Joe Biden is not going to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. The ramifications of cancelling the first major-party ticket headed by a woman are too terrible for Democratic leaders to contemplate.
But Barack Obama and others may still want Biden to run, and to do it fast. He’s the perfect foil for the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton should be delighted at the prospect of Biden going after about Trump’s “malarkey,” as the vice president might put it. Biden and Trump both have reputations for winging it, but Biden going off-script by supporting gay marriage before the Obama administration was ready to do so will probably work out better than Trump destroying the GOP brand among Hispanic voters. The Democrats surely think they’d benefit from any coverage equating the two loose cannons. It would be better than more coverage about Clinton’s missing emails.
Some candidates excel at policy proposals, some are good at what Bill Clinton famously called the ability to “feel your pain,” and a lucky few can do both. It’s not clear whether anyone will fall into that last category in 2016, but this summer is all about pain, and Trump is bringing it.
Hillary Clinton doesn’t like “lip service,” as she told a group of activists from the Black Lives Matter movement last week in Keene, New Hampshire. “I don’t believe you change hearts,” she said. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.” It’s difficult to imagine Barack Obama saying that, just as it’s almost inconceivable for Hillary Clinton to lead the singing of “Amazing Grace” during a funeral broadcast to the entire country, and not everyone is ready for the change.
“She totally doesn’t get it,” said one of the activists after the exchange. Christina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, told the Atlantic’s Russell Berman that personal stories and “changing hearts and minds” was essential to immigration reform and, in particular, an end to deporting immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children—something that Obama has achieved, for now, only through an executive action.
To the distress of those hoping for lasting immigration reform, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is thriving with his lip service to xenophobic voters, promising to build a wall along the Mexican border (and making Mexico pay for it) and to deport millions of undocumented migrants. “They have to go,” he said in a TV interview, and one can imagine his supporters nodding and murmuring, “That’s right” as they watched at home on a Sunday morning.
His rally at a football stadium in Mobile, Alabama, was a godsend for political reporters looking for incendiary quotes. The Washington Post’s Robert Costa and David Weigel found an attendee from the West Coast who warned, “There is no more California….It’s now international, lawless territory. Everything is up for grabs. Illegal aliens are murdering people there. People are being raped. Trump isn’t lying about anything—the rest of the country just hasn’t found out yet.”
Trump has seized on the murder of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco, and the charging of a man who had been deported from the U.S. multiple times, as justification for tightening immigration policies. He’s also deftly linked immigration to crime spikes and tensions between citizens and police across the country, though without any evidence. “When you look at Baltimore, when you look at Chicago, and Ferguson a lot of these areas,” Trump said in a radio interview. “You know, a lot of these gang members are illegal immigrants.” This charge comes out of thin air. Baltimore has few foreign-born residents for a city of its size (the Census estimates 7 percent of the total population, versus 14 percent for Maryland as a whole) and Ferguson has almost none (1.5 percent of the population), and it’s unlikely that “illegal immigrants” are going to cities with no support networks and few job opportunities. But Trump knows that, at least at this stage of the campaign, people are more interested in stories than statistics.
Hillary Clinton’s time is next fall, when she can ask voters who they want answering the phone in the White House at 3 a.m. That’s when (her campaign hopes) Americans will decide they want stability, not surprises, from a president. As the New Yorker’s Nathan Heller writes, “Trust in American politics has alternately carried two related but separate meanings. There’s the trust you feel in honesty of character, the old ideal of frank speech and lucid motives. And there’s the trust you place in your leader to get the job done.” This summer, it’s the “frank speech” that’s getting attention, and Clinton can’t compete with Trump on that score.
But imagine a Democratic primary debate with Biden on stage. He’d ding Clinton a little, but he’d also relish the chance to go after Trump as the personification of today’s Republican Party. Recall Biden’s vice-presidential debate with Paul Ryan in 2012. A description of Biden’s performance by the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman seems applicable to a certain real estate mogul now dominating political news: “It’s dispiriting, of course, that political discourse should have been reduced to such displays of alpha-male dominance, but there were times when the debate might have benefited from a whispering David Attenborough voiceover: ‘And so the victorious older male, having bared his cosmetically enhanced teeth, stalks away, muttering: ‘With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey…’”
At another point in that debate, Biden accused Ryan of spouting “a bunch of stuff,” which prompted handwringing about the propriety of a vice-president coming so close to uttering an obscenity on national television. After two months of Donald Trump’s alpha-male domination, it’s no wonder that some Democrats are eager to give the floor to Crazy Uncle Joe.