This is Hillary Clinton’s week. First she was on 60 Minutes with the president the other night, and Wednesday with our own Andrea Mitchell–she’s even subtly tweaked her message about 2016, making it clear the next presidential race is at least on her mind–just like a Hillary ‘16 candidacy seems to be on, well, everyone’s mind.
But you know what’s weird about this? We already have a vice president, his name isn’t Hillary Clinton, and he really wants to run for president in 2016 too. Shouldn’t he be the heir apparent? After all, that’s supposed to be the top selling point of the vice presidency.
Six of the last eight elected VP’s have gone on to seek the White House. The only two that didn’t were Spiro Agnew, who was forced to resign in disgrace in 1973, and Dick Cheney, who…well, there were a lot of reasons why he didn’t run.
But when the talk turns to 2016, the current vice president is often overlooked. There are two reasons for this.
The first is age. He’s 70 now. He’ll be 74 on Inauguration Day 2017–that would make him the oldest person ever sworn in as president, beating out Ronald Reagan by a few weeks. Here Biden is haunted by the example of Alben Barkley–the respected, long-serving Kentucky senator who ended up at Harry Truman’s VP in 1948 and yearned to succeed his boss four years later. But at the 1952 Democratic convention, party leaders delivered the 74-year-old Barkley a blunt message: You’re just too old, and went with Adlai Stevenson instead.
But hey, age isn’t what it used to. People regularly work well into their 70s and 80s these days. And while Biden is technically a septuagenarian, he sure doesn’t act like one–as his performance on Pennsylvania Ave the other day demonstrated. Here’s betting age alone won’t derail the Biden ’16 train.
But here’s something that might: Hillary Clinton. She is by far the biggest obstacle standing in Biden’s ’16 path. She won 18 million votes in the 2008 primaries and her popularity (and her husband’s) has soared in the four years since. Simply put, she has the more natural claim as Obama’s rightful successor–so much that I doubt Biden, or almost anyone else, will run if she does.
There is, however, a good argument to be made that Clinton will end up passing. The popularity she’d enjoyed these past four years is new for her–remember how she and her husband were tormented by the right for a decade-and-a-half before Obama came along? Clinton still has some good years left–maybe she’ll decide she’s proven all she wants to prove in elected politics and try something new.
If Obama’s popularity grown these next four years–and I expect it will–the appetite for continuity within the Democratic Party will be strong. And if Clinton isn’t in the mix, Biden’s claim to the Obama mantle will be strong. And if modern history tells us anything, it’s that loyal V.P.’s to popular second-term presidents have a real leg-up in seeking open presidential nominations.
Think of George H.W. Bush. Conservatives had no use for him in 1980–that’s when he called himself pro-choice and ran for president calling Ronald Reagan’s agenda “voodoo economics.” But he landed on Reagan’s ticket that fall and then spent the next 8 years loyally serving the president and reinventing himself as a right-wing true believer. 5 other Republicans ran against Bush in ’88, each claiming to be a more worthy Reagan heir, but it was Bush who got the benefit of the doubt–and the nomination.
Al Gore’s path in 2000 was even cleaner. The Clinton White House helped him clear out the Democratic field, leaving him to face only Bill Bradley. It was the most boring Democratic primary race on record. Gore won every primary and caucus.
Joe Biden needs to catch some breaks. But if he wants to run for president in 2016 as badly as I think he does, I’d say he’s an undervalued bet right now. Especially if Hillary says no.