Biden has one big thing to offer voters. He should run on it.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images

Four years ago last month, I wrote a column titled “Biden should run. Now.” I thought Joe Biden, then the vice president, had earned the right to challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, no matter how eager most of the party’s leaders were to shove him aside and clear the field.

If you’d asked me even a week ago, though, I’d have told you that I really didn’t think Biden would run in 2020, no matter what his advisers kept telling reporters. And even now, though he’s expected to announce his candidacy today, I find myself wondering if he’ll actually go through with it.

Moreover, I’m not sure he should.

This time, Biden seems like the classic elder-statesman kind of candidate, who would love to have the nomination if it were his for the asking, but who may not have the stomach for the nasty, protracted battle ahead.

And by waiting as long as he did, Biden has already squandered his most significant advantage. After all, what special power does a former vice president have that other candidates don’t? It’s not celebrity or experience — at least not anymore.

No, the one thing a titan like Biden could have done is exactly what Clinton did in 2015: project inevitability, mobilize an army of loyalists early on and deter some other good candidates from getting in.

Instead, Biden dithered for months, while half the registered Democrats in Washington figured “what the hell” and filed papers to run.

So now he’ll be just one of a dozen serious candidates, at least, half of whom will, at any given moment, be subtly mocking him for his age (he’d be 78 on Inauguration Day), or for his support of mandatory minimum sentences and credit card companies, or for his treatment of Anita Hill and his propensity to literally press the flesh.

(Biden once put his hand on my knee during a conversation in the West Wing, by the way. I’m pretty sure he was just being demonstrative.)

But say this for Biden, because it’s not a small thing: He’s never been afraid to lose.

He’s run twice before — the first time in 1988, when he was taken out by a made-up scandal in the moment when generating scandal was becoming the principal obsession of political journalism, and then again in 2008, when insiders had already written him off as a has-been, but when his maturity and command of the issues won him a spot on the ticket anyway.

(Here’s a column I wrote about Biden during that primary campaign, when almost no one wrote anything about him at all.)

It’s exceedingly rare for any politician to run for president not just three times, but three times spaced out over 32 years. A Democratic strategist joked to me this week, not unkindly, that if Biden could wait just a few more years before jumping back into the arena, he’d be a political cicada, emerging every 20 years to wreak havoc and then disappear.

In his past two bids, though, first as a still-young senator and then as an aging eminence of Washington, Biden had relatively little to lose. This campaign is different. Now he faces the very real possibility of being made to look old and foolish in his last tour of duty, of having the first line of his eventual obituary read “three-time loser” instead of “Democratic icon.”

He knows that, of course. But you can’t do anything to Joe Biden in politics that comes close to what the world outside has already done. He lost a wife and a daughter, came back from a brain aneurysm that nearly killed him, then lost a son.

At this point he’s playing with house money.

The challenge for Biden, if in fact he’s now decided to run, is to figure out how. In a Democratic moment dominated by talk of identity and inclusion, when a choice between capitalism and socialism has actually become a defining point of debate, Biden’s candidacy has to answer two questions.

Why him? And why now?

There’s probably no shortage of replies to those questions ricocheting among Biden’s advisers. But if he were to ask me (and why would he, really?), here’s what I’d tell him.

You won’t get there by trying to put your past in a box and pretending that you can be just as au courant as a Bernie Sanders or a Kamala Harris. So all this business about apologizing for some of the seminal moments in your career, like the crime bill vote or the Clarence Thomas hearings — that’s just pandering to people who aren’t going to choose you anyway.

No, Mr. Vice President, your only path right now is to stand — as Warren Harding once put it, though that’s probably not a comparison you really want to make — for a return to normalcy. It’s to speak for all those Democratic voters who want not socialism or a whole new political system or a war on white men, but rather a turn back to rationality, pragmatism and governance.

Stop making creepy apology videos; that’s just an old guy trying to floss. (The dance, not the dental thing.) You need to be the calming grandfather who arrives to find the parents screaming and the kids running around in their underwear and says, “Time out, I got this.”

If I were you, I’d say, “Yeah, we all need to change with the times, and if you want to fight about a law I passed 25 years ago, then go right ahead, but the main order of business here is to beat Donald Trump and restore some sanity and dignity and proportion to our politics, so you don’t wake up every day wondering what’s going to whack you in the face next.”

And by the way, it might also help to acknowledge that you’d be 86 after two terms, so instead of running for reelection, you’re thinking you’ll choose a younger, female running mate and turn the keys over once you’ve got things running smoothly again. That would go a long way toward solving the old-white-guy problem.

To be clear, I’m not saying this gets you where you want to go. In the best scenario, you commandeer enough of a plurality to barely outlast a bunch of other Democrats on Super Tuesday, and you go on to trounce Trump in a general election, as you surely would.

In the less ideal scenario, you lose the nomination fight by a lot, and it’s humiliating.

But at least this way you’d go out as a guy who chose, in his final public act, to run on his convictions, rather than from them.

Even the doomed cicadas have to sing their own song.

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