If you were a Republican operative charged with devising ways to weaken Hillary Clinton and the Democrats chances of winning in November of 2016, the first thing you might think of is a forming a congressional committee to turn a tragic event into a scandal that could be linked to Ms. Clinton. Since that has already been done, you would have to come up with something else. The next best idea you might have would be to persuade Vice President Joe Biden to run against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primary. This stratagem would not only diminish the Democratic Party’s chances of retaining the White House in 2016, but for good measure probably also destroy the political reputation of Mr. Biden, who is not exactly a beloved figure among conservative Republicans.
Amazingly, many Democrats are now turning to, or thinking of turning to, Mr. Biden to save the party from Ms. Clinton. Mr. Biden, for his part, continues to publicly ruminate on the question of whether or not he should run at a relatively late point in the process. Democrats have not been treated to this kind of public indecisiveness since the late Mario Cuomo ultimately decided not to run in 1992.
Should the Vice-President enter the Democratic Primary, he would weaken Ms. Clinton and shift the focus of the primary even more to alleged scandals and questions of electability. Competitive primaries can be good for political parties, particularly when they breathe new life into candidates and the parties themselves. Strong primary opponents who lose can bring new voters into the process and draw attention to issues about which voters care, but that might have been overlooked. In 2008, Ms. Clinton made Barack Obama a stronger candidate. Jerry Brown, had the same impact on Bill Clinton in 1992. If Ms. Clinton beats Bernie Sanders in a two person race, Mr. Sanders will have had a similar effect on her.
Mr. Biden’s candidacy is different. Unlike Mr. Sanders who is driven by a consistent and strong vision about the U.S. and its economy, the raison d’être for Mr. Biden’s potential candidacy is political, not substantive. Mr. Biden’s viability as a candidate would depend almost entirely on a perception that Ms. Clinton is stumbling so badly that she herself is no longer viable. Therefore, his campaign would by necessity focus on Ms. Clinton’s negatives, thus keeping alive issues like Benghazi, emailgate and other scandals that Republicans have tried to stoke over the years. A campaign of attacks on the frontrunner is very different than a substantive one that is currently occurring in the Democratic primary.
If that kind of a nasty and personal campaign would lead to the Democrats nominating a better or more electable candidate, it might be worth it, but the reality remains that Ms. Clinton would probably beat Mr. Biden. Thus, for Democrats who are concerned about Ms. Clinton’s electability, the result of a Biden candidacy would not be a different or better candidate, just making an already weak one weaker. For those who think Mr. Biden would be a great candidate, it is worth remembering his long history of gaffes and other political missteps and that he has not won a competitive election on his own since his first bid for the U.S. Senate in 1972. His two previous presidential campaigns resulted in him dropping out due to an embarrassing scandal in 1988, and finishing fifth in Iowa and sixth in New Hampshire in 2008. Given that electoral history, the notion that somehow Mr. Biden can beat a well-funded frontrunner seems reasonably far-fetched. New reports suggesting that it was the Vice-President himself who indicated that a another presidential bid was his dying son’s wish is just a preview of the kind of campaign missteps that we might see.
Additionally, It is no secret in political circles that there is still a fair amount of rancor that many Clinton backers feel towards President Obama leftover from the 2008 primary. Although this may seem strange given that it was eight years ago and that Mr. Obama beat Ms. Clinton pretty soundly and pretty fairly, it is nonetheless true. A Biden candidacy would be seen in this context in at least two ways that could prove very divisive for the Democratic Party. First, because Mr. Biden is Mr. Obama’s Vice-President, many around Ms. Clinton would see a Biden candidacy, as somehow having the President’s backing. This would create the appearance that once again Barack Obama is stopping Hillary Clinton from a nomination that her supporters believe is rightfully hers. A related point is that the gender optics of this would be terrible and would look like a man was stepping in, with the backing of at least some of the Democratic Party leadership, at the last moment to prevent a woman from winning the Democratic nomination. Given how important it is for the Democrats to both maintain a strong gender gap and be competitive with white woman voters, that signal would be very bad for the Democratic Party.
Mr. Biden now finds himself in the position of either attending a few more events as a potential candidate before declaring he is not going to run, or launching a campaign that is both quixotic and has no particular upside for himself or his party. It is clear what a Republican operative would want, but less clear what Mr. Biden will eventually do.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent for the New York Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.