If you want a sense of what Vice President Joe Biden is mulling for the next stage of his career, just look at his travel plans. On Wednesday, he will visit New Hampshire to collect an award. This comes a week after a trip to South Carolina, and two weeks after a stop in Iowa. In both states, he met with local Democrats and party officials—the kinds of people you talk to when you want to run for president. He even said he would make a decision—by the end of the summer.
In a sense, Biden is already running for president; he’s testing his party support before jumping on to the stage for another national performance. But unfortunately for his prospects, he’s bound to run into the same problem as every other Democratic presidential hopeful: Hillary Clinton, or rather, her massive presence in the Democratic Party.
Barring a change to the landscape, there won’t be a Democratic primary campaign next year. Instead, Hillary Clinton will announce her bid for the nomination, and we’ll almost immediately move to a general election campaign. The former secretary of state is the definition of inevitable: There are dissenters, but after winning second place in the momentous 2008 race, the party and its machinery are mostly behind her candidacy.
It’s not a bad position. In an uncompetitive primary, the anointed nominee can sidestep narrow appeals in favor of a broader message. And rather than waste time with nomination battles in unwinnable places like Texas or South Carolina, she can focus her fire in critical states like Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Likewise, without a national primary campaign to divide its various factions, the Democratic Party can devote its fundraising to organizing its troops and attacking its Republican opponents. By the time the GOP has picked a nominee, Democrats will have been six months into an onslaught of political ordinance.
But this dream for party professionals could become a nightmare for the actual candidate. As Matthew Yglesias notes for Vox, Clinton’s uncontested nomination is perilous for her and the Democratic Party. Absent “real debates, real media strategy, real policy rollouts, and all the other accompaniments of a presidential nominating congress,” Clinton enters the game “dangerously unprepared” against a “battle-tested” Republican nominee.
The huge advantage of a competitive primary is that it tempers a candidate for the general election. After months of stump speeches, debates, setbacks, and challenges, the eventual nominee is prepped for the rigor of a national contest against a capable opponent. She has a stronger sense of her platform and the kinds of appeals that work for public consumption; she can better account for mistakes, better relate to the press, and is less vulnerable to the kinds of disasters that can destroy a candidacy.
If Clinton were an active politician—if she had a long history of successful elections—this wouldn’t be a huge problem. But the fact is that Clinton has had three efforts: Her 2000 run for Senate, her 2006 re-election race, and her 2008 primary campaign. And of the three, only the latter was as competitive and high stakes as a presidential election. By all measures, Clinton is a strong candidate for 2016, but she needs the practice. She needs a sparring partner.
Which brings us back to Joe Biden. There’s almost no chance that the vice president could win the nomination. He lacks party support—most Democrats have all but pledged their fealty to Clinton—and enthusiasm. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has a “Draft Warren” movement behind her; there are no “Biden Democrats” clamoring for him to crisscross the country. At the same time, he’s not a marginal figure. He’s a sitting vice president and veteran of two primary runs and two presidential campaigns. If Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb runs, they’ll run as gadflies. If Biden runs, he’ll run as a contender with the skills to challenge Clinton on the trail. And while Clinton could avoid a debate with either of the other figures, it’s much harder to sidestep a showdown with Biden. He has stature.
In a primary race against Clinton, Biden will lose. But for the sake of the Democratic Party, he should run. Yes, there’s little glory in defeat. But a Biden campaign could force Clinton to sharpen her skills for her eventual fight with an eager and thirsty Republican Party. Even Clinton’s supporters think this is necessary. “I wish we would have some other candidates running,” said the pro-Clinton vice chairwoman of the Indiana Democratic Party in an interview with Politico, “I think it would give the nation the opportunity to have a debate.” Which is to say that while Biden wouldn’t have Clinton’s resources, he’d have some support for his challenge, perhaps as the consensus candidate for those Democrats who aren’t “Ready for Hillary.”
Here’s the truth: Democrats aren’t doomed to lose 2016, but they aren’t favorites either. By itself, public fatigue with the Democratic Party gives the GOP a clear shot at winning the White House. Add Obama’s middling approval to the Republican column and—with the Democrats’ demographic advantage—you have an almost even presidential matchup.
If Clinton is destined for the nomination, then Democrats need her at the top of her game, and a Biden campaign is the best way to get her there.