Life comes at you fast. Yes, that’s a cliche — but it’s also kind of true if you’re a newspaper columnist, and it’s extremely true if you’re a 1988 presidential candidate miraculously plopped down in 2019 and trying to sell yourself as the indispensable great white father who can save America in this strange new millennium. Yes, if you’re 76-year-old Joe Biden — first elected to federal office on the exact same day that Richard Nixon trounced George McGovern — life must be coming at you with the blinding speed of Halley’s Comet.
It was only two or three days ago that I thought it would be kind of “edgy” to write a piece pleading with America’s 47th vice president to preserve his hard-earned reputation as a political elder statesman by sitting out the 2020 White House race — despite a slew of premature and arguably misleading polls showing Biden in the lead — and by passing the torch to a new generation of Democrats.
But what’s “edgy” on Sunday (when I decided the brutal barbed-wire condition of refugees in El Paso was the more urgent matter to write about) can almost become “conventional wisdom” by Tuesday, especially in the 19-dimensional game of chess that is the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Over the last couple of days, the smoldering aroma of smoke around the as-yet unannounced Biden 2020 effort has burst into a raging dumpster fire, with two Democratic women including Nevada 2014 candidate Lucy Flores telling tales of what they felt was inappropriate touching or forced kissing (or nose rubbing) that have the Delaware septuagenarian up against the ropes.
Biden has responded with a statement: “In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort. And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately.” That comes with an insistence, through sources, that he’s still on track to formally announced his candidacy late this month.
Mr. Vice President, if you truly want to enjoy the afterglow of a fairly successful stint as Barack Obama’s wingman, please don’t run.
Even before the inappropriate-touching conversation quickly inhaled all the TV oxygen that was free-floating after the Barr cover-up suffocated the Mueller Report, Biden 2020 was quickly becoming an endless “apology tour” (unlike the fake one that Obama was accused of by the Far Right) that made it hard to imagine either when or how he would pivot to real issues, or what would be his selling point, beyond the fact that he’s not Donald Trump.
In its current bizarre state, with ex-veep showing up defensively at various rubber-chicken dinners every three days or so and defending his past while failing to articulate any vision of the future under a Biden administration, this may be — so far — the worst presidential campaign this child-of-Watergate-politics-geek has ever seen.
It’s also the worst of Biden’s three presidential bids, including 1988 when he was felled by a plagiarism scandal and 2008 when he registered less than 1 percent in the Iowa caucuses after strange comments like bragging he’d probably do well in Southern primaries because Delaware had been “a slave state.” Now, in the spring of 2019, Julia Louis-Dreyfus isn’t the only “veep” to burst back onto the American scene only to be laughed at.
OK, that’s harsh, but what else can you say about a campaign that so far has made headlines for his apology-but-not-really of his bad 1991 treatment — as Senate Judiciary chair — of Clarence-Thomas-sexual-harassment witness Anita Hill. (Hill, for her part, says Biden’s frequent prattle about feeling sorry while never actually apologizing is a running joke in her family, that when there’s an unexpected doorbell "we say, ‘is that Joe Biden coming to apologize?’” Ouch.)
At almost the same time that Biden was saying of Hill that “I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved,” his aides floated what must what seemed for a few seconds like a brilliant idea, entering the race with a lightning-bolt declaration that Stacey Abrams — who won a national following with a dynamic-but-just-short 2018 campaign to become Georgia governor — would be his running mate.
This gambit seems to have backfired spectacularly. It made Biden look both patronizing and eager to drink the blood of a more diverse and more energetic breed of younger Democrats. Abrams — who’s still thinking, understandably, about running for president herself — told The View after meeting the former vice president, “You don’t run for second place.”
Did I mention that both Abrams and Hill are strong black women? They represent the real base of the modern Democratic Party — and black voters, especially women, are playing a critical role in both the illusion of a 2020 Biden presidency and the winter that is coming if Biden still elects to run.
The reasons that Biden has consistently led the early polls (much like past presidents Rudy Giuliani, Jeb Bush, and Joe Lieberman did at this stage of the game) are his off-the-charts name recognition and his high numbers with black and Latino Democrats. The weight attached to Biden’s name ID mostly reflects the desperation of many Democrats to oust Trump from the White House by any means necessary.
The ex-veep’s popularity with the non-white electorate reminds me of 2007-08, when well-known Hillary Clinton started out with a huge lead with black voters over Barack Obama, then a first-term senator from Illinois. Once African Americans saw Obama on the trail and realized he was the embodiment of the dream to elect a black U.S. president, most abandoned Clinton. What are the odds that two appealing younger black candidates — Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker — will have a similar impact in 2020?
And that’s before supporters of the other candidates — particularly those on the left backing Bernie Sanders, who’ve been known to not give Democratic sacred cows a free pass — starting bullhorning the Joe Biden of the pre-Obama years, who opposed school busing to achieve racial integration and who championed a bankruptcy bill that was great for Delaware’s credit-card companies and a nightmare for the middle class. (And Biden’s chief foe on the bankruptcy bill, now-Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is in the race to give him agita over it.)
The shame of this is that there are many good reasons to admire Joe Biden. First and foremost is his perseverance and ability to overcome life blows — an auto accident that killed his first wife and their baby daughter, the agonizing death of his adult son Beau that would have laid most of us low. And while persevering, Biden also showed an ability to grow on the job. To cite just one example, his leadership on gay marriage — coming from a man born into a world where homosexuality had still been taboo — cannot be forgotten.
But a lot of Biden’s political redemption may be forgotten if he squanders his golden years on a presidential bid likely to be both divisive and ultimately doomed, which could have the perverse impact of aiding the very thing that too many Democrats are looking Biden to avoid — four more years of the disastrous Trump.
Biden can’t save America by running for president. But by not running, he can save both his goofy “Uncle Joe” late-life popularity and his reputation as an elder statesman of the Democratic Party, who spent his last few dollars of political capital by passing the torch to a promising generation of 21st Century leaders. That’s on the top of the countless hours to play joyfully with grandchildren instead of agonizing behind the Resolute Desk.