Biden changes 2016 race as well as 2012

By Nicholas Wapshott
October 16, 2012

Whoever wins on November 6, and however the president is thought to have done in the remaining debates, the only sure winner of the debate season is Joe Biden.

He has moved from the nearly man to the coming man, from also-ran to man-to-watch. Why so? Biden attracted a great deal of criticism from conservatives for his grimacing in the veep debate in Danville, Kentucky, for laughing in the face of GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, for shamelessly grabbing all the attention so that even when Ryan was speaking, everyone was watching Biden’s scoffing antics on the split screen. The Democratic base loved every second.

In a practical lesson on how to hug the limelight and dominate the conversation, Biden showed President Barack Obama how he should have torn into GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in Denver — and how he will have to make up lost ground in the few remaining weeks.

There is a great deal to recover. Before Denver, Obama enjoyed a clear lead over Romney in every head-to-head poll, bar a handful, since mid May. In the two weeks since, Obama has lost the precious momentum that propels into the White House the candidate who persistently looks a winner. Obama the hoopster dropped the ball, and safe-hands Biden picked it up and drove for the basket.

Biden not only showed Obama how to do it – with his passionate defense of the middle class, his calling out of the Romney-Ryan ticket for their plans to privatize Medicare and their fibs about the insolvency of Social Security, his use of personal anecdotes and pouncing zingers (“Oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy?”) – but he warmed the heart of newly nervous Democrats, who saw victory slipping from their grasp, with a landmark performance that has ensured his place on the party’s Mount Rushmore.

But Biden’s bold attempt to focus the president on reelection next month has also changed the 2016 race. No one who has come so close to the top ever really gives up hope of making it all the way. Would he stand a chance of winning?

The conventional narrative is that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will stand down in January and bide her time in Chappaqua, New York, until the clamor for her to re-enter the fray becomes so overwhelming she will faux reluctantly start running for president.

It was always assumed she would be given a clear path. In 2008, many felt she deserved it; this time, having dutifully fallen in behind Obama and turned in an impeccable performance at State, she is thought to have earned it. Her husband’s dazzling delivery on the stump sealed the deal.

According to this dream scenario, Biden, far too old, far too much of a gamble and far too prone to gaffes, would gallantly bow to Hillary Clinton’s inevitable rise, while the newbie, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, would step in then step aside, to reserve himself a place in 2020 or later. Only a little-known outsider – the Bill Clinton or Obama of their time – could upset the sort of stately ordered succession that European monarchs dream of.

But now there’s a clear alternative to Hillary Clinton: Battling Biden from Scranton, PA., who barnstorms for the middle class. Is he too old? He was born nearly 70 years ago, which used to be thought old. The most cited precedent is Ronald Reagan, who became president at that age. Biden is a whole generation younger. Now, 70 is the new 50.

He suffered a brain aneurysm in 1988, when he first ran for president. But that was an age ago, back when Sue Ellen took her gun to J. R. in “Dallas” and Clinton was still governor of Arkansas. He shrugged that off, just as he survived in 1987 being caught stealing word-for-word a speech by the British Labor leader Neil Kinnock.

Does Biden want to be president? He has been running, on and off, since he first considered it in 1984. Having lived for four years at 1 Observatory Circle, and having been so closely integrated into Obama’s White House, it would be perverse if such an ambitious and able pol, the loyal sidekick for so long, did not want his chance to shine.

Could he  win the nomination? Probably. Though it will be hard to beat Hillary Clinton.

In the last six years, Clinton appears to have been forgiven whatever sins she was thought to have committed as first lady. Her favorability has risen from 50 to 67 per cent, according to a CNN/ORC poll in May, while her negatives have slumped from 42 to 29. Since becoming vice president, Biden’s figures have climbed from 27 favorable to 41 per cent — but his unfavorables have also risen, from 22 to 44 per cent.

Clinton clearly has the edge. But this was before Biden buried Ryan with laughter.

So, will Biden run? If he remains vice president, it will be easier. He will benefit from the confidence, dignity and position an incumbent enjoys. As Obama’s trusted ambassador to Congress, he has endlessly proven his worth as a catalyst of compromise. If he gets some bold-faced names behind him who cannot bear the prospect of the Clintons back in the White House, or believe Clinton cannot win however much she has rehabilitated herself, Biden has between Election Day and Clinton entering the race sometime in the fall 2013 to establish an unassailable lead.

Then there is still this general election. After the veep debate, conservatives who used to think Biden a liability to the Obama campaign have stuck the black spot on him and deemed him a suitable case for demonization. It will not be easy.

But being elected president never is.

PHOTO: Vice President Joe Biden answes a question during the vice presidential debate in Danville, Kentucky, October 11, 2012. REUTERS/John Gress

 

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