In a rousing and moving speech in the White House Rose Garden Wednesday morning, Vice President Joe Biden announced that he would not be seeking the Democratic nomination for the presidency, ending months of speculation (and "Draft Biden" emails in my inbox). It wasn't much of a surprise to me, to be honest, even though it would have been really interesting to have him in the ring. What really strikes me about his decision, though, was that it wasn't just the right choice for him, but also the right choice for the party. In his 40 years in politics, Biden has worked incredibly hard to do the right thing. And that makes him the epitome of what the Democratic Party strives to be, but so rarely actually attains.
We know that the presidency has been Biden's dream for a long time. After all, he sought the Democratic nomination in 1988, and again in 2008. And we also know that he's had a really terrible life in many ways. He lost his infant daughter and first wife in a car crash, and he just recently lost his son. And he's watched much of his party basically throw all their weight behind Clinton without even a glance back at him, as though they deemed him totally unelectable and wanted to focus on their actual shot at the presidency. The simultaneous blows to his family and his pride must have been awful, and it's telling that he remarked on several occasions that Beau wanted him to run for president. Deciding to turn away from the nomination was a decision that must have been personally very difficult.
Choosing not to run doesn't reflect a loss of will, though. It also appears to reflect a desire to hold the party accountable, and to stimulate better campaigns coming into the primaries without being divisive, which is a rare act of political sacrifice. Biden clearly wants the Democrats to win, even if he's not the Democrat who does the winning: "This party, our nation, will be making a tragic mistake if we walk away or attempt to undo the Obama legacy." A part of him seems to believe that one of the best ways to accomplish that goal is to stand as an outsider in the scrum for the nomination.
At times, his statement actually read more like a campaign speech than one announcing the opposite:
"I know that you in the press love to call me 'Middle-Class Joe,' and I know in Washington that’s not really meant a compliment; it means you’re not that sophisticated, but it is about the middle class. It isn’t just a matter of fairness or economic growth, it’s a matter of social stability for this nation. We cannot sustain the current levels of inequality that exist in this country."
His dig at his stereotyping in the media and on the Hill preceded a discussion about basic civil rights issues and social problems in the United States, as he called for better education system, a crackdown on campaign finance, changes to the tax code, revisions to military policy, immigration reform, LGBQT equality, and more.
Biden's clearly split with Clinton on a number of issues ... And he's not willing to hand her the nomination on a silver platter, no matter what the party may want.
All of that language sounded like a fiery speech from someone launching a campaign, not someone announcing that he was ceding the stage, which was striking. Biden showed listeners what his campaign would have looked like in the process of telling them that there would be no campaign. He showed people, in other words, what a Democratic campaign should look like.
And he also made it clear that his announcement didn't mean he was supporting any given candidate. (Though Sanders seemed to appreciate the name-checking of working-class issues.) That's also striking, as high-profile prospective candidates often indicate that they're endorsing an existing candidate when they leave the field. Biden's clearly split with Clinton on a number of issues, notes Alan Rappeport at The New York Times. And he's not willing to hand her the nomination on a silver platter, no matter what the party may want.
Biden wants the Democrats to run clean campaigns, and to focus on creating a political future that builds on the Obama legacy. The speech included some sharp commentary on divisive partisan politics. But it wasn't all digs at Republican obstructionism, as he had some choice words for balking Democrats as well: "I don’t believe, like some do, that it’s naïve to talk to Republicans. I don’t think we should look at Republicans as our enemies."
This was a speech that was as much about nailing Democrats to the wall, and what Biden hopes to accomplish in the remaining months of the Obama Administration, as it was about the election and the future of the party. And it stood out among concession speeches as a call to action.
Biden just gave up a personal dream for what he very clearly believes is the good of the party. He wants the Democrats to succeed, rather than fail. As a member of a party that positions itself as focused on the public good rather than acts of pure selfishness, Joe Biden just showed the country how it's done.