Suddenly everybody’s talking about Joe Biden.
That itself is a phenomenon. The nation’s first vice president, John Adams, described the job in a letter to his wife as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” and indeed he did little in it. Its later occupants — and here the names Daniel D. Tompkins, Richard Mentor Johnson, Henry Wilson and Charles W. Fairbanks come to mind only if you’re playing a particularly difficult trivia contest — have faded into the mists of history, forgettable and forgotten.
But in recent years vice presidents have become important forces in American political life. As late as 1977, the vice presidency was a political backwater; titanic political figures such as former Senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson and former Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller swiftly grew bored and depressed in the office. But all that changed when Sen. Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota negotiated an important role for the vice presidency as the price of joining former Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia on the 1976 Democratic ticket, and strong vice presidents such as Albert Gore Jr. and Richard B. Cheney further changed the profile of the office.
And, in a major departure from American history, vice presidents recently have become formidable presidential candidates. Richard Nixon and Mr. Gore were in breathtakingly close presidential elections only to lose in disputed circumstances. George H.W. Bush ascended directly to the presidency. Mr. Mondale and Hubert H. Humphrey won tough battles for the Democratic presidential nomination but lost in the general election. The vice presidency has become a potent staging ground for a presidential campaign.
Which is why Mr. Biden now is in the news again — not for what he has done but for what he might do.
Today nobody has an inkling whether Mr. Biden will seek to ascend the greasy pole to the presidency. He is in deep mourning for his son, Beau Biden, who died at 46 in May, though the younger Mr. Biden (and his brother, Hunter) are thought to have hoped for a third Biden presidential candidacy. The first two, in 1988 and 2008, went nowhere, though Mr. Biden’s elder-statesman wisdom and generous spirit positioned him to become Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008.
Makeshift draft-Biden efforts have launched in the early political states of Iowa and New Hampshire, but they do not have the heft of either the Ready for Hillary or the Run Warren Run organizations that were created for former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who now is running for president, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who apparently is not. They pale in comparison, moreover, with the Draft Eisenhower effort of 1951 and 1952, when the former supreme commander of Allied forces hadn’t even made clear whether he was a Republican or a Democrat.
The question for 2016 is whether either the vice presidency or Mr. Biden himself have the advantages Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore possessed when they sought to go directly from the office to the White House. Mr. Bush is the only person after Martin Van Buren to make that leap since 1837. Mr. Nixon, a two-term vice president under Gen. Eisenhower, failed to do so in 1960, though he prevailed eight years later, defeating another vice president, Mr. Humphrey.
None of the vice presidents who won presidential nominations began the race as far behind as Mr. Biden, nor did any face an established, perhaps even historic, rival with the profile of Ms. Clinton, wife of a onetime president, secretary of state to another and a U.S. senator. Mr. Biden is in single digits in the latest Iowa and New Hampshire polls, and Ms. Clinton holds a lead of nearly five-to-one over Mr. Biden in the Real Clear Politics survey.
Until recent times, the presidential prospects of a vice president such as Mr. Biden would be considered remote. Though 13 vice presidents have become presidents, all but four of them ascended through the death or resignation of an incumbent. John Adams (1796) and Thomas Jefferson (1800) pulled that off when the political system bore almost no resemblance to contemporary American politics.
Only in the 20th century, and only sporadically at that, has the vice presidency been regarded as a stepping stone. Three wealthy men of small accomplishment but large ambition sought the position with an eye on the presidency in the first half of the century. Two of them (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, successful 1920 Democratic nominee, and John F. Kennedy, unsuccessful 1956 Democratic contender) calculated the vice presidency would enhance their resumes. The third, Theodore Roosevelt, became president on the death of William McKinley in 1901.
Like Mr. Cheney before him, Mr. Biden’s appeal for the vice presidency was based in large measure on the belief he would not seek the White House on his own. But Mr. Cheney, while an important vice president, did not have a history of seeking the presidency while Mr. Biden has been preoccupied with the notion for decades. Though his 1988 campaign ended amid charges he plagiarized part of his stump speech from the British Labor leader Nick Kinnock, it is largely forgotten today that Mr. Biden was regarded as a very strong contender and the one with perhaps the best-developed strategy for winning the White House.
That strategy — a Baby Boomer appeal by a man who wasn’t part of that generation but nonetheless recognized the power of 75 million voters born between 1946 and 1964 — would have no resonance today. His attraction in 2016 would be as the tested man of experience, the onetime young-man-in-a-hurry who now possesses the seasoning, patience and perspective to guide the United States to the end of the second decade of the new century.
Ms. Clinton already has broken with the administration on the Pacific trade pact and will be under pressure to identify other areas in which she differs. Mr. Biden would face the same pressure but would have less incentive or inclination to identify differences with his patron.
But in two respects a Biden candidacy would help Ms. Clinton. He is five years older than she, thus removing the age issue. And he is still a member of the administration, thus removing the notion that Ms. Clinton is the candidate of a third Obama term.