There are few people in politics today with as much grit as former Vice President Joe Biden. After spending nearly every day of the past 36 years in public service, he has kept on keeping on through personal tragedy and political heartbreak. He is someone who has never been afraid to speak his mind. But why, then, is Joe Biden not running for president? The answer is more complicated than you might think.
There is a good reason why you’re asking this question: If Mr. Biden were to run for president, he would almost certainly be the front runner in the Democratic race — including among primary voters of color. Despite these advantages, however, there are at least three factors holding him back right now:
Burdens of Being a Political Institution
For most of his career, Biden was a scrappy underdog, a regular guy fighting against the odds. But now, at 76, he’s become a political institution – which means that he’d face a new set of challenges.
In the past, Biden had the luxury of being able to simply speak his mind without worrying about hurting himself. He’s now facing the fact that being a political institution means that every word he says is under constant scrutiny. It’s a burden he may not be willing to carry.
Biden’s position as a political institution also means that, while he has many devoted fans, he also has a growing chorus of critics. Some of those criticisms are legitimate, while others are based on misunderstandings.
Regardless, the combination of being a political institution and having vocal critics would make it difficult for any campaign to feel “normal.”
Age Discrimination in a Time of Ageism
Biden would be the oldest candidate in the race, and he would be facing off against a field that is likely to be the most diverse ever. For some voters, the age disparity could become a real issue.
Polls show that voters, particularly Democratic voters, are increasingly focused on electability. The problem for Biden is that he will be viewed as unelectable by some voters due to his age.
If the race becomes a “youth movement,” as some commentators have suggested, Biden could find himself at a distinct disadvantage. And it’s not just ageism that could hurt him.
For example, voters who are focused on racial justice might be turned off by the fact that Biden failed to support reparations. Ageism, racism — whatever the reason, Biden is staring down the barrel of a real electability problem.
The Anita Hill Contamination Effect
There is plenty of history between Biden and Anita Hill. During the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, Biden was widely criticized for failing to properly support Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment.
In his defense, Biden said that he “did what I thought was proper.” Since then, Biden has apologized to Hill and the public many times over.
But the specter of this controversy will likely never be far from the surface of a Biden campaign. There is a real chance that this would become the central issue of any Biden campaign.
What does this mean for Biden? It depends on the reaction of voters. If there is a strong feminist response against Biden, it could be devastating. On the other hand, if voters end up sympathizing with his apology for his past mistakes, it could be survivable.
A Lack of Commitment to Racial Justice
Biden has a long record of fighting for racial justice in the Senate. But while he has been a friend on this issue, he has not been a leader on racial justice.
This isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw for Biden, but it’s something that a serious candidate running in 2020 would need to grapple with.
How can he appeal to a younger, more diverse group of voters without alienating his traditional base? In order to bring in new voters, Biden needs to show that he is committed to racial justice in a way that he has not in the past.
This would include, for example, taking a stronger public stand on reparations. And none of this even addresses the fact that Biden lived most of his career as a white man in a country that was extremely racist.
How much of his worldview was shaped by that? How would he appeal to those voters who want to see a candidate who can offer a fresh start?
The Hill Culture is still in recovery from the 2016 election.
While the 2020 election is still over a year away, it’s important to remember that the entire Hill culture has only been out of the hospital for a few months.
The 2016 election was a traumatic experience for many people, and they are still trying to heal. This means that voters are not in the mood for a coronation.
Whereas Hillary Clinton seemed like the inevitable nominee in 2016, there is no clear frontrunner for 2020 at this point. Voters are looking for a reason to support someone, not for a reason to oppose someone else.
At this point in the election cycle, Biden would likely face the full force of the anti-establishment sentiment that set the tone in 2016.
Biden is a beloved figure in the Democratic Party, and he would be a formidable general election candidate. But we don’t know how he would fare in a Democratic primary against a younger, more diverse field.
If he runs, he will have to face the full force of a party that is still in recovery from the trauma of 2016. He will have to answer for his age, his past, and his commitment to racial justice.
He will have to overcome a growing chorus of critics who have been criticizing him for years. And he’ll have to do all of this while also trying to be the candidate who can bring together a Party that is still struggling to reconcile its past with its future.
In short, the 2020 primary could be a brutal slog for Biden. He’s been through these wars before, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to come out unscathed.