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We're one Joe Biden away from the greatest presidential campaign in generations

Vice President Joe Biden, right, swears in first-term Sen. Marco Rubio, left, in the US Capitol in January 2011.
Vice President Joe Biden, right, swears in first-term Sen. Marco Rubio, left, in the US Capitol in January 2011.
Mary F. Calvert/CMT via Getty Images

More than three years before the 2016 Iowa caucuses, the marquee was set: Bush versus Clinton.

It was going to be a snoozer of a primary season leading to a brutal and uninspiring clash of dynasties in an oh-god-not-again general election. You could almost hear the eerily low hum of precision political machines getting ready to clear the Republican and Democratic fields.

But now, less than six months out from the Iowa launch, the 2016 presidential campaign is shaping up to be the most spectacular in a generation. Not since at least 1980, with Ted Kennedy trying to oust his own party’s president on one side and future presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush squaring off for the GOP title, has there been such vibrancy in a presidential race. The anointed ones, Bush and Clinton are having a harder time than either expected. And the natural heir to the sitting president, Vice President Joe Biden, is now publicly entertaining a run.

Want substance? This race has plenty of it. A socialist and a right-wing former Texas governor want to break up the big banks. The Democratic frontrunner and a libertarian Republican senator want to dig into sentencing reform. The main economic divide between the parties — how to structure the tax code and distribute income and wealth — is in full effect in a raft of proposals from the candidates. Candidates are fighting over immigration reform, trade, and the minimum wage.

This, folks, is as good as it gets.

You can't make it up: A reality TV star hijacked the Republican primary

Donald Trump is crushing Bush in the polls, and there are so many qualified Republican candidates that some big names are going to be left off the 10-person stage for the season’s first GOP primary debate Thursday night.

Democrats, the media, and even some Republicans like to point to the "clown car" aspect of the crowded GOP side of the campaign — a reference to the kind of vehicle you’d need to fit them all in and a poke at the sideshows some have put on to try to garner attention, money, and supporters in the early phases of the race. But what’s lost in the commotion is just how many of the Republicans bear the credentials of serious presidential contenders.

"Historically, we have not had as level a playing field with as many entrants in a long time," former Republican National Committee Chair Mike Duncan told me in an interview late last year. "This is relatively new territory for us."

Duncan pointed back more than 50 years, to 1964, as the best point of comparison. The field that year included Sen. Barry Goldwater, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, former Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen, former Ohio Gov. James Rhodes, and UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. I'll go one further and say that field doesn't stack up to this one.

Even better than 1964

Collectively, this year’s Republican crop is even more impressive. It includes the sitting or former governors of four of the nation’s seven most populous states — Texas, Florida, New York, and Ohio — and four media-savvy senators. It could be the deepest bench of plausible candidates in American history, depending on one's definition of plausible.

In 1964, there were a half-dozen serious candidates for the Republican nomination. This time, there are twice as many — and the top of the field, excepting Trump, is pretty qualified politically and substantively.

Scott Walker has won three elections in Democratic-tilting Wisconsin while implementing conservative social and economic policies with ruthless precision. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has proved himself a responsible, if cautious, voice on foreign policy in his short time in the Senate. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio is a former House committee chair who cut deals with President Bill Clinton on balancing the budget and reforming welfare.

Rick Santorum, a former member of the Senate Republican leadership who collected nearly 4 million votes and 255 delegates in 2012, can't muster enough support to get on the stage at the first debate. Ditto for Perry, who was elected governor of Texas three times.

On paper, and in reality, this is a formidable crowd. And yet they're all trailing a billionaire reality TV star.

Real Clear Politics

Hillary Clinton is winning, but she's not coasting

The Democratic side has been less exciting than the race for the GOP nomination in large part because a clear majority of Democrats consistently say they want Clinton to win.

That's probably because she's the strongest presidential candidate in the Democratic Party, a talented inside political player who suffers for her weakness on the stump.

Leaving aside her competition for a moment, Clinton is doing a pretty good job of making the cases for and against her candidacy. She’s arguably the most qualified non-incumbent president or vice president in anyone's memory, and, as Matt Yglesias pointed out, her economic policies line up well with the traditional priorities of the party.

And yet her willingness to trade on her public service for personal wealth and her paranoia have left the majority of Americans saying she’s not honest or trustworthy. Many Democrats find her ties to corporate America icky and her comfort with the military tool in America's power toolbox — shorthanded by her vote for the Iraq War — to be a little unsettling. In January, a Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll found that a large minority of Democrats weren't thrilled with her connections to Wall Street.

Of a variety of issues that might give Democrats pause about Clinton, Iowa Democrats said earlier this year that her ties to Wall Street top the list.

Bloomberg/Des Moines Register survey of likely Iowa caucus-goers, January 26-29, 2015

There's significant concern within the Democratic Party that she could implode under the pressure of an investigation into her email; stories about possible conflicts of interest in her personal, political, and philanthropic fundraising; or simply her less-than-thrilling performance as a campaigner.

The storylines are made for fiction: Will she avenge her 2008 primary defeat to President Barack Obama and become the nation’s first woman president? Or will she blow a big lead again in her last chance at history? Is it possible that she could win the presidency with a decisive majority of voters saying they don’t find her honest and trustworthy?

The Biden factor

Right now, Clinton's under congressional investigation and has bled support to a guy who calls himself a socialist. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders doesn’t have a real path to beat her, but he’s revealing her weaknesses — perhaps enough so to convince Biden that Clinton can be defeated.

For the moment, the Democratic primary has a familiar feel. There’s an establishment favorite trying to straddle the liberal and centrist wings of the party while successfully fending off an energetic challenge from the left. Think Vice President Al Gore versus Sen. Bill Bradley in 2000, former Vice President Walter Mondale versus Sen. Gary Hart in 1984, and, of course, Carter versus Kennedy in 1980.

If Biden gets in — contrasting his dovish tendencies with her hawkishness, his modest means with her wealth, his full allegiance to Obama with her trepid calibrations — he'll at least force Democrats to choose. Biden's flirtatious by nature, and he's clearly flirting with the possibility of running.

There are a lot of reasons for Biden to run, including a little nugget from the annals of American history: No vice president seeking to succeed a two-term president has ever lost his party’s nomination. But as my colleague Andrew Prokop smartly observes, the excitement of a Biden run would still very likely result in a loss for him — and perhaps damage to Clinton.

They could be the Carter and Kennedy of their era.

All presidential races are historic and meaningful. What's different about this one?

I asked Julian Zelizer, the prominent Princeton political scholar, what he thought about the level of excitement and quality of the candidate choices in 2016.

Within the Democratic primary I think there is a really interesting debate that is taking shape, driven by Bernie Sanders and the coalition behind him, over the domestic agenda of the Democratic Party. While I don't think the difference between him and Clinton is as great as some suggest, I think the debate over principle is a healthy one. The Republican campaign has a number of interesting choices, ranging from libertarian Republicanism, to anti-union Republicanism, to mainstream business friendly Republicanism. There is a huge range of options, combined with the kind of fight and flashy candidacy (with Trump) that is capturing people's attention.

So is it "historic"? Not sure what election isn't. Is it interesting? I think its shaping up to be that way.

Folks who are bored by this election will never be satisfied by a presidential campaign. There's sizzle and substance, and a clash of ideas and personalities. There are possibilities as wild as a third-party Trump candidacy and a battle between the vice president and a former first lady/senator/secretary of state.

It's possible we'll even end up with a good president. At the very least, we'll get one who has been tested by a truly rigorous and raucous fight. If you like politics, you'll love 2016.

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