Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Biden Antidote

The Biden Antidote

Let’s talk about chaos. 

Not Republican chaos, although one can never find enough time to dwell in the lush garden of dysfunctionality that flourishes in the Land of Big Hearts and Big Tents.

Democratic chaos.  Time to discuss Hillary Clinton, the clear (and possibly doomed) frontrunner for their nomination.  You can love Bernie Sanders to death, or harbor a secret craving for those Men of the Mid-Atlantic Webb and O’Malley, but when every nose has been counted, it’s her nomination.

So the eggs in the basket all have Hillary painted on the side.  But it’s a gigantic gamble, because outside the Hillary-haters, and the Hillary acolytes, no modern politician, short of perhaps Richard Nixon, produces such complex feelings.  Either enough of those “conflicted” people will respect her toughness, think of her as able and experienced, and choose her to be our next President.  Or, they will look extra closely at every imperfection (and there are many) and decide they just don’t want what she has to offer—especially in the package she’s wrapped in.  

Democrats have long assumed that Hillary, without Obama’s “ethnic” problem, would reassemble Bill’s coalition and attract traditionally Democratic but presently alienated blue-collar voters.  One of the things you heard frequently after the 2008 elections was Obama’s convincing win would have been a landslide if Hillary were the nominee.  I am not convinced of that—Obama 2008 was a one-off, a candidate of a unique and fresh appeal, especially to younger voters.  The 2012 Obama, dogged by 4 years of the drudgery of governing, and the incessant vituperation coming from his opponents, was far more prosaic.  You gave him another chance either because you were a partisan, or because you thought he was dealt a tough hand and got a raw deal and deserved more time, or because Mitt Romney didn’t set your heart aflutter.  In 2008, Obama showed he could soar.  In 2012, he demonstrated he could punch it out, when needed.

And that’s the problem, because a tough slog might not work for Hillary—the voters she might gain for being not-Obama might be well offset by those she loses for being Hillary Clinton.  Look at the 2012 results, and you can see that in in the battleground states where Obama assembled his winning coalition, he had several close calls.  Ohio, Virginia, and Florida, a total of 60 Electoral Votes, were each decided by less than 3% in 2012.  In Florida, the margin was less that 75,000 out of nearly 8.5 Million votes, more than easily flipped by a favorite son on the ticket. 

Absent some appalling collapse, I don’t think Hillary will get her clocked cleaned—Democrats are already frantic about the idea of the GOP running wild with control of the government in 2017, so they will do the best they can.  But there is the very distinct possibility that 2016 could look a lot like 2004, with an unpopular George Bush facing off against an unexciting John Kerry.

The problem for Democrats is that they don’t really know where anything stands—they basically have lost their bearings as the party has become captive to dominant personalities—and the vociferous and highly personal nature of the political opposition. It’s become increasingly difficult to distinguish between empirically good and bad policy, and even good and bad behavior.

With Obama, it’s become a tiresome dirge that is clearly personal.  The words are barely out of his mouth before he’s denounced as a weak-yet-tyrannical secret Muslim bent on destroying our way of life.  Most Democrats, no matter how much they might disagree with a particular Obama policy (the Iran deal comes to mind) or even dislike the man himself (and there are more than a few) just don’t buy that characterization.  

But with Hillary, a far more complex web emerges.  Talk to a Democrat and they roll their eyes at Benghazi.   Benghazi has become the Stalinist Show Trials of our time.  They will go on and on, with no regard for proper procedure or the smallest semblance of fairness, with continuous unflattering leaks, and a subpoena power intended to intimidate and interfere with Hillary’s campaign.  Democrats see Benghazi hearings like ACA-repeal votes—blood for an insatiable vampire.  So, they will stay in there and fight for Hillary.

The charitable contributions and especially, the emails are a different matter.  Not just because there might be illegality there (the GOP is already demanding indictments, the FBI, and the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg) and not even because there’s likely some embarrassing ones.  But because of what it may say about Hillary herself.  The private server and the big time contributors-influence peddlers reinforce the peculiar poll results that show there a far greater number of people who think that Hillary can do the job than those who actually trust her with the keys.

Democrats know that the next 15 months are going to be non-stop Hillary bashing, coupled with taxpayer-financed continuous investigations.  If that were it, they might just very well grit their teeth and duke it out.  What worries many is that they don't trust her that much either—they are hesitant to go to the mat in defending her—and possibly going down flames themselves.  And, they worry she’s not all that good at being a politician—especially since she’s been sandwiched between two of the marvels of the age, her husband Bill, and Barack Obama.

Ugly little thoughts creep in the dead of night.  Corrosive thoughts, thoughts of failure—or thoughts of a 2016 summer surprise, with Hillary dropping out for “health reasons.”  Democrats know that if it goes into next year, they have no back up whatsoever.  It is a function of the weakness of the Democratic bench that not only do they not have many politicians who can electrify, but they don’t even have that many who can project an authoritative competence.

And then there’s Joe Biden.  Pundits have pointed out that he’s everything that Hillary isn’t, but I don’t think that’s completely fair—to Hillary or to Biden.  If Biden gets into the race he is by far and away the most experienced, and in many respects, the most qualified of any candidate, Democratic or Republican. I am not making a policy point; I’m simply stating facts.  Biden has had an uninterrupted record of public service for more than 40 years.  He was first elected as a wunderkind in 1972.  He chaired both the Senate Foreign Relations and the Senate Judiciary Committee before playing a critical role in the Obama White House   He is deeply steeped in the arcane knowledge of how government works, and even the Republicans who mock him publicly for his gaffes rely on his exceptional gift for working across the aisle to fashion reasonable compromises.

Biden also has led an extraordinary and extraordinarily public life story, scarred by tragedy, which he has borne with exceptional dignity.  For all the caricature, he is a superb retail politician who easily relates to a broad spectrum of the electorate—he’s just a very hard guy to dislike.

So, Joe the antidote to what ails the Democrats?  Even more expansively, is he the antidote to what ails the nation?  Would a President Biden find ways to work with Republicans that Mr. Obama either couldn’t or wouldn’t have been allowed to?  Could a one-term Biden Presidency (his camp, while not committing him, has conceded to age by talking one term) do the very hard things that any other President, who has to run for reelection from the day after his Inauguration, could not do?

I honestly don’t know.  There are so many obstacles.  Biden himself has to decide to run, and he’s apparently deeply conflicted, with many of his inner circle worried it could damage his legacy.  Biden would have to get the nomination from Hillary, and that’s no mean feat, given her huge institutional advantages.  And Biden would have to convince the electorate that, at 73, he’s really up to it.

Not going to be easy, especially because Biden has never been good at campaigning for the top job.  There have always been folk who seemed more papabile than him.  In 1988 he had to withdraw after plagiarism charges, in 2008 he was just outpaced by the perceived frontrunner (Hillary) and the new star (Obama).

And yet, it’s somewhat tantalizing. Biden is a throwback to an earlier age.  He’s not shouting like Trump, or barn burning like Sanders, or competing to be the absolute meanest guy to immigrants or the one demanding that pregnant women wear body-cams.

Just an old pharmacist with a mortar and pestle who knows how to get you up on your feet and back on the road.

Biden-Kasich 2016?

Is that really more bizarre than The Donald selling Oval Office-themed condos?

August 18, 2015

Michael Liss

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