Joe Biden, Me, and Why He Shouldn't Run For President
During a meeting a few years ago at the Council on Foreign Relations, former vice president Joe Biden put on a bravura performance. The conversational format gave Biden space to be his gutsy, informal self.
In his concluding remarks, Biden addressed the finance and business people in particular. He took them to task unapologetically on the need to do more for the country and less for the bottom line.” He made a strong pitch. Mr. Biden still had panache.
He and I came of age in the 1960s. (He’s now 76, and I’m pushing 75.) Out of that wrenching time, those involved took different roads into life. Some, such as myself, found a calling in academic and intellectual life. Biden went into politics and a stellar career.
After the meeting I was able to have a short conversation with Biden. Enthusiastically, I said that if one result of our generation’s experiences was his political career, that was already substantial. He replied, “now, that’s a real compliment.”
It is sad to say, but a couple of years later, Biden doesn’t have it anymore.
He may or may not declare for president in the next few days. He shouldn’t. Biden is up against tremendous odds despite being, at this early and shapeless point, the Democratic party frontrunner.
Biden has no chance. (Nor, by the way, does Bernie Sanders.) The possibility that voters will elect as president someone approaching 80 years of age is, as it should be, about zero.
Ronald Reagan had to convince people in 1980 that, at 69, he wasn’t already too old. His re-election campaign in 1984 produced the memorable debate exchange with Democratic candidate Walter Mondale when the latter broached Reagan’s age, then 73. By implication, Mondale was questioning Reagan’s mental and physical fitness.
A journalist said that maybe the question was off the point. “No,” said Reagan, shaking his head ruefully. “Age is indeed a relevant question. And I’m not going to make an issue in this campaign of my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Mondale, who after all had been Jimmy Carter’s vice president, laughed along with everyone else, but years later confessed that at that moment he knew Reagan had clinched it.
In this campaign, Donald Trump, seemingly healthy as an ox at 72 years old, has been all but renominated by the Republicans. The Democrats have a remarkably vigorous and intelligent group of youthful candidates. There are moderates, a couple of former prosecutors, Beto the former punk-rock musician, a democratic socialist or two, and Cory Booker, who seems to be, to quote Jackie Kennedy about her husband, an idealistic realist.
Few of these of course are actually running for president. They’re in it for name recognition across the country. They’re preparing their futures.
In the face of all this, what should Biden do? And what should the Democratic party leadership do about him? As Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal, what Biden deserves is a grand thank you for his years of service to the country and his party. The Democrats, all of them, should show that simple gratitude is of the moment -- even those critical of the man’s over-friendliness and certain episodes in his career. If Biden still wants to be in on the action, let him become an elder statesman.
For me, the decisive issue regarding Biden and Sanders is simple: It’s their age. Biden is 76, Sanders 77.
By what right do they ask the country to take a chance on their health? Can they really say that the country needs them above all others for a few years beginning in 2021?
They are too old, even in an age when people like me emphasize that 75 is the new 65. Biden has even toyed with announcing he would serve only one term if elected. If that’s true, that alone is disqualifying, because it’s pandering and because he would be an immediate lame duck.
Sanders, this time around, won’t dodge the fact that he has basically no administrative experience, let alone governed a state. If he says that the current occupant of the Oval Office had no experience, the reply is that Trump ran businesses all his life, however well or badly. Trump is a Black Swan in so many ways. Sanders, a non-descript senator, is no Barack Obama or Jack Kennedy.
But it’s hard to give it all up. Noonan puts it gently, it’s difficult “for a man who’s always seen a president when he looked in the mirror to admit he’s an almost-president.”
The Democrats should give Joe a huge place at the party convention. Properly organized, it could be an immense celebration of the right stuff.