Thursday, October 29, 2015

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 5):
Biden, Clinton and the Democrats’ vacuum

TIME, TIDE and presidential politics wait for no man. Vice President Joe Biden was both the victim of that lesson and the one who communicated that lesson with force and eloquence, when he announced his decision not to seek the presidency from the Rose Garden of the White House he will apparently never call home.

“As my family and I have worked through the grieving process,” Biden said, “I’ve said all along what I’ve said time and again to others, that it may very well be that that process, by the time we get through it, closes the window on mounting a realistic campaign for president, that it might close. I’ve concluded it has closed.

“Unfortunately, I believe we're out of time, the time necessary to mount a winning campaign for the nomination,” the vice president said Oct. 21. “But while I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent. I intend to speak out clearly and forcefully, to influence as much as I can where we stand as a party and where we need to go as a nation.”

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Some seers came to this conclusion well before Biden did. “He’s a truly wonderful man universally loved by NH Democrats, but I can’t imagine him undertaking such a monumental underdog effort at such a difficult time for his family and with the massive monetary, people and campaign advantages of the Clinton campaign,” a New Hampshire Democrat told Politico ... in August.

“An objective reading of VP Biden’s chances of winning the nomination will force him to accept the reality that he should not enter the race for the Democratic nomination,” an Iowa Democrat told that publication that same month.

Russell Berman, writing in The Atlantic on Oct. 21, broke down how close we seemed to come to a third Biden bid for the Oval Office:

“The speculation persisted, reaching an almost-comical fever pitch in recent days as Biden’s camp repeatedly left allies and reporters alike with the impression that he would make a dramatic entrance into the race. The head of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Harold Schaitberger, told reporters his union was preparing as if Biden was going to announce his candidacy. A backbench Democratic congressman tweeted that Biden was in. Reports circulated that Biden’s advisers were scouting office space in Washington.”

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IT WASN’T to be. But Biden went down swinging hard, defending the record of his administration as he would have if he’d been in the campaign to come.

“This party, our nation, will be making a tragic mistake if we walk away or attempt to undo the Obama legacy,” Biden said. “The American people have worked too hard, and we have come too far for that. Democrats should not only defend this record and protect this record. They should run on the record.”

The vice president offered a tantalizing sample of what might have been, a campaign valedictory that had all the barn-burning elements of a stump speech.

“I believe that we have to end the divisive partisan politics that is ripping this country apart,” Biden said. “And I think we can. It’s mean spirited, it’s petty, and it’s gone on for much too long. ...”

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“I don’t think we should look at Republicans as our enemies,” he said. “They are our opposition. They’re not our enemies. And for the sake of the country, we have to work together. ...”

“There are too many people in America — there are too many parents who don’t believe they can look their kid in the eye and say with certitude, ‘Honey, it’s gonna be okay.’”

“That’s what we need to change. It’s not complicated. That will be the true measure of our success, and we’ll not have met it until every parent out there can look at their kid in tough times and say, ‘Honey, it’s gonna be okay,’ and mean it.”

You have to take the man at his word. Still processing the death of son Beau, by brain cancer in May at the heartbreakingly young age of 47, the vice president is well within his rights as a grieving human being to take a time out in order to assess his life options after January 20, 2017.

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IN THE SHORT term, this has implications for the Democrats both clarifying and problematic. For now, and in a nation whose emerging demographic profile would suggest otherwise, the Democrats are left with a small and clearly defined group of monochromatic candidates who have been, with one notable exception, profoundly uninspiring.

That field of hopefuls has decreased by two in recent days. On Oct. 23, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee dropped out of a race he was never really in to start with. And former Virginia senator Jim Webb quit the Democratic race three days before that.

Webb’s opted instead to pursue a bid as an independent, but it’s hard to imagine him getting any more traction running as an indy than he got as a Democrat. To do so, in some vestigial shadow campaign,  would merely make Webb look opportunistic and, well, desperate. And with independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders laying out his own bona fides, Webb would have to carve out territory where, frankly, there isn’t any.

The problematic part is all about the putative front-runner, Hillary Clinton. For many Democrats still troubled by Clinton — her vote for the Iraq war, her philosophical and attitudinal nods to the neocons, her long standing in the very politics they’d like to see changed — voting for her would be hard to swallow. With no other available, electable options, there could be a temptation to sit 2016 out, a choice that would considerably lower the likelihood of a Democratic White House a year from this November.

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Biden’s decision not to run affects not just the contestant count in the nomination hunt; it also changes the context of that pursuit. With Biden in, we were looking at a spirited Democratic campaign, one with the giddy prospect of two wily, enduring Democratic operatives in the twilight of their careers, battling it out all over the primary calendar, making their cases before the voting public — the essence of the small-d democratic process playing itself out.

We could have looked forward to Biden — an Amtrak-corridor politician unafraid to meet people on their turf; a voluble man of outsize emotions; an empath of American politics — making the gaffes and outbursts of passion that mark him as human, and as such, eminently electable as one of us. We also could have looked forward to Biden ably filling the current vacuum of the center-left, the now wide-open space between Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley on the political left and Clinton’s center-right imagistic tendencies.

With Biden out, the game has changed completely. Now — and barring a resurrection of the fortunes of O’Malley (who’s vowed to stay in through Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, The Washington Times reported on Wednesday) or a serious increase in support for Sanders’ campaign — we’re left with what amounts to a coronation for Hillary Clinton, a cakewalk to the nomination. We’re deprived, to some extent, of the kernel of the democratic process: Options. Choices.

And Clinton’s apparently clear field will also change the coverage of the race by the media. No long-form think pieces comparing one candidate with another. No breathless primary-night vote-total countdowns, none of the drama that’s become central to political journalism in a presidential election year. We’re looking at a year of campaign politics, and campaign reporting, duller than boiled potatoes.

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AND THERE’S not likely to be any last-minute insurgent candidacies. Biden’s perfectly defensible explanation for not running — a lack of time to mount a competitive campaign — will be no less true for anyone else out there who might have thought of jumping in.

With Clinton’s probable nomination as a forgone conclusion, ratings for election-related TV programming will certainly take a hit compared to previous elections — and not by a little.

That decline in interest through the primary season could have a follow-on effect when it counts: On Election Night. Clinton has never been a slam-dunk with many Democrats, for the reasons previously laid out here (and more). An absence of choices during the primaries may well alienate voters from the beneficiary of that seeming inevitability, maybe even enough to skip voting altogether. The devil’s advocate rationale: If you never felt like you had a choice ... why vote as if you did?

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Joe Biden’s decision not to run needs no defense or justification from me or you or anyone else. In the wake of vast blindsiding tragedy, any one of us would have done exactly the same thing. But — O slender reed — we can’t overlook the slight possibility that the vice president may yet be called upon.

You’d best believe that if everything goes south for the Democrats, somebody out there has a DraftBiden dot something domain name registered right now for just such an emergency.

For now, though, two unchanging situations: For the Democrats, by way of ambition and their own history, there’s the somewhat dispiriting field of hopefuls they’ve got to accept. For the nation, by way of life’s sometimes horrible unpredictability, and for all the right reasons, there’s the very dispiriting fact we’ve got to accept: A campaign without the one that got away.

Image credits: The Bidens and President Obama: Carlos Berria/Reuters via The Atlantic. Webb: From the website. Clinton: Forbes. Politico logo: © 2015 Politico. The Atlantic logo: © 2015 Atlantic Monthly Group.

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