Several weeks before Maureen Dowd was feeding us dialogue from Beau Biden’s deathbed, the chief promoter of a Joe Biden presidential candidacy was a fellow named Dick Harpootlian, the former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Here, for example, is a U.S. News piece from back in June, when Harpootlian was acting as a one-man p.r. machine for Biden. “I think he was seriously considering it, but he was seriously distracted by Beau being in Walter Reed,” Harpootlian is quoted as saying in that article. “I haven’t heard anything to convince me to say that it wasn't still something he was thinking about.”
Is Harpootlian driven by some quasi-mythic faith in la forza del Joe’s destino? Maybe. But the record sure appears to reflect that he is also driven by an intense dislike of the Clintons. During the heated 2008 South Carolina primary, Harpootlian compared Bill Clinton to Lee Atwater. Now, that primary was far from Bill Clinton’s finest hour. But Lee Atwater he ain’t. Looks like there’s a history there—a history Democrats ought to be aware before the former chairman of a state where the Democratic Party has lost nearly everything it was mathematically possible to lose in the last generation becomes a major national power broker.
Like most liberals, I like Joe Biden fine. He’s mostly stood for good things over the years. Although it should be asked—and will, if he enters the race, especially against a woman—what percent of the responsibility he bears for the fact that Clarence Thomas sits on the Supreme Court. This is the story of Angela Wright, the former Thomas employee who had tales that corroborated Anita Hill’s testimony but by bipartisan agreement (Biden chaired the Judiciary Committee at the time) was not allowed to testify. She spent a weekend in an Arlington motel waiting to be called, but never was. You might be hearing more about her.
Wait, I digress. What I meant to say was, generally, I like Biden fine and think he’s been a steady and admirable public servant, and I’m at a loss for words over the personal grief he’s endured. I don’t mind the famous malapropisms, for the most part; God knows Washington could use more people who depart from script on occasion.
It’s no mystery why some Democrats are nervous about Hillary Clinton. But if they’re thinking that Biden is some kind of white knight who can ride in and sort everything out, I would suggest they’re mistaken. Biden has sought the presidency twice before. In 1988, he didn’t even make it out of the starting blocks. Indeed he didn’t even make it to 1988, because the revelation that he was cribbing autobiographical speech lines from British Labour leader Neil Kinnock chased him from the race in 1987.
Then, in 2008, he rarely if ever got out of single digits. With a first tier comprised of Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Clinton, Biden never got out of the second tier. He finished fifth in Iowa with 0.9 percent of the vote and said sayonara that night.
That’s not a track record that screams white knight to me. And every Democratic insider surely knows this. So what’s going on here?
It seems clear that a little Clinton panic is going on, based on that one Quinnipiac poll that showed her losing to some Republicans in key states, and on the continuing Times jihad over her emails.
There are ways in which this is silly. That July 22 Q-poll looks increasingly aberrant, as legitimate polls have come out since showing Clinton with the same kind of 5- to 7-point leads over the first-tier Republicans that she’s had for a year. As for the email story, that’s a little less silly, as a political concern. No one has yet adduced any proof that Clinton did anything wrong, but that doesn’t mean the Republicans aren’t going to spend the next 15 months trying to suggest otherwise, and the proof-less suggestions have obviously done Clinton some damage in the last month. But panic? It seems a touch early for that.
The other point made in Biden’s favor is the old “personal affect-slash-authenticity” argument—that he displays a certain exuberance on the trail, while she is, to use a word I saw in the Times yesterday sourced to a “prominent Democratic party official” who may or may not be named Harpootlian, “joyless.”
Well, compared to Biden, yes, she is kind of joyless. Methodical and serious is how I would more charitably put it, but okay, fine, call it true. But again, in 2008, Democratic voters were given an opportunity to back either her grim earnestness or his joie de politique. Earnestness got 17 million votes, and joie captured 23. Not 23,000 or even 2,300; I mean 23 votes from Iowa caucus-goers. [UPDATE: This isn’t quite right. I took these numbers from a New York Times vote summary, but it was weighted to reflect the number of state convention delegates each candidate would win based on the actual votes cast. It seems that Biden actually got a few hundred votes, but the 0.9 percentage is correct.]
Believe me, as the guy who wrote a book about her 2000 campaign, which I see you can now literally (to use a favorite Biden word) buy for as little as one penny (!), I’ve probably written as many “If only Hillary could loosen up” sentences as any journalist in America. But I have recognized, too, the sexism so clearly coded in the way many people say it. For God’s sakes, Jeb Bush on the trail makes Clinton look like Sarah Silverman. But you don’t see many “Who Is Jeb, Really?” stories. Men just aren’t written about in that way.
Anybody who has the means to run for president and wants to run ought to run. If Biden does get in and she beats him, well, that’s one less woulda-shoulda-coulda hypothetical that will loom over Clinton. If he gets in and wins, well, he’ll have earned it because by definition, the nominee is the person who earns it. But there’s no reason to think Biden is some kind of rescuer. He’s had two shots at this and has flamed out both times, and there must be a reason for that.