Hillary vs. Biden Would Get Ugly Fast

You thought Clinton-Obama 2008 was bad? Wait until a white guy steps in a woman’s path and attacks her integrity.

08.25.15 5:00 AM ET

You’ve got to admit it was kind of a stroke of genius for Joe Biden to have that “secret” meeting with Elizabeth Warren over the weekend. The mind of course jumps instantly to the prospect of a Biden-Warren ticket, even to the idea that Biden could, when announcing his candidacy, say, next month, also announce that Warren will be his running mate.

Game-changer is a hoary expression in this town, so forgive me, but that really would be one. I’d guess Biden would go instantly from his current 13 percent to at least twice that. His ego would have to adjust to having a running mate who is more beloved than he is and who draws crowds about four or five times the size of his. But even something short of an official alliance, a nudge-wink implication that Warren is somehow on Team Biden, makes him a much more serious player.

 The big Biden question is whether he’s just preparing in case Clinton becomes felled by scandal or “scandal,” or whether he decides in the near future that she’s damaged enough already that he might as well hop on the bus and see where it takes him. The former course of action, well, that’s all right; given what appear to be Bernie Sanders’s general-election limitations and the fact that Martin O’Malley isn’t exactly setting the nation on fire, it seems a reasonable thing for him to be thinking about.

But what if he just decides the hell with it, I’m running? A Biden vs. Clinton primary battle could be—and if Biden manages to win a couple of primaries, most certainly would be—far more acrimonious than the Clinton-Barack Obama fight of 2008.

Why? Three reasons. The first has to do with race and gender and history. When Clinton announced in 2007, she was going to be the first woman president. Then Obama got in, and he was going to be the first black president. He totally trumped her on the history-maker scale. I realize not everyone saw it that way, but in general terms, given the, ah, special racial history of this country, and given the role the Democratic Party played in changing that history for the better, Obama had the larger and more morally urgent historical claim to make in the minds of most Democrats and liberals. The woman would have to wait, as women so often do.

Well, she’s waited. Not that she had any choice in the matter, but she did. And now, to a lot of Democrats, it’s her turn. The party can make history twice in a row. Imagine!

So now, an old white guy is going to saunter in and step on that? And if he’s going to do it, he’s not going to be able to do it politely, which brings us to reason number two why this would get ugly. Biden is not going to get anywhere with a campaign that says: “I have better ideas than Hillary Clinton does,” because he probably doesn’t, and she has perfectly fine and laudable ideas, even if a lot of liberals don’t want to admit that yet.

No. He’s going to have to run a campaign that says, sub rosa: “I’m a stronger and safer nominee because she’s corrupt.” Because that’s the only argument, is it not? He can’t out-populist her, really, even with Warren promoting him—he’s been in politics for 40 years and he’s always been a pretty conventional establishment liberal on economics. He can maybe say he has more experience, but she’s got plenty of that, and it’s not a deficiency; it would be like Tim Duncan saying “I have more experience than LeBron James.” Yeah, you do. So what?

Biden would have no choice but to build a run around the idea that she’s too risky. He or his surrogates will need to press the idea that the party could nominate Clinton and then next fall, Trey Gowdy finds that Holy Grail email that brings the whole thing crashing down. In other words, his candidacy is going to have to be built around what is in essence a Republican Party talking point.

And if he goes for the jugular, the Clinton team will surely respond in kind. They’re not wallflowers, those folks. They know how to fight. And they’d be fighting on behalf of the millions of Democratic women out there for whom it’s Clinton’s time. That’s her emotional rationale. But Biden has an emotional rationale, too: Beau. Where women will be protective of Hillary, Biden’s backers will be protective of him, too, because of his war hero son’s death.

As I said above, Biden would have to win a few primaries for this to happen. If he gets in and loses the first four primaries and she wins them, then he’s out, and so is everyone else, with the possible exception of Sanders, who is the kind of candidate who might hang around for a while to make his point. But if he wins a couple and finishes well enough in others to collect a respectable amount of proportional delegates, he could well stick around until at least the Pennsylvania and Delaware primaries, which are scheduled for April 26.

That’s a long fight, and it brings us to our third reason why this would be worse than 2008. The media would be rooting for and trying to foment Democratic chaos every step of the way. Of 2008, I do think it’s fair to say that the press liked Obama and kinda wanted to see him win, for the historical reasons noted above. “America Elects First Black President” was the best of the possible story lines on offer and it made (most) people feel good about the country. Well, today, the media want to see Clinton lose, it’s pretty obvious, and so they’d do everything they could to promote Biden and turn the campaign into all-out war. And in contrast, the press likes Biden, and reporters will cut him lots of slack and lash into her for daring to attack Biden after the personal tragedy he’s suffered. 

And by the way, what would Obama do in a Biden-Clinton match? Those comments by Josh Earnest on Monday were strange. He ladles praise on Biden and says he “wouldn’t rule out the possibility of an endorsement during the Democratic primary.” Really? He’d knife Clinton like that? The Clintons delivered pretty well for him in 2012 as I recall.

Besides, powerful people don’t endorse people who are nearly 40 points behind in the polls, as Biden currently is to Clinton. The normal thing for a spokesman to say in such circumstances is something like “the president has enormous respect for both Clinton and Biden and will respect whatever decision...” and that kind of thing, but Earnest went well beyond that.

I suspect Biden is thinking only about a contingency run. But once these guys start thinking... Well, he, and Democrats ought to think a little about the above.