Politics & Policy

Democrats Look at Plan B: Biden as a One-Term President, with Warren as His VP

(Mark Wilson/Getty; Sal Loeb/AFP/Getty)

Joe Biden had good reasons to huddle privately with Elizabeth Warren on Saturday at his official residence. The Massachusetts senator may have chosen not to run next year, but her populist rhetoric and agenda dominate the 2016 Democratic contest. Should Biden challenge Hillary Clinton for the nomination, he will need either Warren’s neutrality or her blessing.

Socialist Bernie Sanders isn’t the only candidate pounding the drums of class warfare. Hillary claims “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top,” attacks high-level corporate salaries, and says that “we have to go beyond Dodd-Frank” in passing laws to rein in Wall Street firms. All of these themes are straight from Elizabeth Warren’s playbook and bear scant resemblance to the centrism that Bill Clinton embraced as president in the 1990s.

But Warren is stoutly refusing to endorse any candidate, so far preferring to use her leverage to influence the entire Democratic field. In an interview on Friday, she told WBZ in Boston: “I don’t think anyone has been anointed.”

A former law professor who came to prominence as a staunch critic of policies that make it easier for creditors to collect debts, Warren hasn’t forgotten that, as a senator, Hillary Clinton in 2001 backed a bankruptcy bill supported by the credit-card lobby. Biden, also a senator, backed a similar bill in 2005. No real surprise there, since Biden represented Delaware, the home of many credit-card issuers. But it’s still a black mark against him. (Clinton missed the 2005 vote.)

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But Warren and other progressives have reasons to give Biden a fresh look as he mulls entering the race. They worry about what Donald Rumsfeld might call the “unknown unknowns” in Hillary’s closet. For months, Hillary’s advisers have assured liberal donors and officeholders there was nothing to the scandal surrounding her e-mails. Now with the FBI and Justice Department investigations launched and clear evidence that Hillary misled people in March about receiving classified e-mails on her private server, even many Democrats are reluctant to now take her at her word.

Paul Kahn, a liberal Yale law professor, summed up the angst of liberals about Hillary right now:

Voters may turn to Hillary if the Republican candidate is a conservative extremist, but they are unlikely to change their views of her on the basis of some new campaign proposal. Her campaign will always be on the defensive, as we have seen in the latest controversy over the e-mail server. We live in fear of the next revelation about her or Bill, suspecting that there is plenty out there to reveal. Are we going to have to listen to her defending the flow of foreign money to the Foundation or the huge speaking fees coming from interested corporations? No one wants a campaign organized around such issues, but this is what a Hillary campaign will look like.

Biden recognizes he has his own liabilities: He is 73 years old, strays off message frequently, and would inevitably be tied to the shaky legacy of President Obama. But he also knows his assets. Voters view him as far more trustworthy than Hillary, he is free of scandal, and he has a “Regular Joe” persona that connects with ordinary voters — a likability that Hillary Clinton can’t match.

He also knows how to appeal to progressives. Biden has a more centrist reputation than his actual voting record in the Senate would indicate, and he has shown an eagerness to play the occasionally vicious attack dog against Republicans (just watch highlights of his 2012 debate with Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate).

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Biden has another card to play in soliciting Warren’s support. He would be 74 years old if he were elected president in 2016, an issue he may have a way of addressing. “One thing that I keep hearing about Biden is that if he were to declare and say, because age is such a problem for him if he does, ‘I want to be a one-term president. I want to serve for four years, unite Washington. I’ve dealt with the Republicans in Congress all my public life,’” liberal journalist Carl Bernstein told CNN this month.

#related#A one-term pledge by Biden would also interest Elizabeth Warren. She is 66 years old, and if a Democrat wins in 2016, she will be 74 herself by the time someone else has served two terms in office — and facing her own age issues. But if Biden won, after pledging to serve only one term, Warren would be the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2020. If Biden made her his vice-presidential choice, as Yale’s Professor Kahn and others have suggested, she might be a virtual lock for the Democratic nomination.

Hillary Clinton is still the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic nomination, but she is also damaged goods as long as the e-mail scandal lingers. “It’s almost like a vampire,” California governor Jerry Brown said on Meet the Press today. “She’s going to have to find a stake and put it right through the heart of these e-mails.”

But Hillary may not be able to. This week’s New Yorker magazine reported:

If Clinton and her aides swapped classified information over an unsecured e-mail system, they could be questioned about mishandling state secrets. That misdemeanor has ensnared several high office-holders in the recent past. In 2001, John Deutsch, President Clinton’s second CIA director, admitted to a single count of mishandling classified material because he kept top-secret files at home on a Macintosh connected to the open Internet. (Bill Clinton pardoned him.) In 2005, Samuel Berger, a former Clinton-administration national-security adviser, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, because, after leaving office — for reasons that remain unclear — he removed classified documents from the National Archives and destroyed them. Earlier this year, General David Petraeus pleaded to a misdemeanor after allowing his mistress and biographer to read sensitive notebooks that he kept when he ran the CIA.

You can bet that both Vice President Biden and Senator Warren are well aware of that history, which makes their decision to meet quickly and quietly this weekend all the more intriguing.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.

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