The Slatest

The Joe Biden Speculation Is Not About Joe Biden. It’s About Hillary Clinton. 

Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton smile at a 2008 Obama rally in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Photo by Jeff Fusco/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s presidential trial balloon just got a little bigger. The latest burst of speculation came Thursday night in the form a New York Times report that the vice president is using his South Carolina vacation to talk with allies and advisers about laying the groundwork for a White House run. And, in case that wasn’t enough to get everyone’s attention, Carl Bernstein (of Woodward-and fame) made it more tantalizing when he suggested Friday that if Biden does run, he may do so with the promise that he’d only serve one term.

So what to make of all this? For starters, the topline takeaway—Joe Biden may run for president!—is nothing new. Politicos and pundits have been talking about it in earnest for going on two months now. What makes it fresh, though, is the specificity of the latest speculation. Biden still hasn’t made up his mind but he really does appear to be pressing forward just in case.

The Times reports that Biden has given the greenlight to his closest advisers “to discreetly contact operatives in early nominating states to determine how fast they could organize a campaign,” and the independent Draft Biden super PAC “has entered a new, more aggressive phase that resembles an exploratory committee.” Bernstein’s pseudo-prediction, meanwhile, makes it clear that someone on Team Biden is already testing out a possible campaign message that would differentiate the veep from Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail.

None of that, though, tells us whether Biden will actually run. He still has plenty of reasons to stay on the sidelines. And given Clinton’s massive advantages in fundraising, endorsements, and campaign infrastructure—not to mention the polls—the steps he is taking now are just the necessary ones to keep his options open.

The latest silly-season chatter doesn’t tell us a whole lot about Biden, but it does tell us something about the woman he’d need to best for his party’s nomination. Much of the press and public is clearly bored with Clinton. Some of that is due to Hillary herself—it’s unclear if she could run an exciting campaign even if she needed to—and some of that is due to her status as the overwhelming favorite in a nominating contest that won’t officially end for another year. For anyone treating the Democratic nomination as a horse race, there’d be nothing more exciting than a new horse—even if it were an old one. Exhibit B: the short-lived rumor that Al Gore was thinking about making another go of it.

The Democratic Party, though, is just fine with boring. That’s why for all the anybody-but-Hillary chatter this summer, the party’s powerbrokers continue to line up behind Clinton and the major donors continue to cut checks. For the establishment, then, Biden represents little more than a Plan B in the event something unthinkable derails Clinton, be that her email problems, or something else that pops up between now and next summer. And for the rest of us, for now, he’s just something to talk about.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the GOP primary.