Joe Biden’s allies say the former vice president hasn’t decided yet whether to run for president again in 2020. But we know the interest is there. “If, in a year from now, if we’re ready, and nobody has moved in that I think can do it, then I may very well do it,” said Biden on The View in December. Since then, the former vice president has recruited donors for his political action committee and made several stops on the campaign trail, including a recent triumph in Pennsylvania, where he stumped on behalf of Conor Lamb, the latest Democrat to win a special election in Trump country. He has lent his time to statehouse candidates in Florida and Nevada, and his staff is fielding surrogate requests from candidates across the country, in every conceivable kind of race. On Thursday, Biden laid out his three-part vision for the country, “A Plan to Put Work—and Workers—First,” which calls for commitments to job training, fair pay, and government support for middle-class families.
If all that wasn’t enough, Biden has also been pushing the narrative that he would have won last time around. “Although it would have been a very difficult primary, I think I could have won,” he said during a lecture at Colgate University in New York, where he explained his decision to not run. He was grieving. “At the end of the day, I just couldn’t do it. So I don’t regret not running. Do I regret not being president? Yes.” Biden is older than most of the party’s rumored contenders—he’ll be 78 on Inauguration Day 2021—but none of them can match his stature as a former vice president and a friend of the most popular Democrat in the country, Barack Obama. He even tops early polls of potential candidates. Biden was a long-shot candidate in 2008 and derailed his own campaign in 1987. This is his last chance, yes, but is it also his moment?
The short answer is no. Choosing Biden smacks of the same thinking that put John Kerry on the ticket against George W. Bush. Back then it was a decorated veteran to challenge a wartime president; now it’s a white working-class fighter to combat a president who fancies himself the same.
Biden seems to think this is his angle, answering the president’s schoolyard taunting with a boast of his own. “A guy who ended up becoming our national leader said, ‘I can grab a woman anywhere, and she likes it,’ ” said the former vice president during a speech at the University of Miami on Tuesday. “They asked me if I’d like to debate this gentleman, and I said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.’ ” The president, of course, relishes this kind of fight. “Crazy Joe Biden is trying to act like a tough guy,” said Trump on Twitter. “Actually, he is weak, both mentally and physically, and yet he threatens me, for the second time, with physical assault. He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, crying all the way. Don’t threaten people Joe!”
The real problem with Biden’s challenge, though, is his record. Before his reinvention as an avuncular and friendly foil to the stoic Obama, Biden was known as a centrist Democrat with an active role in the Reagan-era turn against both New Deal liberalism and “identity politics,” part of a larger effort to recapture those white working-class voters who left Democrats for a previous celebrity cum politician who both stoked and harnessed white racial resentment.
To that end, Biden was a drug warrior and incarceration hawk, representing the concerns of his suburban Delaware constituency. In 1984, he worked with Sens. Ted Kennedy and Strom Thurmond to produce a bill—the Sentencing Reform Act—which abolished parole for most federal crimes and toughened sentencing guidelines for a variety of offenses. In 1986, Biden co-sponsored the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created new mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, including the crack-versus-cocaine sentencing disparity. He helped craft the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which strengthened mandatory minimums for drug possession, enhanced penalties for people who transport drugs, and established the Office of National Drug Control Policy, whose director was christened “drug czar” by Biden himself.
In 1991, Biden introduced a bill that established 51 death-eligible federal crimes in an effort to outdo a similarly punitive Republican proposal from President George H.W. Bush and Sen. Thurmond. Touting his proposal, Biden bragged that “the Biden crime bill before us calls for the death penalty for 51 offenses. A wag in the newspaper recently wrote something to the effect that Biden has made it a death penalty offense for everything but jaywalking.” Under President Bill Clinton, he played a major role in crafting the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. As recently as 2008, Biden praised and touted that law—even those elements that rewarded states for building more prisons.
Yes, the history behind mass incarceration is complicated. Crime was at epidemic levels and politicians, black as well as white, responded with punitive policies. And in the present, Biden has embraced criminal justice reform, joining most Democrats in the turn against tough-on-crime policies. Still, his record will demand a better explanation should he make another run for the Democratic nomination.
It’s not just Biden’s record on criminal justice that is out of step with much of the Democratic base. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden ushered Clarence Thomas to a seat on the Supreme Court, despite credible accusations of sexual harassment. He did little to stop attacks on Thomas’ accuser, Anita Hill, and he refused to call witnesses who would have echoed Hill’s charges of abuse. Biden now says he owes Hill an apology for his inaction—“my one regret is that I wasn’t able to tone down the attacks on her by some of my Republican friends”—but given the new salience of sexual harassment and assault in American culture, that may be too little, too late.
Democrats will field a football team’s worth of candidates in 2020, from high-profile names like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and (possibly) Bernie Sanders to rising stars like Julián Castro and unexpected contenders like Eric Holder (currently playing coy at a run) and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, along with outsider candidates like liberal billionaire Tom Steyer.
Joe Biden has as good a chance as anyone of emerging from this crowded field. If Donald Trump can become president, then a well-liked former vice president with a controversial past can do the same. But it will be hard. Given the shape of the Democratic electorate—with its growing share of liberal voters—Biden would do well to consider whether his reputation as a beloved party elder would survive another run.