As someone who believes that Hillary Clinton still has the capacity to lose the 2016 election to an off-balance demagogue, I am sympathetic to the view that almost any other Democratic nominee, from Elizabeth Warren to possibly even Bernie Sanders, would be doing better in the polls. This would certainly be the case had Vice President Joe Biden decided to run and had he won the Democratic nomination. And yet every time I think about Biden as the nominee, and then presumably as the president of the United States, I wince. There is something absurd about the idea of Joe Biden being the most powerful person on Earth, an absurdity that cannot be wished away no matter how hard you try.
There are really two Joe Bidens, and it can be difficult to reconcile them. The first is the Biden most voters recognize, the “Uncle Joe” figure who tells stories about his mother, talks endlessly about riding the train from Delaware to Washington, and delights in what he would surely call the “nitty-gritty” of politics. He is liable to lightly curse, and to tell the same anecdote more than once, in both cases due to a surplus of enthusiasm many find charming. Biden is so routinely off-message, and so demonstratively emotional, that this side of his personality may well be genuine.
Then there is the other side of Biden, the calculating politician who has been a player in Washington for decades and has very different values than the average Joes to whom he pitches his appeal. (Like Biden, I am assuming that average, hardworking Americans—to coin a phrase—are entirely noble and decent.) Joe Biden is a man who plagiarized numerous politicians in speeches back in the 1980s. He is someone who claimed the personal details from the British politician Neil Kinnock’s life story as his own, including tales of relatives who would play football after a long day working in a coal mine. (How fortunate for Biden that the English also play a game called “football.”) More recently, Biden leaked his son’s deathbed words to Maureen Dowd, in the service of giving steam to his political ambitions, which revolved around a possible run for the Democratic nomination against Clinton.
As the latest example of the apparent contradiction between Biden the everyman and Biden the blindly ambitious pol, look no further than Jason Zengerle’s highly enjoyable interview with him in the latest edition of New York. The Q&A has some of the typical Biden trademarks that people profess to find attractive: There’s a story about having some dubious bit of Senate wisdom passed down to him by an old hand. (“Joe, it’s always appropriate to question another man or woman’s judgment. It’s never appropriate to question their motive, because you simply don’t know what their motive is.”) There’s clichéd wisdom he delivers as if it’s his own insight. (“By the way, my view is, all politics is personal.”) There is his Trump-like faith in his own ability to negotiate, particularly with former colleagues on the Hill. (I urge people to read Noam Scheiber’s account of Biden’s willingness to give away too much during the “fiscal cliff” negotiations for a corrective to this view.) And, finally, there are his warm words for opponents across the aisle. (Biden may be the only person in Washington who “misses” Eric Cantor.)
Then along comes Biden the aggrandizer and burnisher of his own image. He seems to want to bask in the glow of Obama’s legacy—“The great advantage I had with the president is, substantively, we’ve agreed on everything,” he tells Zengerle—and at the same time to carve out for himself a healthy measure of the glory. A little later in the interview, he allows that he and the president didn’t quite agree on everything: “When I had strong disagreements, I reserved that for the Oval Office. We have raised our voice with one another, we have had real disagreements, and I must say, I believe that we’ll see what he writes, but the record will show I had a lot more influence on getting the position I wanted. I strongly opposed going into Libya. I strongly opposed the moving from counterterrorism and counterinsurgency under Petraeus in Afghanistan. It turned out that, if you look, I think I’ve been right.”
What’s particularly laughable about such claims is that he is citing as evidence of his influence … debates he lost. He wants credit both for reserving his opinion for the president, and for telling us those opinions now and saying he was right and the president was wrong. What loyalty! It’s hard to avoid the sense that Biden’s addiction to homespun notions of loyalty—not to mention his penchant for any sort of tired, received wisdom—is something he uses in the service of his persona, not as a guiding political philosophy. Biden must have some awareness of the contradiction; he’s self-conscious enough, in the interview, to speak of his “brand,” which, apparently, is straight-talk.
The gap between reputation and behavior is a familiar, and persistent, one with Biden: This is the reputed foreign policy expert who opposed the Gulf War, supported the Iraq invasion, opposed the surge, and then convinced the White House, calamitously, to back Nouri al-Maliki’s government during Obama’s first term. And this is his record on one of his pet issues!
None of this is to say Biden is any worse than most politicians. He probably isn’t. But the adulation he receives from Democrats is unearned, and the unthinking way in which the party faithful buy into his straight-talker brand is undeserved. Yes, Biden would probably be crushing Trump in polls today, but it is far from a tragedy that he will never be president, even if he is a heckuva guy.