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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Comprehensive Case for Biden

Rumor has it that Vice President Joe Biden is strongly considering, and actually actively leaning towards, running for President – for a third time – in 2016. If Biden’s 1988 and 2008 presidential campaigns are any indicator, his third bid is likely doomed too.

Professional political prognosticators say as much. There are a number of reasons though why this campaign may be different – or, at least, less likely to flounder than his previous presidential bids. These political reasons, as well as vital policy issues that make Biden a wise choice for president, are compelling enough that the Vice President should run.

First, the trappings, imagery, and aura of the vice presidency provide Biden with certain distinct advantages. Chief among these is the possibility that his boss, President Obama – extremely popular with Democratic primary voters – could very well endorse him. Even if Obama does not make such a move though, it is safe to assume that many Democratic voters might naturally surmise that Biden has Obama’s support.

He is, after all, Obama’s loyal vice-president: frequently by his side in public appearances, a vociferous defender of the administration’s policies, and publicly and privately very close with Obama. One thing’s for sure: Democratic voters will clearly associate Biden with Obama, endorsement or none, especially now that CNN is reporting Obama giving Biden his “blessing” to run. The Obama connection especially helps Biden with the core members of the President’s winning coalitions: African-Americans, Latinos, LGBT voters, and young Americans.

As for the other aforementioned groups, Biden has appeals to them that are key too: he can capitalize on his early endorsement of same-sex marriage, his longstanding support for immigration reform, and his decades-long backing of student loan reform and financial aid for students to win over gays, Hispanics, and young voters, respectively.

Further, Biden has other strong political attributes to offer. He is a gifted, natural campaigner, as evidenced by his performance on the stump as Barack Obama’s running mate in the 2008 and 2012 elections. Biden was, arguably, a large net asset to Obama’s campaigns, particularly in its effort to increase support among Jewish voters, working-class whites, and voters concerned about Obama’s lack of experience.

In both of his elections, in the Scranton, Pennsylvania region, where Biden is originally from, Obama’s margin of victory was so large that it was his second best performance in the state, after Philadelphia. In 2012, Obama’s margin of victory in Lackawanna County was actually larger than it was in 2008.

Beyond that though, Biden is a talented debater, as evidenced by his 2007 Democratic debate performances, and his wins against Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan in 2008 and 2012, respectively. What is also true is that his 2012 Democratic National Convention speech was the most watched speech of a convention widely considered a strong success for the party. His political appeal is also seen in his currently high favorable ratings, his high honesty and trustworthy ratings, and in his above-water job approval rating.

In a potential White House run, he would need to win South Carolina, where he has the strong backing of the former state party chair and a network of political supporters in the Democratic Party apparatus. He would also need to win Pennsylvania, if he wants to indicate he is a serious candidate, given his roots.

Biden would also need to do extremely well, or win (preferably), key states like Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, and Michigan – primaries where, for reasons ranging from his appeal among both minorities and working-class white Democrats to his close affiliation with Obama’s policies, he ideally should have strength. It should be noted though that even if Biden falls short, it is important for hime to run for the party's sake.

Here's why: if the Vice President runs, it is still likely that he loses to Hillary Clinton for the nomination. If so, if you're a Democrat, this should make you pleased for one key reason: competitive primaries like such a race -- as political science professors rightly contend -- are healthy for a party and actually help the party's eventual nominee in the general election. Consider how Clinton's staying in the race in 2008 even after Barack Obama was the clear, leading frontrunner in the Democratic nomination race actually helped Obama in the end.

Obama was forced to compete in various states which also ended up being general election swing states so he had operations set up there well before the fall campaign. He thus had an advantage, in a sense, over John McCain in these states. He also became a better, tougher, and more prepared candidate against McCain thanks to Clinton's campaigning against him. As Vox recently argued, as did First Read on NBC News, Biden can have a similar effect on Clinton. His entry into the race would also arguably make Democratic voters more enthusiastic, energetic, and excited about the primary and about the election generally. Again, that's good for the party in the general election.

It would be a tough, uphill battle to actually win for Biden but there is potential for him to break through in the primary contest if he were to earn more endorsements, especially from the President of the United States. Even outside of his home state of Delaware (where the major elected officials are signaling support for Biden), there are signs of possible supporters emerging from the party.

These include former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, Massachusetts Rep. and Iraq war veteran Seth Moulton, California governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, and even New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. Per the historic political science book The Party Decides, endorsements of party figures are key cues for primary voters so Biden would need to rack up as many as he can get but there is potential. Fundraising is vital too but signs are emerging that Biden is courting key big-money Obama campaign donors who would be instrumental to his bid.

As a general election candidate, Biden is running strongly in public opinion polling against the top-tier GOP candidates: Donald Trump, Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush. He would likely be assured of victory in Pennsylvania, is leading Walker in his own home state of Wisconsin, and is popular with black voters in purple states with heavy African-American populations like Virginia. He could win and he would be buoyed by a strong convention most likely given that it is occurring in Philadelphia, the backyard of his Wilmington residence and the largest city in his native state.

