Washington Watch: Two words for Biden

Many Democrats are worried that Clinton will crash and burn, that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is closing in on her, is too old and too liberal, and that there are few other viable alternatives.

US Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a meeting with Jewish community leaders in Florida, September 3, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a meeting with Jewish community leaders in Florida, September 3, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I have two words of caution for Vice President Joe Biden as he decides whether to make a third run for the presidency. I’ll get to them shortly.
It can be intoxicating to see the polls and pundits saying more people would vote for him than Hillary Clinton or anyone else on the Democratic side, especially after his dismal previous attempts, but the veep should be wary about such early indicators.
So far all the conversation has been about personality and style and Clinton’s problems, plus a generous helping of sympathy for a father who just buried a child for the second time in his life.
Clinton’s poll numbers are being driven down largely by the most common of political afflictions – self-inflicted wounds. Republicans have contributed with hard-hitting attacks and overblown congressional investigations intended to damage the leading Democratic candidate.
Nearly all the coverage of Biden’s presidential musings has been encouraging and sympathetic.
Many Democrats are worried that Clinton will crash and burn, that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is closing in on her, is too old and too liberal, and that there are few other viable alternatives.
Age can be an issue. Sanders turned 74 this summer, and Biden will be that age by Inauguration Day 2017; Clinton is 67 and if elected would be the second oldest president, right behind Ronald Reagan.
Republicans have been holding their fire because Biden’s entry could spark a destructive battle that will divide and weaken the Democrats. After all, that’s what the GOP is doing to itself, and no doubt there’s great hope in party headquarters that Democrats will follow suit, especially if Biden challenges Clinton. Meanwhile, they’ve been accumulating material to use against Biden, not only his well-known gaffes but also a 40-plus-year legislative and political record that can be sliced, diced and interpreted in infinite ways.
He ran for the Democratic nomination in 1988 and dropped out following plagiarism charges and a bit of resume padding. Twenty years later he tried again, tripped over his tongue several times and dropped out after getting less than one percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses in a contest eventually won by Barack Obama.
By that time I had gotten to know Biden pretty well as legislative director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
He was one of Israel’s strongest and most influential supporters in the Senate, well versed on the issues both politically and substantively, and personally familiar with Israel’s leaders. He also felt that Israel’s Likud leaders were not doing enough to make peace with the Palestinians.
Biden, who calls himself a Zionist and supports Israel in his kishkes, is considered Israel’s strongest ally in the Obama administration.
But he won’t be a pushover for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right allies. Unlike the Republican contenders, he won’t contract out US Middle East policy to the Israeli prime minister, as Mitt Romney virtually promised in return for the Likud leader’s endorsement. He won’t be Sheldon Adelson’s puppet, as Republican candidates are vying to be.
He clashed with Menachem Begin in 1982 saying that Israel should halt West Bank settlement expansion or face a cut in US economic aid. And he’d likely clash with Netanyahu over that and peace policies, but unlike Obama he has strong allies and longstanding support in the Jewish community.
On domestic issues he’s in synch with the broad majority of American Jewish voters.
He’s a solid liberal with an appealing record and has been a leader on the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees.
He has high name recognition and working- class roots. He has a sincerity, openness and warmth that many find lacking in Clinton.
If it is authenticity that voters are looking for, as the pundits claim, Joe’s your candidate.
But he is also undisciplined, and that can get him into trouble.
As of press time, we don’t know whether he’ll decide to run. But as he looks at it, I have two words for him to ponder: Ted Kennedy.
At this point, a year before the convention and 15 months before the election, in August 1979, polls showed Senator Kennedy easily taking the Democratic nomination from president Jimmy Carter. Gallup had him beating the incumbent two-to-one.
A few days before his planned official announcement, CBS’s Roger Mudd asked the senator why he wanted to be president. It was a softball question that nearly 20 years earlier his brother Jack knocked out of the park with a simple answer, “That’s where the power is.”
But Ted was “incoherent and repetitive” and “vague, unprepared,” noted Wikipedia.
It was downhill from there.
Kennedy’s candidacy quickly did a U-turn as the media and opponents went from discussing Carter’s weaknesses to dissecting Kennedy’s long Senate record, and as Republican flacks began reminding voters of past Kennedy controversies. There was a reservoir of sympathy for his family’s losses but it took more than that to mount a presidential campaign.
It’s not just Ted Kennedy. In more recent elections there were many wannabes who looked promising in the polls and collapsed once they got to the starting line: Rick Perry is the latest, but the list of never-was’es includes Rudy Giuliani, Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, John Huntsman, Fred Thompson and Wesley Clark plus some other forgotten hopefuls.
We’ve heard that Biden’s dying son, Beau, had urged his dad to run for president, and that no doubt weighs heavily on him, but it is not a foundation on which to build a national campaign. Even foes praise the dignity with which he carries his grief for his son, and he has much public sympathy and affection, but will that be enough to take him to the White House, or even the nomination? Clinton already has an extensive campaign organization, established operations in key states, the backing of many leading Democrats and a major lead in fundraising that would be tough to match.
I’m not saying run, Joe, run, or don’t run.
Just make a hardheaded decision and not an emotional one, and don’t be misled by these early polls that reflect name recognition, sympathy, affection and frustration with the front-runner.
©2015 Douglas M. Bloomfield [email protected]