POLITICO “Biden his time for 2016′” October 30, 2014
By Edward-Isaac Dovere
DAVENPORT, Iowa — Hillary Clinton came here Wednesday to sharpen her stump speech and, while she was at it, campaign for Bruce Braley for Senate.
Joe Biden came Monday to shake hands, pose for photos, wallop Republicans and try to convince the 150 people in an executive suite at the city’s minor league ballpark that Braley’s race is more important than either of the ones that put him and President Barack Obama in office.
He stuck to the Braley script, repeatedly turning to the teleprompter to grab stats he wanted. But standing in the state where a challenger could have the best hope of stopping Clinton’s march to the nomination, he paused and turned his head toward the baseball diamond below.
“I look out on that field, and first thing I think is, ‘Coach, put me in, man, I’m ready to play,'” Biden said.
Most of the time, it’s not so hard to tell what Biden’s thinking — he’s just said it. But even his inner circle doesn’t seem to know where his head is on 2016 — whether he is actually going to get in the game or stay on the sidelines, dreaming of his glory days.
Throughout the midterms, he has been helping out candidates all over the country. It’s not clear to anyone, though, that there’s been the kind of strategy to help himself he’d need if he were serious about a White House run.
“You know the idea’s rattling around there, but I think that’s as far as we can speculate at this point,” said Larry Rasky, communications director for Biden’s two previous presidential runs and still an adviser and friend.
The last any of Biden’s circle seems to have heard is that he’s still not planning to make a decision about the race until next summer, well after Clinton’s expected launch and the chance for a graceful exit that he could say wasn’t about being chased out.
People who’ve been talking to Biden say the factor weighing on his mind may be less Clinton than Obama. Even as a sitting vice president, Biden might not be too proud to run a long-shot campaign, they insist. He was living it up during those months in 2007 when he was lucky to get a dozen people in a room and finished with a grand total of 1 percent in the Iowa caucuses.
But he might not be willing to risk losing the integral role he revels in at the White House. A presidential run would mean missing meetings because he’s out in Iowa or New Hampshire. He’d be asked to draw distinctions between himself and Obama, and the Biden orbit worries about the inevitable loyalty questions that would raise, the West Wing discussions he might start getting excluded from.
Biden talks all the time about how much it’s meant to him that Obama has stuck to his promise to have him in every major meeting and be the last one in the room before signing off on decisions. The vice president’s also kept his half of the bargain, not openly or surreptitiously questioning the final calls. Whenever he has let loose with a line that’s off the approved White House script, he has dutifully apologized, often in person. Most of the time, Obama just dismisses the hubbub as the media giving Biden a hard time.
Nobody who’s run for president twice stops wanting the job. But Biden’s been in politics more than long enough to see what’s happening around Clinton and what a Joe Quixote run would mean. Does he essentially give up the best job he’ll likely ever have two years early for a run at one he probably won’t get?
Anyway, some around Biden say, maybe he’d be a better fit to be Clinton’s secretary of state.
If Biden asked, as a friend, Obama would probably advise him that 2016 isn’t likely to work out, insiders say. Whether that’s already happened during one of their one-on-one weekly lunches, the president and vice president don’t say, but it’s hard to find people in the White House stressing much about how to handle a Biden candidacy. They’re convinced it won’t happen.
A presidential campaign platform seems easy to imagine to Biden fans: He has been a middle- and working-class warrior for decades, and he has years of experience dealing with foreign policy and building relationships. He’s a hero to the LGBT community for pushing ahead of the president on gay marriage. He’s been around Washington forever, and while critics and Washington politicos say his gaffe-tastic speeches have given him the image of a political buffoon, Biden fans believe they make him seem outside-the-Beltway authentic.
“Average Americans would like more of that, not less of that. I think they’re tired of this calculating, intellectualized, very scripted politics,” said Mark Gitenstein, a former aide who recently returned from a tour as ambassador to Romania and remains in touch with the vice president. “Biden says what he thinks, and I think we ought to see more of it.”
“The world is a very scary place to a lot of people, and a wise old fatherly figure would say to people, ‘This guy gets it,'” Rasky said.
As in Iowa, Biden’s been eagerly sought for midterm campaigns in places Obama, with his low approval ratings, can’t go near. With a little less prestige and fewer motorcade cordons than when the president comes to town, and a lot less scrutiny and blowback, Biden’s been talking student loans, health care, Social Security, the wage gap, budget cuts that cost cops on the street — all the things Democrats want people to be thinking about on Election Day.
