Holy calamine lotion! Joe Biden has had an itch for more than 30 years. Last Thursday morning, he started scratching it again.
Since at least 1987 — almost certainly even longer — Mr. Biden has nursed dreams of the presidency. He ran for the office twice, both runs ending in profound disappointment, even in embarrassment. He left the races tarred as a plagiarist, as a blowhard, with the capital establishment — then at the height of its powers and prerogatives — dismissing him as a pleasant lightweight, fun to engage in, but a little wearying in large doses.
But Mr. Biden, famously rooted in hardscrabble Scranton, had another side along with the new-age profile that decades ago so beguiled so many Washington Democrats, who had thought he could be another Bobby Kennedy — this was the devout conviction of capital insiders with RFK etched on their sleeves, and in their hearts — only to discover that the passion went poof! once the scrutiny went deep. On paper — and in pollster Patrick J. Caddell’s surveys — he was the perfect candidate, even though his Delaware base possesses only three electoral votes. On the stump he didn’t measure up to the numbers, nor to the passions.
Then Mr. Biden, presumably purged of his White House reveries, retrenched. Within a fortnight of his withdrawal from the 1988 race, Mr. Biden emerged as a leading figure in the fight against Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and, four years later, against George H.W. Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas to the high court. His critiques of the two nominees won him new respect on the left, boosting his self-confidence and his profile.
Joe Biden was in again, maybe not the “It Man” of the mid-1980s but suddenly a thoughtful veteran lawmaker. He was liked, as always, by all, but now respected by many. This pleased him, to be sure, but it also liberated him, and of course it elevated him. By the time he sought the White House again, in 2008, it was as an elder statesman. He probably thought his role was to win. Everyone else thought his role was to shake and shape the party, much as a predecessor presidential contender, George S. McGovern, did when he reprised his doomed 1972 candidacy in 1984. No one took his candidacy seriously. No one ignored his wisdom.
So even though Mr. Biden was a little like an old shoe, comfortable but worn, Barack Obama chose him as his 2008 running mate. The two men got along, and there was a whiff of the father figure to old Joe, then at 65 eligible for Medicare but like El Cid strapped to the Obama horse and sent into battle again. It helped that his foil was Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, whose only principal attribute was her ability to field-dress a moose, a skill of little value in the single vice-presidential debate or in the tortured final weeks of her vice-presidential campaign.
Mr. Biden was a modern vice president, much in the mold established by Nelson A. Rockefeller, elevated by Walter F. Mondale, polished by Albert Gore Jr. and turbocharged by Richard B. Cheney. He was everywhere, popular and — a skill much needed in 2016 but neglected as an attribute by Democrats choosing their nominee — populist. He was of the people, and the people were enamored of him.
Now he is stoking those White House dreams again, perhaps not yet to a white-hot passion but surely the embers are glistening.
A week ago he said “I never thought [Hillary Rodham Clinton] was a great candidate. I thought I was a great candidate.” Thursday he formed a political action committee, American Possibilities, clearly designed to suggest that a third presidential campaign was a possibility.
Not that he has been subtle about his hopes if not his actual plans. Early last month he turned up at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum for the annual black-tie dinner and was not disappointed that a huge crowd assembled in a raucous line to have a picture taken with the once and maybe future candidate. Last week, at Cornell, he told graduates that “build[ing] a wall” or “keeping Muslims out” was no formula for national greatness. No one in the audience had to guess what he was talking about.
Then this, Thursday morning: “It’s time to reach deep into the soul of this country and once again give everyone — and I mean everyone — the opportunity to achieve the impossible. It’s time to look beyond 24-hour news cycles and 140-character arguments. It’s time to treat each other with dignity and respect. Not as opponents, but as fellow Americans. Because that’s what we are.”
This is the duck of 2017, walking and quacking like a presidential campaign speech. In fact it resembles Richard Nixon’s 1968 Republican National Convention acceptance speech.
So what are we to make of Mr. Biden, who would be 21 years short of 100 on Inauguration Day 2021?
First, that he must be one energetic guy; only about one in seven Americans his age (74) are working now. Also that he is fired with passion; this man may be out, but he is not down. Plus this: Donald J. Trump is almost certainly going to add years to Mr. Biden’s life.
And one more thing: Who else do the Democrats have?
Sure, there’s a list out there that includes a bunch of names but they’re a lot like the Argentine generals Eva Peron ridiculed in the Andrew Lloyd Webber production of “Evita”: “Most of your generals wouldn’t be recognized by their own mothers!”
Someone should tell Mr. Biden that the black flies, those scourges of spring, are just out in New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary of 2020. Mr. Biden was in the state, speaking to a Democratic dinner in Manchester only five weeks ago, but he might contemplate a swift return.
The University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension reports that the state is home to 40 varieties of black flies, which should please him. Though the Walgreens at 258 Wallace Rd. in Bedford, N.H., has Cortizone 10 Maximum Strength Hydrocortisone Anti-Itch Cream on the shelves at $9.49, with no sales tax, that may not matter to the former vice president. Maybe he just wants to scratch that itch.