call Biden out on that aspect of his administration's record. But they might — and if they didn't, Biden could embrace it proactively, defending it as a reasonable compromise between the demands of sovereignty and humanity. If neither did, debate moderators could do it. However the subject was aired, it would improve the quality of a debate that is far too inclined to descend into platitudes on the one hand and xenophobia on the other.
Biden is not just any older, moderate white guy with working class roots. Precisely because he is the face of the last Democratic administration, his presence in the race would force Democrats to reckon with how they feel not only about Obama as an individual, but about how he approached politics and policy. Whether you want to check the party's trends since 2016 or affirm them, that reckoning is needed, and that is reason enough to want Biden to run.