“I’ve concluded it has closed,” Vice President Joe Biden said of his window for mounting a presidential campaign during an appearance with President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden on Wednesday.
That’s not entirely right, but it is an acknowledgment of both the long odds Biden would have faced and his resistance to the sort of campaign he would have had to run to be competitive against former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Biden’s problem was always that he and Clinton just weren’t different enough. Both are longtime pols. Both are considered establishment candidates. Both are rightly regarded as pragmatists, not ideologues.
And although Biden and Clinton shared much of the same space, there wasn’t an equal distribution of support within it. Clinton has the lion’s share of the establishment behind her – from donors to staff members to activists. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed her at 54 percent in a hypothetical Democratic primary match-up, while Biden ran a distant third, with just 16 percent.
Sure, some Biden loyalists had kept the flame burning for him since his first presidential candidacy in 1987. And there was another group of Democrats who were unhappy with Clinton and unwilling to throw in their lots with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who would have turned to Biden as their candidate. But those groups just weren’t all that big.
That left Biden’s most likely role in the race as a spoiler for Clinton’s candidacy. Biden could draw 15 or 20 or maybe even 25 percent of the vote in an early state like Iowa or New Hampshire – the vast majority of which would come from Clinton. That would weaken her and embolden the Sanders’ forces by lowering the number of votes he would need to win an early-state vote.
Although Biden and Clinton might not agree on every issue – and certainly have a very different tonal approach to politics – the vice president’s politics are much more closely aligned with that of the former secretary of state than with Sanders. Serving as the guy who helped Sanders win – be it a state or the nomination – wouldn’t have sat well with Biden and would have made for an odd coda to a political career largely defined by his unwavering loyalty to the party.
For Biden to have been anything more than a spoiler in the race would have meant him committing to an all-out assault on Clinton. There was simply no other way. He and Clinton shared too much of the same support – and she had too much of it.
And it wouldn’t have just been a negative carpet-bombing of Clinton. Because of their similarities on most issues, Biden would have had to drive a hard contrast on personality and personal matters if he wanted to pry voters away from Clinton. That would mean litigating, in a detailed and uncomfortable way, every jot and tittle of Clinton’s private e-mail server. It would have meant a re-airing of some of the less-savory moments of the Clinton administration as a way to ask Democrats whether they really wanted to go back there. It would have been the sort of campaign that would have ripped the party apart and left Clinton, even if she emerged victorious, deeply wounded.
There’s no question that Biden would have loved to run for president in 2016. Seeking the presidency is a virus that never really leaves the body. And judging from the speech he gave in announcing his decision not to run, Biden had given lots and lots of thought to what he would have campaigned on – income inequality and the need for compromise, mostly.
But Biden, months removed from the death of his eldest son and beginning to contemplate his own mortality at 72 – along with what sort of political legacy he will leave behind – saw a path to a third presidential bid too risky and full of unsavory necessities.
His passing on the race probably will spare Democrats an extended, nasty fight for their party’s nomination. (Clinton is now, again, an overwhelming favorite to be the Democratic nominee.) It also saves Biden from a race that he wasn’t likely to win and that had the potential to cloud what he means to the Democratic Party and to politics in this country more generally.
Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for The Washington Post. He also covers the White House.