Run, Joe, Run

In the summer of 2016, it was becoming clear that Hillary Clinton was a weaker presidential candidate than many Democrats had expected. Some problems were of her own making (the Wall Street speeches), and some were overhyped by the media (emails!). But the bottom line was that she didn’t look like the ideal candidate for the political moment. She was an establishment insider in a populist time.

By that summer, however, it was too late for Democrats to do anything about it.

The candidates best positioned to beat Clinton, or at least sharpen her, had passed on the race, like Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden. Bernie Sanders ran a strong outsider campaign. But when a socialist from Vermont wins 43 percent of the primary vote, it tells you something about the front-runner.

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The lesson here is that trying to identify the perfect nominee far in advance is a fool’s game. At the start of a presidential campaign, it’s hard to know who will shine and who will struggle. It is also hard to know what the national mood will be the following year — election year.

Which brings me to the much-debated potential candidacy of Biden this time around. I have a piece of advice for the former vice president:

Run, Joe, run.

Run because you have strengths that no other Democratic candidate does, including your depth of experience and connection to the Obama presidency. Run because your populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation. Run because you will never have another chance — and because you are not afraid of losing.

I get the case against Biden. My colleague Frank Bruni has made it and made it well, as have Vox’s Matthew Yglesias and others. At 76 years old, Biden does not represent an exciting new era. He is an old white guy who, over the years, has tacked right on criminal justice, bungled the Anita Hill hearings and failed twice at presidential campaigning. If Biden runs now, I’m not sure whether I’ll be rooting for him to win.

But I am rooting for him to run because the country needs to maximize the chances that Trump’s presidency ends as soon as possible, certainly by Jan. 20, 2021. A Biden run helps that cause. It does so by broadening the Democrats’ options. It creates a stronger field, from which the strongest nominee can emerge. (The downsides of a big field are often exaggerated: A divisive primary didn’t undermine Barack Obama in 2008. It helped him.) If Biden is as flawed as his critics think, he won’t win the nomination.

Above all, a Biden run avoids repeating the mistake of 2016 — the hubris of imperfect foresight.

For the same reason, I am glad Warren is running. She combines progressive passion with serious policy chops. I’m rooting for Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke, who do seem fresh and exciting, to run. I hope Sherrod Brown and Amy Klobuchar, two populist Midwesterners, run. I hope the uncommonly charismatic Mitch Landrieu does, too. This group, with Biden, is my A-list. And I wouldn’t be shocked to see another candidate do well enough to jump into the A-list.

Yet Biden is unique among all of them. For starters, he would bring strengths to the actual job of president that the others would not. He has an intimate sense of the modern presidency. He has spent decades — literally, as he likes to say — doing battle with a radicalized Republican Party.

He also has strengths as a candidate that the others do not. Imagine that the Trump administration descends further into chaos, through some combination of investigations and incompetence. It could certainly happen. In that case, Americans may no longer be so enamored of an outsider. They may be looking for a more reassuring figure than, say, a recently defeated senatorial candidate. To put it another way: If Mike Pence is president by year’s end, shouldn’t Democrats want Biden to be an option?

Finally, Biden can take on Trump, starting right now, in distinct ways. As a front-runner, Biden will command attention that he can use to offer a running takedown of the Trump presidency. Biden can call out Trump as a fraud — one old white guy to another — which can soften up Trump regardless of who the nominee is.

Let me repeat: My argument is not that Biden will be the best candidate. I don’t agree with his reported view that he alone among the Democrats can beat Trump. And he has real weaknesses, like the logorrhea that afflicts many longtime senators. I once attended a White House session during which I wasn’t sure if he would ever stop talking. If he runs, I hope he is smart and humble enough to insist on honest criticism from his advisers.

My argument is that nobody — not the candidates, not the pollsters, not us pundits — knows who the best 2020 candidate will be. And Biden is different from the rest. A field with him puts the Democrats in a better position than one without him.

The only mistake at this stage would to eliminate, pre-emptively, anybody with a decent chance to win. Democrats already tried that, not so long ago. It turned out to be a giant favor to Donald Trump.

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