Biden Mixes Bernie's Pro-Labor Populism With Clinton's Insider Clout
"Joe Biden is the only Democrat who could win the presidency," a colleague told me last fall, back when the Democratic primaries appeared to be winding down into a race between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and populist U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). As a devout conservative, my friend respected Biden's straight talk and pro-labor populism. Though both were traits shared with Sanders, Biden was considered far more moderate. Ultimately, however, Biden chose not to run and endorsed Hillary Clinton, who eventually claimed the Democratic nomination.
But then Hillary Clinton lost the general election in the most stunning presidential upset of all time. Now, instead of wondering which up-and-comer President Clinton will anoint as her chosen successor in 2024, Democrats in Washington are scrambling to pick a champion to wrest the Oval Office away from Donald Trump in 2020. Tensions around the blogosphere are high as Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters point fingers and cast blame for Donald Trump ending up in the White House, and both groups of liberals are vying for power in a post-Clinton vacuum. Progressives are on a roll, with Sanders endorser U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) considered the frontrunner to become the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, but the establishment has maintained plenty of clout with Nancy Pelosi retaining her spot as House Minority Leader.
Bernie Sanders, who is now in charge of Democratic Party outreach, has not ruled out a 2020 candidacy. Nor, if you believe the rumors, has Hillary Clinton, who is allegedly assisting with Green Party nominee Jill Stein's recount drive as a way to keep herself in the game for 2020. To add to the intrigue, vice president Joe Biden is also not ruling out his own bid in four years. Could all three liberal titans end up running?
Due to the trio's advanced age, it is unlikely that any of them will run. Sanders will be 79 on election day, Biden will be days away from turning 78, and Clinton will be the young'un at 73. All of them would set a record for oldest first-term president, eclipsing Donald Trump's new record of 70. With 2016 representing a rather aged field of presidential candidates, the public might be itching for some young blood in 2020.
Will voters support septuagenarians? Well, age didn't seem to hurt either Trump or Sanders in 2016, both of whom drew unmatched crowds. The fact that the crowds loved a couple of plain-talking seventy-somethings may have emboldened the vice president, who is similar to both Sanders and Trump in terms of his reputation for "straight talk." With golden oldie Ronald Reagan remaining the GOP's most beloved figure, it stands to reason that advanced age is no longer the impediment it was once considered.
But, age aside, what are Biden's chances on the stump?
As a former veep, he will be the highest-ranking Democrat in the 2020 field. If he lands president Obama's endorsement, he will have one heckuva feather in his cap. This will almost certainly happen if Hillary Clinton does not run, but what if she does? Obama endorsed Clinton in 2016, and will receive some pressure to repeat that endorsement. However, I feel that Clinton's damaged reputation in the aftermath of November 8 will give Obama a wide opening to endorse Biden in 2020. Would this drive Clinton from the Democratic race? Most likely, for one of her only strengths in 2016 was endorsement clout.
With Biden likely to win Obama's future endorsement, the question becomes whether the rest of the Democratic establishment will rally around him. Having seen Clinton's failure in 2016, will big-name Dems be wary of supporting another Obama administration insider? Biden may get a pass due to his clean reputation - he's got none of the baggage that bogged down Team Clinton.
Biden's ace in the hole is his combination of Obama insider credentials and the sort of pro-labor populism that made Bernie Sanders a Rust Belt sensation. And, as a native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, the old veep might just guarantee that the big state, with its twenty electoral votes, turns blue again. After four years of Trump, there might be enough liberal nostalgia for the Obama years to make Biden seem downright heroic.
But is Biden's moderate populism sufficient to steal away support from Sanders' devout populism? After four years of Trump, anxious Democrats might be ready to swing for the fences and demand a candidate who champions the entire "wish list" of progressive policies: Universal health care, tuition-free public higher education for qualified students, and a modern-day New Deal of infrastructure development. Biden was more populist than Clinton, but is still a far cry of Sanders' firm insistence on more public goods.
In presidential politics, the early bird gets the worm: He (or she) who declares candidacy early tends to have an advantage in securing donors and endorsers. If Biden jumps in early for 2020, he could lock up the support of both many pro-Clinton insiders and many pro-Sanders populists. I'm a Berner, but I wouldn't mind seeing Biden run for the Oval Office.