- - Thursday, May 2, 2019


Well, let me put it in personal terms. I was a senior in college when he was first elected to the U.S. Senate (1972) and am now a little more than a year away from the biblical three score and ten years in age. When elected to the Senate, Mr. Biden was too young (29) to take office as a senator — he turned 30 a few weeks later — but if elected president, he would be older than Ronald Reagan (78) when Reagan left the presidency.

This is Mr. Biden’s third candidacy for the White House. His first was 32 years ago.

In some respects, this is an ostensible advantage for Mr. Biden. In an unusually crowded field of aspirants, he has the name recognition enjoyed by most vice presidents. And in press terms, he does not have to “introduce himself” to an electorate that tends not to concentrate on campaigns until the 11th hour.

It is also worth noting that, in the midst of a generational shift in American politics, his principal rival for the Democratic nomination (Bernie Sanders) is one year older than Mr. Biden. The current polls, in that sense, are revealing: Together, Mr. Biden and Bernie Sanders are favored by a majority of Democratic primary voters, and their closest rivals are clustered together in single digits.

Yet, the polls can be seen as ominous as well. If the Democratic Party is lurching leftward, as seems obvious, the enduring appeal of Mr. Sanders is unwelcome news for Mr. Biden. Democrats are united in their desire to unseat Donald Trump, but equally devoted to Mr. Sanders’ socialist platform — which is largely indistinguishable from the other 18 candidates. Mr. Biden is the candidate of those Democrats who do not wish to see their party squander what appears to be, from their perspective, a sure thing.

But is he?

Mr. Biden likes to present himself as a representative of hard-working/lunch-pail/middle-class America, and his working-class/rust belt/Irish Catholic origins fit the description. His academic background is surely respectable — University of Delaware, Syracuse Law School — but some distance from his party’s Ivy League governing class. And like more than a few politicians of his type, Mr. Biden has always had a demonstrable chip on his shoulder about all this, reflected not only in his tendency to inflate his credentials on the campaign trail (“I went to law school on a full academic scholarship”) but in unscripted defensive pronouncements as well (“I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do”).

One of the great mysteries of modern politics is why his patron, President Barack Obama, discouraged Mr. Biden from challenging Hillary Clinton in 2016. The ostensible reasons were entirely understandable: Mr. Biden’s elder son, Beau, had just died of cancer, and the first black president did not wish to stand in the way of America’s first woman president. But I am not so sure. Mr. Biden is nothing if not resilient in the face of personal tragedy — his wife and young daughter were killed in an automobile accident just weeks after his election to the Senate — and especially after the bitter 2008 presidential primary race, there was little love lost between Mr. Obama and both Clintons.

I suspect that Mr. Obama, in characteristic fashion, had judged his faithful No. 2 to be a natural-born vice president.

Of course, it is entirely possible — indeed, entirely likely — that no Democratic nominee could have resisted the 2016 tidal wave. Mr. Biden might have been more successful than Mrs. Clinton in appealing to voters in his Pennsylvania birthplace, or in Michigan or Ohio. But not necessarily: If the 2016 presidential election represented anything, it was not an endorsement of favorite sons and daughters but a revolt — a shocking insurrection — against politics-as-usual.

That would have penalized Mr. Biden as readily as it doomed Mrs. Clinton, and does not augur well for his last hurrah. And Mr. Biden seems, in his particular way, to comprehend this, invoking at the outset of his final campaign an enduring allegiance to traditional issues — his first audience was a union gathering in Pittsburgh — along with an awkward embrace of identity politics. The populist revolt that catapulted Mr. Trump into the presidency is hardly confined to his famous “base” — or the Republican Party, for that matter. The surprising success of Mr. Sanders in 2016 was not a reflection of personal appeal but a signal of disaffection in Democratic ranks. And those signals have only grown louder, and more conspicuous, with time. The ex-vice president’s rivals in the field are not competing for their party’s pragmatic center — or seeking to bridge the partisan gulf, as Mr. Biden purports to do — but marketing themselves as flattering versions of Sen. Sanders.

When the 77-year-old Sanders is available, what’s the point of a 76-year-old Biden?

• Philip Terzian, former writer and editor at The Weekly Standard, is the author of “Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century.”

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