Make or Break for a Biden Candidacy

Joe Biden, VP of US

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Make or Break for a Biden Candidacy

| published October 16, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

A lot of Democratic Party analysts and planners have suggested this week that the door for a Joe Biden candidacy is rapidly closing—or has already slammed shut.

After all, the Vice-President has waited until after the first major Democratic debate, which was held this past Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nevada, to make a firm decision about a candidacy. That debate, which was hosted by CNN and Facebook, drew millions of viewers, and has been widely regarded as the first big test of the five main candidates currently seeking the Democratic nomination.

On that stage were former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Senator James Webb, and Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee. The majority of pundits and talking heads, as well as most political writers and reporters, have declared Clinton the winner of that debate—at least on points and style. The public, meanwhile, seems to think that Sanders—Clinton’s closest challenger—was the winner, and if audience reaction was any indicator, the Vermont Senator did win.

Lower tier candidates Chaffee and Webb have been widely judged to have missed any opportunity to give voters a reason to choose them over other candidates; both gave fair-to-middling performances overall, but occasionally stumbled or fumbled on several key questions. Social media tracking produced little excitement for either man.

As for Clinton's overall victory, the jury remains out, despite the prevailing view that by not making any major mistakes, Clinton won anyway. Her campaign team has been in an upbeat mood for days, riding a crest of energy which they believe has reignited her troubled candidacy and put her name back at the forefront of political discussions. Clinton, in that sense, solidified her position as front-runner.  Clinton has also closed the gap in New Hampshire; polls cited by NBC News show Clinton with a slight lead again over Sanders in the Granite State.  Clinton's campaign people say she is back on top. 

That leaves Biden as a man without a mission. Biden was the 500 pound gorilla NOT in the room the other night in Las Vegas.  Some political observers thought he might make a decision prior to the debate, but no official word came from the Biden camp.  This left some hopeful Democrats breathless, and others just scratching their heads.  But Biden will not be rushed.

Talk of a Biden candidacy has been consistent for six months, but the rumors and the analysis about his 2016 ambitions had reached the boiling point more than a month ago after Biden began quietly meeting with fundraisers and donors, conferring with party strategists and thinkers, and open talks with several heavy-hitter Democratic Party bundlers and backers. In public, Biden expressed his inner demons—a thread of conflicting emotions as he seeks closure for the loss of his son Beau, but also faces the allure of his lifelong political dream, becoming President of the United States.

Biden has sought the presidency twice already in his political lifetime, and those who know him well suggest that the effects of that fever have never left his system. Biden has also been spurred forward by a massive online campaign and ad hoc grassroots movement which morphed early this year into the PAC Draft Biden 2016. The group has already raised millions of dollars, obtained a million signatures urging Biden to run, secured scores of key endorsements in a dozen states, and has even begun deploying key volunteers and paid staff in early caucus and primary states.

More importantly, the Draft Biden 2016 group has begun airing advertisements promoting a Biden candidacy, asking for more support from volunteers, and soliciting additional donations. As far as the PAC is concerned, Biden is a candidate in every way possible, save for the official announcement.

But the feverish talk of a Biden candidacy lost much of its steam by the end of Tuesday night. Clinton won the debate on style and points, Sanders won the hearts of many who watched the forum, and O’Malley remained the only candidate to offer a modest challenge to what has become a two-candidate battle.

Fears by some Democrats that Clinton would suffer a complete political meltdown had eased, essentially deflating what had been the raison d’etre of a Biden candidacy.

But Biden’s people have leaked word that we should not count him out, at least not just yet. His political operatives and some of his closest supporters have told reporters that Biden was not only still weighing his options, but that he has developed what he believes is a clear path toward the Democratic nomination, and an even wider highway to the Presidency. In an email letter seen by the Associated Press, former U.S. Senator Ted Kaufman highlights the fundamental reason for a Biden candidacy.

“If he runs,” Kaufman says in the letter, “he will run because of his burning conviction that we need to fundamentally change the balance in our economy and the political structure to restore the ability of the Middle Class to get ahead.” Kaufman is one of Biden’s closest confidants and associates—serving as Biden’s chief of staff for many of the years when Biden served in the Senate, and even running successfully for Biden’s Senate seat after the senior Senator from Delaware was chosen by Barack Obama to be his running mate and Vice-President. Kaufman now serves, unofficially, of course, as Biden’s principal political handler and manager of the Biden inner entourage.

The email comes at the very moment when many Democrats were ready to put the talk of a Biden candidacy to rest. Some Clinton supporters and strategists—in the days immediately before and after the first debate—were essentially declaring the door closed on a Biden run. On CNN and Fox News, a Clinton campaign staffer expressed frustration with Biden’s inner debate and ambivalence. One Democratic friend wrote to me to say that the whole scenario reminded him of the famous Shakespearean torment which played out publicly as then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo considered a run for the Presidency in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Despite a swell of excitement over a Cuomo run, his Presidential candidacy never materialized.

This is why the Clinton people—and to a degree those working for both Sanders and O’Malley—may have reason to distrust that talk of a Biden candidacy is anything more than that—just talk. The sort of talk which could distract from the debate and conversation between the current candidates, and perhaps even hurt the party in the long run.

But Kaufman’s letter may be the spark which finally brings the fire into Biden’s pseudo-candidacy. Without naming Clinton, Kaufman suggested that Joe Biden would not run a “scripted” campaign, suggesting that Biden’s authenticity might be a valuable asset in contrast to what many believe will be a closely, narrowly scripted campaign by Clinton. In fact, implicit in Kaufman’s letter is the very point some political analysts have made about Clinton’s debate “win” from Tuesday night—though she may have won on style and points, her inability and unwillingness to accurately and thoughtfully explain her recent reversals on her key talking points—from immigration policy to trade policy to gun control—makes some plenty of Democrats squeamish that she will say anything to win. Kaufman’s point: if Hillary Clinton is made of plastic, Joe Biden is the genuine article.

Whether Kaufman’s letter was a signal that Biden intends to make a formal announcement is unclear, just as all other of Biden’s recent activities—under constant scrutiny by hundreds of political journalists—have been watched closely for signs of a decision. Reality and time will make the decision for him, and soon. Filing deadlines now loom only days away for several states. For Biden to make any impact on the two-way battle now shaping up between Clinton, the party favorite, and Sanders, the principal insurgent, Biden would need to have his name on the ballots in all 50 states.

Biden must also quickly overcome a fundraising deficit. Clinton and Sanders have each been successful at raising cash, and fast. Each raised about $26 million during the last quarter, according to their filings with the Federal Election Commission. Even though the PAC Draft Biden has been raising money, it has not been nearly enough to kickstart a Biden candidacy out of the gate. Thus Biden’s frequent but quiet meetings with Democratic donors and fundraisers.

In the meantime, people are quoting that great Gene Wilder line from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: "The suspense is terrible…I hope it’ll last".

Related Thursday Review articles:

A Debate Over the Debate: Did Clinton Win?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; October 15, 2015.

Pro-Biden PAC Moving Ahead With Operations; Thursday Review; September 25, 2015.