While Hillary Clinton’s team of consultants is locked in a room somewhere trying to figure out how she can project authenticity, Joe Biden is out doing it.
The vice president’s interview on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” last week was compellingly human, as Biden talked of the tragic loss of his son Beau and his decision whether or not to make a late entry into the Democratic presidential race.
It’s rare for someone who has been at the pinnacle of our politics for decades to get a second look. But Biden’s latest family tragedy (he lost his first wife and a daughter to a car accident in the 1970s) means that the vice president is viewed through a prism of sympathy, as a grieving father rather than just another politician. And Hillary’s struggles, especially her woodenness, put an accent on Biden’s let-it-all-hang-out, true-to-his-self personality.
You can disagree with Biden, you can mock him, you can cringe at his miscues — but it is impossible not to like him. Hillary’s team can come up with the best, most elaborate plan for her latest makeover (it will emphasize spontaneity, The New York Times reports) and still not come close to matching the bizarre charm of Biden being Biden.
We are constantly assured by people around her that Hillary Clinton is “warm in private.” Biden is warm in public. His performance swearing in new senators earlier this year was a nonstop Bidenesque spectacle of selfies, folksy comments and general crazy-uncle antics, some of dubious appropriateness.
The public personas of Hillary and Biden are captured in the story of two parades. One of the enduring moments of the Hillary campaign so far is of reporters being corralled in a roped-off pen to keep them away from the candidate during a small July Fourth parade in New Hampshire — creating an instant metaphor of arrogance and control.
When Joe Biden showed up at a Pittsburgh Labor Day parade, he broke into a trot, eagerly bouncing from one side of the route to another, shaking hands, dispensing hugs and kissing babies. Low energy, in Donald Trump’s signature phrase, this was not. Biden was a joyous retail campaigner in his element.
Of course, there is a reason he has run for president twice before unsuccessfully. He blew up his 1988 presidential campaign by stealing the words of British labor leader Neil Kinnock to describe his own life, and kneecapped his 2008 campaign with an insulting description of Barack Obama right out of the gate. But in the age of Trump, gaffe-prone doesn’t look like quite the negative it used to be.
Biden is no Trump, but he lacks subtlety and has no filter. If these qualities hurt him in the past, they may serve him better when the public is sick of the typical sound-bite politics.
On paper, Biden is hardly a natural match for the populist, anti-establishment mood. He first got elected to the Senate in 1972, a year after Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was born. Biden was running on his experience during his first presidential bid, almost 30 years ago. His resume includes 17 years as chairman or ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and 12 as chairman or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This is a resume for a gold watch, not for a late-developing insurgent president campaign.
Yet Biden is a practiced and, unfortunately, fairly effective demagogue. He can denounce the rich with the best of them.
If he gets in, he will immediately be evaluated by a different standard. He’ll be an actual candidate rather than the intriguing potential new entry. He’ll be the old white guy trying to “stop history.” But he’ll also be a breath of fresh air in a Democratic race that was supposed to be the stultifying march to the nomination by one of the dullest politicians of our time.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.