The race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders has finally presented Joe Biden with what he's been lacking since 2009: a rationale to run for president.
If Biden gets in, he should run as the true Obama Democrat. Clinton was Obama's Secretary of State, but also an intra-party rival in 2008 — and pressed by Sanders on the left she's tended to side with labor unions over the president on the handful of issues where they've differed. Biden could be the defender of the Obama-Biden administration's legacy on trade, education, and health care costs vs labor-backed Clinton dissents. To add a touch of left-wing cred to the mix, Biden can also defend Obama's dovish record on Syria, where Clinton has joined Republican calls for a no-fly zone.
This, in many ways, would be awkward for Biden. It would mean putting himself on the wrong side of major labor unions on a range of issues. That's always a questionable strategy for a primary candidate, and it's an especially dubious one for a candidate who would be certain to lag Clinton in fundraising and who, over the long course of their respective multi-decade careers in public life, has been a more reliable labor ally than Clinton.
But sometimes in politics you have to take what the defense gives you. What Clinton is giving Biden doesn't add up to a campaign strategy that is especially likely to work, but the reality is that there's no strategy available to Biden that is especially likely to work. Running as a neoliberal reformer is Biden's best chance to accomplish the one thing he's never been able to do as Vice President — tempt Obama to go off the sidelines and publicly state that the man he tapped to be his successor in case of death is also a strong choice to be his successor in non-tragic circumstances.
The Clinton-Sanders race has created space on the right
The dominant fact of the 2016 Democratic Party primary so far has been the gravitational influence of Bernie Sanders on Hillary Clinton's thinking. Sanders' robust social democratic agenda is a natural fit for America's labor unions, but national union leaders are reluctant to hop on the bandwagon of a candidate everyone regards as unlikely to prevail. The result has been a kind of quiet compromise in which Clinton is taking labor's side in controversies that have divided unions from the Obama administration, in exchange for labor not supporting Sanders even though in their hearts they kinda sorta want to.
- Clinton has come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership despite having strongly endorsed earlier versions of it as Secretary of State.
- Clinton has discovered a newfound opposition to the way Obamacare rolls back tax subsidies for very generous health insurance plans.
- Clinton has emphasized her longstanding closeness to teachers' unions who have often clashed with the Obama administration over questions related to charter schools and teacher quality.
These are not policy differences of earth-shattering proportions. But in the modern era of polarized, ideologically sorted parties they are what passes for a good intra-party controversy. Indeed, in some ways the gap that's opened up between Clinton and Obama is bigger than the Clinton-Sanders gap. Clinton and Sanders largely differ in degree (with Sanders wanting to go further than Clinton on everything but gun regulation) while basically agreeing in direction. Clinton and Obama, however, are actually pulling in different directions on the merits of exposing US workers to more foreign competition, of encouraging high-deductible health plans for middle class workers, and of shaking up seniority-based teacher compensation systems.
Defending Obama could get Obama on Biden's side
Of course, this space has opened up on the right for a reason — you win a primary by catering to influential party actors like labor unions, not by bucking them.
That said, any Biden campaign would necessarily be a longshot and there is one influential Democratic Party actor who agrees with the Obama administration about this stuff: Barack Obama. Obama retains an 85 percent approval rating among Democrats, a deep rolodex, and ready access to the US news media. It's been made pretty clear over the past few months (if not years) that Obama is not all that inclined to use these levers to help hand the nomination to Biden. But an aggressive defense of Obama on the issues where Clinton has broken with the White House — the three union issues and Clinton's hawkish foreign policy — would naturally lead to a stampede of media inquiries to the administration that could to some extent force Obama's hand.
The president, after all, would hardly be in a position to deny that he agreed with himself and his Vice President rather than Clinton.
A debate would be a public service
But the best reason for Biden to mount a robust defense of the Obama-Biden administration's record isn't cynical politics, it's that the administration's record deserves a defense. Presidential campaigns have always been the main way that Americans hear about big national issues, and this years' debates are attracting unprecedented audiences.
On the health plans, education reform, and Syria I think Obama is right and Clinton is wrong. On TPP, I am less certain who's right but there are certainly credible experts making the case for Obama's side of the argument and there's evidence that rank-and-file Democrats agree with Obama.
It would be, ultimately, a disservice to the public for these stances to simply vanish from the top ranks of the Democratic Party without a proper public argument. But for the argument to happen, someone has to take up the cause. Given the lateness of the date and the hostility of Democratic interest groups to some of these Obama positions, the only person who could really pull it off credibly is someone with the instant cachet of, say, a sitting Vice President.
Help us, Joe Biden, you're our only hope.