What in the world is Joe Biden thinking? According to The New York Times, he is "95 percent committed" to running for president in 2020. If I were a millionaire 76-year-old former vice president and senator I would be 95 percent committed to watching hoops and taking it easy with my grandchildren (and about 5 percent committed to picking up an occasional six-figure speaking fee), not agonizing over whether I want to spend two years applying for the worst job in the world.
A better question, though, is what are the Democratic bigwigs who are said to be "impatient" waiting for the great man to enter the presidential arena thinking? Imagine believing that what the Democratic Party is looking for in its leaders in 2019 is a handsy geriatric white man who distinguished himself over the course of a long political career by cozying up with the financial industry and bragging about being tough on crime in between cringe-worthy jokes about Strom Thurmond, at whose funeral he proudly delivered the eulogy (a fact unmentioned on his Wikipedia page).
During the Obama administration there was a creepy subgenre of liberal commentary involving Biden as a kind of sex symbol. This co-existed, in the way things always do when Democrats are in power, with a quiet recognition that his whole Crazy Uncle Joe act was a bit, uhh, much. The classic Onion parodies captured this ambiguity perfectly.
They are, fairly or not, how much of the public sees him. Maybe it was funny in 2012 to be the guy people casually make statutory rape jokes about, the same way that it was probably a good move in the '90s to be the senator proudly announcing the fact that you want to punish 51 (!) different crimes with the death penalty. Who is the constituency for the latter these days, apart from Evelyn Waugh?
The answer is, a lot of voters, actually. In a general election I think Biden has more than a decent shot against the president, not in spite but because of all the above. With Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) officially out, there is room for a candidate who can appeal to the ex-Obama supporters in the Midwest who decided the election in 2020 by going for Trump. What a race that would be. Imagine the 20-minute exchange about which of them is less weird with women and who could beat the other in a school-yard fight.
The question is whether in a crowded primary field Biden can survive what will almost certainly be numerous accusations of racism and misogyny. His record on economic and criminal justice issues will be endlessly scrutinized, as will any number of videos and images like this one, where the daughter of Sen. Chris Coons daughter is visibly upset by Biden's pseudo-avuncular antics, as he grabs and kisses and whispers in her ear:
The fact that the same criticisms could and have been made more cogently of Trump himself will make no difference. If Biden runs you can count on the president tweeting about "Creepy Uncle Joe" or "Pervert Hillary Pal Weirdo Biden." His supporters will play along.
Is it worth staking his reputation on a long-shot nomination bid? There are already 14 declared candidates so far. None of them has anything like Biden's name recognition, and he would almost certainly enter the race as the frontrunner. But what matters more, association with a popular former president or a forward-looking voting record and ideological reputation? If you identify with the exact center of the Democratic Party in the Senate during the Bush administration, with support for the Iraq war and neoliberal economics and the idea that we can fix health care and the financial industry by cooperating with them as closely as possible, Biden is probably your man. Some people who feel this way will be voting in Democratic primaries. Will there be enough, though? If the nomination process turns into a contest to see who is the most willing to denounce Biden as a retrograde chauvinist and Wall Street shill, my guess is he'll end up regretting his involvement.
I'm sorry, Joe, but this nation is not turning its lonely eyes to you.