There is a compelling case for Joe Biden to run for president.
He is an antidote to Donald Trump. Knowledgeable, honest and decent, the former vice president has a record, even in bitterly polarized politics, of reaching across the partisan aisle, and he genuinely cares about the struggles of Americans left behind.
There also is a compelling case against Joe Biden running in 2020.
At 77, he would be the oldest major-party nominee in U.S. history. If successful, he would be four years older than the eldest U.S. president ever to be elected (Ronald Reagan was 73 when he won his second term in 1988).
But if Biden failed, he’d go down as a three-time loser in presidential politics. He himself has been encouraging political newcomers, calling for fresh faces.
In private conversations with top politicians, he’s made his case — both ways. He says he won’t be a Hamlet — he’ll make a decision early next year. More than Bernie Sanders or anyone else, he will frame the 2020 contest with his decision on the Democratic side, where more than a dozen contenders will be in the starting blocks.
Right now, Biden is politically omnipresent, already campaigning in 21 states for 50 candidates, covering the party’s spectrum. A year ago he stumped for Doug Jones, the moderate conservative who won a special Senate election in Alabama, and this fall for centrist Senate candidates like Phil Bredensen in Tennessee and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, as well as for liberals Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin.
He is also a welcome presence in House contests. I have been to more than a dozen states this season and talked to a score or more of House Democratic challengers. Privately, a surprising number say they want Bill and Hillary Clinton to stay away; a few say that about Barack Obama, the most popular politician in America.
All would welcome Biden. In Florida last week he held three big public rallies for top Democrats; Hillary Clinton was in for private fund-raisers.
Biden was planning to run last time before his son Beau, the attorney general of Delaware and a political superstar, tragically died of brain cancer in 2015. He believes he would have won, appealing to some of those working-class voters who defected to Trump.
On the stump, he gives a rousing pitch with some vintage Biden: “What the hell is happening?” he asks at a Jacksonville rally last week for top Florida Democrats. “Take your country back.” He has lots of fans: “I’m with Uncle Joe,” said Janet Patten of St. Augustine.
He’s very capable of missteps. Earlier this year, referring to Trump’s offensive comments about women, Biden said if he were younger he’d like to “take him out behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.” This fall he has been a bit more careful. Last week he started in on the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Ron DeSantis, who has made racial slurs, and caught himself: “I’ve got to be careful.”
He doesn’t disguise his contempt for Trump, saying the president “takes the word of thugs” like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un of North Korea.
Biden sees a distinct difference in kind, not degree, from his previous policy differences with the Reagan and Bush administrations. Foreign leaders have told him the United States no longer is reliable.
Senior politicians and former top national security officials have told him he leads in the polls, can unify most of the party and knows how to govern, thus it’s imperative he run to end the Trump nightmare.
He looks in great shape, but the age issue won’t go away. If he runs he may try to counter that by pledging to serve only one term to clean up the mess or, more likely, to tap a younger, female vice-presidential candidate early on.
Still, a number of the candidates he’s stumping for are calling for a new generation of leaders and new ideas. Some of this may be optics. The best issue for Democrats right now is defending Obamacare’s prohibition on discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions, but for those critical of Biden’s candidacy, this is a familiar refrain.
Biden knows a campaign will be punishing and, if against Trump, vicious. He has made some money: He is enjoying the comforts of a beach house for his extended family and has resources to assure Beau’s children are taken care of. There is the magnificent Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement that the University of Pennsylvania has created in Washington.
His family has given him the green light but the residual effects of his son’s death remain. He figures he has about 10 more good years, and does he want to spend them in the pressure cooker of campaigning and governing? As a two-time presidential candidate and after spending eight years as vice president, he knows it takes 100 percent.
He’s not there yet. And three months is a short time to get there.