In reporting on politics all my adult life, I’ve enjoyed indulging in candidate scenarios, especially thinking unconventionally about what might happen if somebody runs for president. If people I respect dismiss one of my story lines as a dumb idea, it’s usually better to move on.
This time, I’m going to ignore them. My latest scenario, derided by Democratic and Republican sources alike, imagines a 2020 Democratic presidential run by Joe Biden.
I think it could work, with caveats: Biden would have to pick a special type of running mate well in advance, plan only to serve one term and release all his health records. And he’d have to be running against President Donald Trump.
Most of my expert friends dismiss the viability of a Biden run, but Biden doesn’t. He and his political advisers take the prospect seriously.
To see why they’re not crazy, start with this fact of political life: When an incumbent runs for re-election, the contest is a referendum on him. A challenger, to be successful, must offer an appealing alternative that better addresses whatever’s bothering people. Jimmy Carter, the outsider, beat President Gerald Ford in 1976 in the shadow of the Watergate scandals. Ronald Reagan defeated Carter four years later by showing resolve that resonated during the Iranian hostage crisis. Bill Clinton’s domestic focus had broad appeal in 1992, the first presidential contest after the end of the Cold War, against the veteran cold warrior President George H.W. Bush.
After three-and-a-half years of Trump, what will swing voters be looking for? A grown-up who is committed to getting things done by trying to bridge the bitter partisan divide. A person with experience in governing, savvy about the ways of Washington and wary of national-security booby traps. A reputation for incorruptibility to drain the ethical swamp of the Trump years.
More than most outsiders, new faces or ideological purists, the 74-year-old former senator and vice president could fit that bill.
To be sure, those who tell me I’m daffy have compelling reasons. Biden was a terrible candidate — twice! — when he ran for president in 1987 and 2007. A half-century in politics doesn’t usually produce new ideas. He can be a gaffe machine, unable to keep ill-considered first thoughts to himself. From Day One he would be the oldest person to occupy the office.
But there are reasons to think these shortcomings might not weigh so heavily this time. Presumably, his experience running with President Barack Obama and serving as an influential vice president (a job that absolutely requires people to learn to hold their tongues) will make him a better candidate. He’ll commit gaffes — otherwise it wouldn’t be Joe — but occasional loose talk will seem benign measured against Trump’s mean spirit and contempt for the truth.
A politician first elected in 1970 is not going to be the face of the future. But after the exhaustion, trauma and incompetence of the Trump years, voters will look for stability, solidity, maturity, global experience, civility and integrity. Biden checks all the boxes.
He’s a part of the moderate Obama-Clinton wing of the Democratic Party (though there’s no love lost between Biden and Bill and Hillary Clinton). But progressives acknowledge his genuine empathy for working-class Americans, and he’s liberal enough for them on social issues — it was Biden who forced Obama’s hand on supporting gay marriage.
There’s still the issue of age. If elected he’d be 78, three years older than Trump though probably in better shape.
But even if 78 is the new 68, the notion of serving two terms, well into his mid-80s, won’t cut it. Normally, promising to serve only one term is a bad idea; it turns a leader into a lame duck on the first day in office. There’s never been a great one-term president.
But Biden could change the way candidates look at the selection of a running mate. Instead of waiting until the eve of the nominating convention, he should pick a running mate over a year in advance, and run as a team.
That would be good politics and good policy. Remember that there’s nothing sacrosanct about the present system, which has produced Spiro T. Agnew, John Edwards and Sarah Palin.
Biden should select a woman, in her 40s or 50s, who has won elective office and demonstrated the capacity to step into the president’s shoes.
His case to voters would be direct: I’m the most experienced man to ever run for president, and by the end of the first term I will have developed a partner with stellar credentials to succeed me.
OK, it’s a long shot. My insider friends who think it’s a crazy idea, including a couple of Republicans who said they’d vote for Biden over Trump, are probably right. The odds may be better for a fresh-faced change agent or a left winger representing the new heart of the Democratic Party.
But consider the political merits. What’s a better antidote to the poison of Trumpism than the buoyant maturity of Joe Biden?
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal. Readers may email him at email@example.com.