“Let them eat cake!” a woman shouted out in Davenport as Biden rattled through the Republican budget.
“Well, that’s about where they are,” Biden responded.
Later that day at a Rockford, Illinois, union hall rally for Gov. Pat Quinn, he went after multimillionaire Republican nominee Bruce Rauner.
“You’d think he’d be embarrassed,” Biden said. “My God, how can you have that much money and say we should have no minimum wage?”
A number of Democratic operatives involved in this year’s races wish they’d heard more of that. They blame Biden’s indecision for not being as active and effective a midterm weapon as they’d wanted, not stumping more and planning more carefully the stops he has made. With the presidential talk in their minds, they see a politician who’s anxious about putting himself in a position where he might look like he’s running for president, and anxious, too, about not doing enough.
“He should be owning and selling the fact that he’s a useful surrogate,” said a Democratic strategist involved in this year’s races.
Biden’s office declined comment on any of the questions related to 2016.
But his office did provide a list of his appearances this year, a schedule largely in line with what he did in 2010 rather than what he would do in a bid in 2016. The 34 fundraising and campaign events stretch back to the Florida special election for the House in February, and that’s not the full picture: He headlined a fundraiser for Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) all the way back in January 2013, and he’s continued to do unofficial, unannounced grip-and-grins with donors for House candidates who’ve otherwise tried to stay as far away from the administration as possible.
He tends to say yes to every request.
But part of a master plan, either for Biden’s presidential ambitions or for Democrats’ overall midterm thinking, it is not.
He’s made appearances in Florida, South Carolina and New Hampshire, but they’ve been brief. Three days after Clinton headlined Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry last month, Biden jumped on a plane to Des Moines to join a dozen sisters kicking off their “Nuns on the Bus” cross-country voter registration and social-justice tour. His office said the trip was an official event, nothing to do with politics or Clinton’s visit. In Washington and in Iowa both, he came across as not wanting to leave Clinton unanswered in Iowa.
He’s worked with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic National Committee to coordinate some of his travel. Sometimes, people don’t know what he’s up to at all. When Biden arrived two weeks ago in Columbia, South Carolina, for a get-out-the-vote rally and state Democratic Party fundraiser — catching up with an old commitment to the DNC to do some voting rights events in the South — a number of key Washington operatives learned about the stop from news reports once he was already there.
Or Biden stops come together like this: Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley is friends with his son Beau from their work together as AGs, so her campaign calls Biden’s office directly to work out the campaign schedule that generated a fundraiser at the Banshee Pub in Cambridge. Or he’s in Los Angeles with one candidate for a House seat and another for California secretary of state, and jumps up to Portland for a walk through town with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) that was most memorable for the unplanned but instantly viral photo of him with an ice cream cone, those aviator glasses and a fistful of $10 bills.
While he’s been making those stops, Clinton’s starting to put pieces together in Iowa. So is Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Biden’s not the kind of person to think much about things like a field director when making his decisions, and he appears to be working under the assumption that he’d be able to put together another late-breaking staff, like he did in 1987 and 2007. He toyed with the idea of a leadership PAC, but that never came together in large part due to concerns it would play too much into the prospective presidential narrative.
“Everyone makes too much of the preparation,” said Ted Kaufman, a former Biden aide and temporary U.S. senator from Delaware.
In the group that’s starting to get anxious, though, are people like Biden superfan Sharon Holle, a retired nurse who was the Davenport field director for his 2008 run who gushes about every encounter she’s ever had with him.
Whenever Biden comes to town, she’s there, along with all the other supporters who are wishing he’d run.
“He hears that we’re on board, and his eyes just twinkle,” Holle said at a café overlooking the Mississippi just before Monday’s event.
Maybe that’s a yes. Maybe that’s a wistful no. Holle said she has no idea.
“If Biden is going to run for president, he needs to start getting staffers on the ground here in Iowa now,” she said.
There are people on his staff convinced he’ll run and have been since election night 2012. There are people on his staff who are sure he won’t.
In Davenport, Biden tells a story he’s told before, a lesson he says he learned in his earliest days in the Senate, when candidates kept asking him his secret to winning.
Simple, Biden remembers saying.
“You have to figure out what’s worth losing over.”