Biden would also be the ultimate clarifying candidate as he has said time and time again, publicly and privately, that he would run essentially as Obama’s third term. He ran the Recovery Act and his stewardship of the economic stimulus program would certainly be front and center in his campaign to convince Americans to stay the course: a winning strategy, as any political scientist would tell you, during an economic recovery.

On governance and policy grounds, Biden is the strongest choice. Having seen the job of the presidency up close for seven years, and having served in the Senate for 36 years, Joe Biden is clearly extremely qualified to be president. His strong network of relationships on Capitol Hill, which served him well in his role as Obama’s chief negotiator for various budget deals and legislative priorities, would mean the potential for legislative progress.

Biden has also long been progressive on key issues that are of particular salience in the contemporary political atmosphere: Iran policy, gun safety laws, public transportation and infrastructure, sexual assault and rape, judicial philosophy, nuclear nonproliferation, humanitarian global leadership, campaign finance reform, and immigration.

In fact, on some of these issues, Biden was a leader. He wrote the 1994 gun control laws, crafted the Violence Against Women Act, introduced the first bill to allow public financing of presidential campaigns, was the most high-profile congressional backer of action in Kosovo, vehemently defended relief for undocumented immigrants and nuclear arms reductions in the Reagan era, and, 13 years before the Iran deal was struck, articulated his desire for a more constructive, engagement-focused relationship with Iran.

Most notably, as Biden would likely emphasize in the primary debates against Hillary Clinton, the vice president was often the voice of dovishness and restraint in the Obama White House’s foreign policy discussions. He famously was far less hawkish than Clinton on issues like the Afghanistan surge and action in Libya. Arguably, a perspective like that is vital in the White House, where the penchant for military action on any given foreign policy issue is real.

Obviously, Biden is imperfect. Politically, his appeal in the primary may be hamstrung by the fact that he is a 72-year-old white man who, in some instances, clings to decades-old Democratic Party orthodoxy. In the general election, he may be hurt by his close association with Obama, if the President’s approval rating declines – a possibility, if the economy tanks next year.

On the campaign trail, he often engages in colorful, blunt language that, while appealing to some voters, can turn off large cohorts. His long history of gaffes is ample evidence of this problem. On policy issues too, Biden has demerits, including his proud championing of a repulsive 2005 bankruptcy reform law, his flawed handling of the Clarence Thomas hearings, his vote for the Iraq war, and, most notably, his stewardship of the 1994 crime law.

Lastly, Biden is likely to draw votes away from Clinton more so than Bernie Sanders – something that could risk throwing the nomination to Sanders. However, as is made clear by the above assessment, the positives clearly outweigh the negatives when it comes to a potential Biden campaign, general election candidacy, and presidency. Vice President Biden would be well-advised to run.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Jon Stewart's Legacy

For young Americans, there was a lot to despise about the George W. Bush era. There was the mismanagement of a natural disaster that wrecked a city we love, a misguided war that took many of our fellow young men and women, and an economy that nosedived at a time when we were slowly preparing to go to college, find work, and start our adult lives. Before the ascendance of Barack Obama as the literal, liberal embodiment of "change," arguably nobody in public life better channeled the frustrations of young voters more than Jon Stewart.

Every night on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the lovable, no-holds-barred host would unleash on Bush's dim-witted persona and his slew of controversial policies in a clever and bombastic fashion that resonated with millions. My friend Aidan Hussin once aptly described Stewart's signature style as one which basically boiled down to, "saying what everybody else is thinking."

That is precisely the  sort of comedy Stewart reveled in: unpacking the absurdities of politics, especially when it was hypocritical or, at worst, outright harmful for society. It worked and it came across as sincere because it was lastingly effective and driven by Stewart's own genuine passion, all at once. His impact on the political process should not be understated.

For instance, according to an early 2007 Pew Research Center study, conducted at the nadir of the Bush presidency, Stewart was chosen as the favorite "journalist" of Americans under the age of 30. A year later, this same cohort of Americans helped propel Obama, who ran as the anti-Bush and appealed explicitly to this group, to the Democratic nomination and the presidency.

This is not to say or even suggest that one of the central reasons for President Obama's election is Jon Stewart's performance on Comedy Central. Instead, it is to say that Stewart achieved far more than any television or political experts could have guessed when he made his debut in 1999. He played a role, even if a very small one, in facilitating political change through the power of comedy and laughter and that's no small feat.

Jon Stewart actually can lay claim to several vital legacies beyond this specific aspect of his career. There was his successful 2010 effort to pressure the Senate to pass the 9/11 health workers legislation, his famous Crosssfire 2004 appearance that led to the show's cancelation, and his cultivation of an alumni of show correspondents who went on to comedy fame (Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, John Oliver, etc.)

However, none is as broadly impactful as his influence on young Americans' political mobilization and energy. On a personal note, I can vividly remember racing home after middle school to watch the previous night's Daily Show on my DVR because I so wanted to hear how he articulated the simmering frustrations about President Bush.

He will be dearly missed by many Americans but he will be missed especially by those of us who grew up watching his show in the Bush years, frustrated by politics but relieved to see there was a venue in which our angst was understood and synthesized so well.