Even to those who dismiss him, Vice President Joe Biden is as real and authentic as they come. (Photo: Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx via Getty Images)
I spent a few hours this week, in my service to all of you, trying to determine how serious Joe Biden might be about running for president. Here what I can now report: I have no clue, and I don’t think anyone else does, either.
This shouldn’t surprise you. Most of the time, when you see someone in my business holding forth on cable TV about what this or that politician is really thinking at the moment, you might as well be listening to the tarot card readers who stand on the street in Manhattan. Chances are Biden doesn’t know his own mind on the presidency just yet.
I’ll say this, though: Whether or not Biden ultimately runs, the mere specter of him jumping into the race brings into sharp relief a serious crack in Hillary Clinton’s unsinkable ocean liner of a campaign. And no one standing on deck seems to know what to do about it.
First, let’s talk about the Biden speculation. For students of modern political history, there should have been considerable irony in seeing Biden’s long-standing presidential ambitions brought back to lifein a column by the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd. It was Dowd who set off the controversy that destroyed Biden’s first presidential campaign in 1987, when she reported that he had ripped off — in one videotaped instance, anyway — a story about his lineage from a British Labour politician of the day, Neil Kinnock.
That incident nearly drove Biden from politics before his 45th birthday. But if Biden isn’t the most talented politician of his generation, he may well be the most resilient. By the time of the Kinnock pseudo-scandal, he had already lost his first wife and daughter in a tragic car crash on the eve of entering the Senate; in the months that followed his withdrawal from the race, he came back from a brain aneurysm that nearly killed him.
All of which is important to understand when you ask yourself why a 72-year-old man reeling from the loss of his son might actually consider the most brutal undertaking in American politics, aside from the fact that it was his son’s dying wish.
Biden told me many years ago, as he’s told many others over the years, about the way he persevered through tragedy in those first days as senator by hurling himself into the work and leaning on supportive colleagues and aides. And there are those close to him who think he just might respond the same way now.
It probably doesn’t hurt that Biden, whose lifelong dream resides in an oblong office just down the hall, has been hearing from fundraisers and allies in the past few days that there’s an opening still to be exploited.
As I’ve written before, I suspect they’re right.
Clinton has challengers, of course — most notably, at the moment, Bernie Sanders. But that’s a straight-up ideological fight of the kind any Democratic frontrunner should welcome. If history holds (and I’m pretty sure it will), Sanders’s brand of leftist populism has a modest ceiling in a Democratic primary contest, and he’s not far from hitting it.
But a contest between Clinton and Biden would offer a different kind of contrast, and one that would test what seems to be Clinton’s operative theory of the moment.
Biden’s appeal would be mostly hands-on and personal, as it always has been. Sure, he’s been a fine vice president and was a pretty big deal in the Senate before that. But no one’s going to mistake Biden for a policy innovator.
What Biden is, even to those who dismiss him as slightly doddering and in over his head, is as real and authentic as they come. The toll of tragedies etched into his face, the well of emotion he keeps so close to the surface, the once celebrated hair plugs — all of it makes him unusually and compellingly human.
With Biden, you get the politically incorrect verbal lapses, the “Veep”-like comedic value. But you also get warmth and authenticity and a handshake that means something.
Clinton’s pitch is pretty much the polar opposite. If there was any doubt about that, it was dispelled when Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s senior communications aide, told my Yahoo colleague Michael Isikoff this week that honesty and trustworthiness were, in Isikoff’s words, “beside the point.”
There followed this pretty remarkable quote from Palmieri: “That’s not the question voters have in their heads when they decide who to vote for. It’s who is fighting for me, and who has the solutions for the American people. She’s still the person who is most likely to be the next president.”
In other words, Clinton’s argument is, at its core, like Richard Nixon’s in 1968: You’re not hiring a friend or a babysitter. You just have to believe that I get what’s wrong, and I’m the only one with the competence to fix it.
You can see why the Clinton team is going this route. Yes, it plays to her strengths; she’s got more experience than anyone in the field, and a tireless work ethic is pretty much her calling card as a public servant. But it also nicely sidesteps her evident weaknesses. You work with what you’ve got.
According to the most recent CBS News poll, which echoes plenty of other polling recently, 47 percent of registered voters view Clinton unfavorably, and 55 percent say they don’t trust her.
Clinton’s first TV ad, released this week, tried to humanize her a bit by having her talk straight to camera about her mother. She looks great, and it’s an inspiring story. But Siri sounds more spontaneous when she’s finding me a gas station.
According to a recent poll, 47 percent of registered voters view Hillary Clinton unfavorably, and 55 percent say they don’t trust her. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)
There’s a real problem with relying on this whole “fighting for you” strategy — a played-out Democratic chestnut that sprang from the electric typewriter of the consultant Bob Shrum in the years before Ronald Reagan started dyeing his hair. For one thing, that mantra might work better on, say, a newcomer like Martin O’Malley than it would on Biden, who’s probably got more union jackets than suits in his closet.
Democrats may be willing to believe a lot of things about Biden, but that he won’t fight for the working class surely isn’t one of them.
But even if Biden announces tomorrow that he’s not running, you have to wonder if Clinton’s case is really going to stand up in a general election. Surely Clinton’s team, most of whom went through the White House scandals of the 1990s, are reflecting what they think they learned from Bill Clinton’s experience, which is that people don’t have to trust you personally in order to think you make a pretty solid president.
But there are a few big differences to consider. First, however much voters may have found themselves repulsed by Bill Clinton as a husband or father, they seemed to believe he meant what he said when it came to the governing stuff that really mattered — budgets, bombings, systemic reform.
And second, whatever his trust issues, Bill Clinton was inescapably, maddeningly likable. That’s just a fact, and it makes up for a lot of sins with some sizable segment of voters.
Hillary’s trust issues, on the other hand, are grounded in substance. You can say that Benghazi or the email servers are manufactured scandals, but it’s not like that 55 percent of voters who don’t believe what she says are talking about her skills as a grandmother.
And Hillary just doesn’t have Bill’s roguish, down-home charm. She’s more like Tracy Flick in “Election.” In a good way, I mean.
Clinton’s team should probably take a moment to survey the wreckage of recent presidential campaigns that seemed immensely promising until the candidates themselves showed up and ruined everything. Al Gore, John Kerry, Mitt Romney and, yes, Hillary Clinton circa 2008 — all of them met the moment perfectly in terms of résumé and experience but lost to candidates who seemed more authentically themselves.
I don’t know what Clinton is supposed to do about this. I doubt there’s an easy way to recast the personality of a candidate who’s been in public life for 30-plus years, and who’s learned by this point to be guarded and calculating around anyone who isn’t an old friend or loyalist.
But I do know that, sooner or later, Clinton and her advisers are going to have to confront this trust issue head-on, rather than trying to change the subject with a bunch of jargon and vague policy goals. If Biden’s flirtation serves only to make that clear, he will have done her a favor.