Carl P. Leubsdorf: Top 8 problems awaiting a potential Biden candidacy
A conspiracy theorist might think the stunning disclosure that Vice President Joe Biden might yet challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination was a calculated effort to steal some political thunder from this week's initial Republican debate.
But the problem with that theory is that, while the prospect underscores the degree to which the Clinton has damaged her own front-running campaign, a Biden candidacy would probably damage the Democrats more than the Republicans, complicating their hopes for retaining the White House.
That's why those who fear a GOP 2016 triumph — and the possible reversal of such Obama initiatives from Obamacare to tackling climate change — should hope that political reality prevails when the Biden clan meets this month to make a 2016 decision.
Here are the top eight problems for a Biden candidacy:
• He lacks organization
The vice president has neither political nor financial organization to mount a campaign and raise the required millions. Democrats say many of his prior fundraisers and political advisers have already joined Clinton's campaign, notably Biden's former chief of staff Ron Klain and former national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
• Clinton is popular with Dems
Despite some erosion, two recent surveys showed Clinton's favorability with Democrats remains in the 70s, about 30 points higher than among everyone polled. Biden's was slightly lower. Democrats will choose their nominee, not Republicans and independents who view her less favorably. And a Quinnipiac poll of three swing states showed him weaker than Clinton against potential GOP rivals.
• His lousy track record
Biden ran twice previously, did poorly and was often gaffe-prone. In 1987, he withdrew after acknowledging he had incorporated portions of speeches by a British politician in describing his own life. In 2008, despite a strenuous effort and good notices in Democratic debates, he finished fifth in Iowa and sixth in New Hampshire with less than 1 percent.
• Bernie Sanders is already running to Clinton's left
While Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders still seems like an implausible Democratic nominee, he has stirred enthusiastic support in the party's substantial liberal wing, which has always been cool to the Clintons. To differentiate himself from Clinton, Biden would presumably also have to run at her from the left, which might create awkwardness with both Sanders and his day job as vice president.
• Vice presidents usually lose
Sitting vice presidents have a poor track record seeking the presidency. George H. W. Bush, in 1988, was the first elected on his own in 152 years, helped greatly by President Ronald Reagan's popularity. Democrats strongly support Obama, but his overall support is tepid.
• His age
Biden will be 73 this December, which would make him, if successful, the oldest person ever elected. Clinton will be 68 in October, but would be a political ground-breaker. It may be ancient history, but when President Harry Truman decided belatedly against running in 1952, party leaders ruled out his popular vice president, Alben Barkley, on age grounds. He was 74.
• He could create a gender problem for the party
A Biden candidacy could create an especial problem with the millions of women who hope Clinton will be the first female president. Whatever his motives or her problems, this could produce a backlash if he won the nomination, especially among independents and moderate Republican women she hopes to attract.
• Family squabbles are bad for the incumbent party
Divisive primary fight historically hurt the incumbent party's chances of holding the White House. Such divisions undercut Democratic chances in 1968, when primary challenger Sen. Eugene McCarthy never endorsed Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and in 1980, when Sen. Edward Kennedy's challenge was a major factor in President Jimmy Carter's defeat. Pat Buchanan's 1992 challenge to Bush helped doom his re-election by leading to Ross Perot's independent candidacy.
Joe Biden is one of the most honorable, well-liked people in American politics, and his very human reaction to the recent death of his 46-year-old son Beau provoked widespread admiration. Perhaps that would enable him to bring off an unlikely challenge.
But a more realistic path for him to become the Democratic nominee might be to avoid a divisive fight, back Clinton and, if any of several ticking time bombs sinks her candidacy, step in then to save the Democratic day. Anything else would likely help to elect a Republican.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.