“No. Question. In. The. Least.”
That’s the response to an email I sent last night to a longtime Democratic strategist that wondered whether Joe Biden’s decision to start a political action committee was a sign of the former vice president’s growing interest in running in 2020.
“Folks, the history of the journey of this nation is one of ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” Biden wrote in a Medium post announcing the PAC. “We’re the people who built the Hoover Dam and the Transcontinental Railroad, landed a man on the moon, cured polio, built the Internet and sequenced the human genome. And yes – soon we will be the people who will find a cure for cancer. Thinking big is stamped into the DNA of the American soul.”
Close your eyes and imagine that speech being given in, say Wilmington, Delaware and then Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Portsmouth, New Hampshire in early 2019. It’s remarkably easy to do, right?
And, in conversations with nearly a dozen Democratic strategists – some veteran Biden hands, others simply party operatives – Wednesday night, there was near-universal agreement that the former vice president’s latest move had to be seen through the 2020 lens.
“Sometimes things are what they look like,” conceded one.
“It doesn’t mean he’s certain to run,” said a longtime Biden confidante. “But there’s no compelling reason why he would close the door. He’s doing well.”
What’s clear is that Biden wants to give himself the right of first refusal amid what could be a very crowded Democratic field lining up to take on President Trump in 2020.
And there’s a considerable amount of psychology that goes into this positioning by BIden – much of it tied to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Biden wanted to run for president in 2016. He saw himself as the logical and rightful heir to the legacy of Barack Obama. He also believed – and he has said as much – that he would be the best candidate in the field.
Then, his eldest son, Beau, died in May 2015 at the age of 46. And everything changed. For months, Biden and his family were deep in the grieving process – giving him no time to consider or lay the groundwork for a presidential bid. Meanwhile, Clinton was already in the race – she announced April 12, 2015 – and she used the second half of the year to consolidate establishment support and cast herself as Obama’s natural successor.
Biden acknowledged as much when he announced – with Obama by his side – that he wouldn’t run in 2016, saying that the window of opportunity “has closed.” But, even then, he made clear that he wasn’t happy with the campaign Clinton was running.
“It’s mean-spirited, it’s petty, and it’s gone on for much too long,” he said of the political climate. “I don’t believe, like some do, that it’s naive to talk to Republicans. I don’t think we should look at Republicans as our enemies. They are our opposition. They’re not our enemies.” (Clinton, in a recent debate had said that Republicans were the enemy she was most proud of making.)
Throughout the campaign, Biden waxed wistful about his own decision – “I regret it every day,” he said of not running – and offered not-so-subtle barbs for Clinton and her campaign.
“I don’t think she ever really figured it out,” Biden told an L.A. Times reporter shortly after the election. Last month, he was even more blunt: “I never thought she was a great candidate. I thought I was a great candidate.”
In that same interview, Biden was asked about a possible 2020 candidacy – and hedged. “Could I? Yes,” Biden said. “Would I? Probably not.”
“Probably not” isn’t “no.” And Biden knows that.
A Biden 2020 bid wouldn’t be all champagne and roses. He has already lost two presidential campaigns – in 1988 and 2008. He would be 77 years old on election day 2020 – and would turn 78 just 17 days later. There is tabloid personal drama among his surviving son and the widow of Beau. And, as one high-level Democratic operative noted, he might have trouble raising the hundreds of millions he would need to run a competitive campaign.
“Biden hasn’t raised money in 30 years,” the source said. “It’s one of the real reasons he didn’t run in 2016. He has no idea how to raise money.”
Those are all problems for another day, however. For now, what’s clear is that Biden is wedging a block of wood in the 2020 door to make sure it stays open for him. And that everyone knows he is standing first in line for the foreseeable future.