Ned Barnett

Sleepy Democratic race needs a cup of Joe

Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appear onstage at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington in April 2013.
Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appear onstage at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington in April 2013. AP

When it comes to Hillary Clinton, the issue isn’t really the private server, it’s the public servant.

Clinton’s performance as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state has given the nation ample notice of what she might be like if she were to become the first woman to win the presidency.

It’s clear she’s intelligent and driven, but not charming or inspiring. She’s uncomfortable with accountability, has disdain for the media and prefers a script to spontaneous talk. She is cautious, hawkish and wary of emotional appeals.

In many ways, Hillary Clinton is what Bill Clinton wasn’t. And yet, because she is a Clinton, her anointment as the Democratic presidential nominee has been deemed inevitable.

Now that heavy mantle is beginning to bow the candidate who bears it. Relentless Republican attacks on her secrecy and playing above the rules by using a private email server as secretary of state are taking a toll. As Clinton comes under attack, the thinness of her support is being exposed.

The unraveling of Clinton’s inevitability is turning the Democratic Party’s eyes to the nation’s second-highest office holder, Vice President Joe Biden. He has long wanted to be president, but at 72 and with Hillary Clinton in the ring, that seemed a lost opportunity. Now there’s a glimmer of “maybe yet,” and the vice president is said to be seriously weighing running for president a third time.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday shows that the vice president is more popular than Clinton among Democrats (83 percent to 76 percent) and that he would beat the three leading GOP presidential contenders, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

The political establishment dismisses Biden as too old, too late and too gaffe-prone. But these are weak objections. Hillary is only five years younger, there’s more than a year until the election and Jeb Bush says more awkward things in an hour than Biden has said in a career.

There’s a good case for a Biden candidacy. Among its strengths:

▪ Biden is part of the Obama administration and has served loyally and well as an adviser. Biden would represent an Obama third term. Given the steady strength of the economy, the success of the Affordable Care Act, the United States at peace, Obama’s popularity could be quite high come November 2016.

▪ Biden may elect to serve one term. Biden wants the presidency, but not necessarily for two terms. He could offer himself as a transitional figure until the Democratic Party finds a new crop of candidates for 2020. He could leave the door open that after 12 years in the White House, he may not want four more years.

▪ Biden is a skilled and deeply experienced politician who served for three decades in the U.S. Senate. Obama made his newness on the national scene part of his appeal. But once in Washington, he was unable to build the relationships that can overcome partisanship. Biden works easily across party lines. After the congressional gridlock and acrimony of the Obama years, he could restore the art of the deal in Washington. Opponents might get along. Things might get done. Imagine that.

▪ Biden is a person with whom ordinary Americans can identify. While in Congress, Biden took the train home to Delaware every day. He never cashed in on his access and fame. He has called himself “the poorest man in Congress.” His net worth, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, is at most $800,000. After Jeb Bush left office as governor of Florida, his net worth climbed from $1.3 million to $19 million, including $10 million in speaking fees. Hillary Clinton has collected more than $11 million in speaking fees since the start of 2014.

▪ Biden could help Hillary. By entering the race, the vice president would be more than a reserve parachute for the Democratic Party. He would be a foil to Clinton, who needs serious competition beyond the quixotic campaign of Bernie Sanders. Left on her own in a sea of inevitability, Clinton has drifted toward the rocks. A strong primary would focus her and test her for a general election. Even if he loses, a third presidential run would be Biden’s final service to his party and his nation.

▪ Biden knows the pain of loss. When Biden was a newly elected senator in 1972, his wife and one of his three children were killed in a car accident. His son, Beau, became Delaware’s attorney general. In May, he died of a brain tumor at age 46. Such wrenching experiences give a politician a special perspective. He becomes more sensitive to others, more aware of the frailty of life and realizes that that the loss of a mere election matters little.

Shortly before his death, Beau reportedly urged his father to pursue his dream of becoming president, saying Biden’s values would best serve the country. No one need worry whether Biden still has the fire in the belly to endure a presidential campaign. He has his son’s wish in his heart.

Ned Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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