Picture the day Vice President Joe Biden wins the Democratic nomination for president in 2016.
Suddenly, the classified information Hillary Clinton stored on a private, insecure e-mail server is just grist for a juicy FBI investigation — not a defining issue in the presidential race. Suddenly, Clinton’s problematic record at the State Department is downgraded to a minor sub-section of the Republican argument against President Obama’s foreign-policy performance as a whole. Suddenly her pledge to Charles Woods, the father of a Navy SEAL killed in Benghazi, that she’d “make sure that the person who made that film is arrested and prosecuted” is a historical footnote, not a key revelation into the character of the Democratic nominee.
Democrats would shift from a candidate with terrible retail politics skills to one who was born to schmooze — although perhaps Biden’s style is a bit “hands-on.” Their standard-bearer would no longer be a woman widely known as a “congenital liar,” but a man whose struggles with message discipline are the stuff of legend — a man seen as too verbally reckless to knowingly lie to people.
They would go from a nominee who has abysmally hostile relations with the press to one who is seen as wacky and entertaining. For reporters, the supreme challenge is getting access to Clinton and, on those rare occasions when she takes their questions, getting her to spout anything other than focus-grouped pabulum. The supreme challenge with Joe Biden is getting him to stop.
In the country’s populist moment, Clinton is a particularly weak candidate. She claimed to be “dead broke” when she was nothing of the sort. She’s raised gobs of money from Wall Street’s moneyed class, the scourge of the progressive grassroots.
Biden is wealthy by most standards, but “poor” by Washington standards. He’s said that he owns no stocks or bonds, and has no savings account. In 2014, the Bidens “owed between $500,001 and $1,000,000 on two mortgages, plus between $250,001 and $500,000 on a home equity line of credit.” While he has a $230,700 salary and a generous pension, he technically has a negative net worth.
In Quinnipiac’s hypothetical head-to-head matchups, Biden polls as well or slightly better than Clinton, although some may wonder about the value of such surveys this early in the cycle. Perhaps a better measuring stick is overall favorability, which makes Biden look much better than Clinton, at least for the moment. In late July, Quinnipiac found Biden at 49 percent favorable, 39 percent unfavorable. Clinton sat at 41 percent favorable, 50 percent unfavorable. Earlier this month, Gallup recorded the vice president’s favorable/unfavorable split at 47 percent to 40 percent, his most positive ratings in their surveys since immediately after the 2012 election. Meanwhile, Gallup finds Clinton now underwater at 43 percent favorable, 46 percent unfavorable.
Most Republicans may dismiss the vice president as a likable laughingstock. But that modifier has proven particularly important in modern politics.
Sure, Vice President Biden would have his own weaknesses as a nominee. He would be forced to contend with a late start, concerns about his own age and health, questions about his ability to raise money quickly, and the lack of an existing national campaign organization to take on the ruthless Clinton machine. His lack of a public filter cuts both ways, and he’d be the ultimate status-quo candidate at a time when Americans think the country is on the wrong track.
But he might also be the Democrats’ best shot at holding together “the Obama coalition.” Analysts have wondered whether Clinton will be able to maintain the turnout levels among African-American voters, Hispanic voters, and young voters that were vital to Obama’s margin of victory in 2012. For the segment of the Democratic electorate that is still enamored with Obama, Biden may be the next best thing to a third term — or even the ultimate affirmation of the Obama record.
If Biden were to win the nomination, he could count on Obama to campaign vigorously in support of his candidacy. This week White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reminded reporters that Obama has called naming Biden vice president the “smartest decision he’d ever made in politics.” Earnest added that Obama could conceivably endorse in the primary. A Democrat could reasonably conclude that the electoral map with Biden as the nominee will look pretty similar to the one in 2012.Between her record at the State Department, stiffness on the stump, scandalous mess at the family’s foundation, private e-mail server investigation, and overall sense of perpetual duplicity, Hillary Clinton is a uniquely flawed candidate. Biden, too, has his flaws, but it would take a strong Republican candidate to beat him.
Above all, there couldn’t be a greater contrast between Clinton’s chilly otherness and Biden’s aggressive normalcy. Most Republicans may dismiss the vice president as a likable laughingstock. But that modifier has proven particularly important in modern politics.
— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent of National Review.