Here’s a political question for us all: Was the death of Beau Biden in May 2015 the most consequential event of the 2016 election?
Prior to being diagnosed with the brain cancer that would ultimately kill him, Beau Biden was a rising talent in the Democratic Party, serving as Delaware’s attorney general and generally assumed to be destined for higher office of one sort or another.
He was also the son of Joe Biden, then the sitting vice president and presumptive leading contender for the Oval Office in 2016. By all accounts, the elder Biden was fully intent on a third run for president—following failed attempts in 1988 and 2008—and it was entirely due to the timing of his son’s illness and death that he decided to take a pass and effectively cede the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton. And we know how well that went.
It’s the great political “What if?” of our time: Would the 2016 election have ended differently had Joe Biden been in the mix?
With regards to the Democratic primaries, God only knows. Maybe Hillary would’ve cleaned Biden’s clock—as both she and Barack Obama did in 2008. Maybe he would’ve self-imploded through some embarrassing self-own, as he did in 1988 when it was found that he had plagiarized several of his campaign speeches. Maybe he and Hillary would’ve fought to a protracted, bitter stalemate, allowing a third, outsider candidate (*cough* Bernie *cough*) to sneak past both of them.
But if Biden had somehow bested all his Democratic counterparts and emerged as the party’s nominee, could he have defeated Trump on November 8?
Answer: Obviously yes.
Of course Biden could’ve defeated Trump in 2016. Of course he could’ve flipped 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—i.e., the three states that wound up swinging the whole damn election. Of course he could’ve appealed to a not-insignificant chunk of white, semi-deplorable working-class folk who otherwise find Democrats acutely irritating and Hillary positively intolerable.
Yes, in an alternate universe, Joe Biden could’ve been sworn in as the 45th president on January 20, 2017.
I say “could’ve,” not “would’ve,” since any counterfactual involves an infinite number of variables we can’t even begin to imagine. What’s more, given the historically low occurrence of one political party winning three presidential elections in a row, it’s hardly inconceivable that Trump could’ve defeated any number of Democratic opponents in that strange moment of populist rage—not least the one most closely associated with the outgoing administration.
That said, hindsight strongly suggests Biden would’ve navigated the 2016 campaign more adroitly than Clinton did—if only from a lack of questionable e-mails or a sexual predator spouse—and may well have made the biggest mistake of his life in choosing not to take the plunge when he had the chance.
The relevant follow-up, then, is whether Biden’s apparently imminent entry into the 2020 primaries—for real this time!—will follow through on the untested promise of 2016 and serve as the de facto Obama restoration half the country has craved for the last two-plus years. Or, instead, whether Biden’s moment really has come and gone, and the best he could do would be to sail off into retirement as a beloved (albeit slightly pervy) elder statesman.
In other words: Having become as respected and endearing as almost any public figure in America today, why would Biden risk becoming a loser and a laughingstock yet again for the sake of one last roll in the hay?
The short answer is that Biden just really, really wants to be president. Always has, apparently always will. How badly, you ask? Well, badly enough to address multiple recent allegations of unwanted physical contact by insisting that he regrets none of it and isn’t sorry about a damn thing.
And what about it? On the subject of #MeToo-era sensitivity about men behaving predatorily, let’s not kid ourselves: In a society where “Grab ‘em by the pussy” yielded support of 53 percent of white women, who’s to say “I enjoy smelling women’s hair but I’m also pro-choice” isn’t a winning route to 270 electoral votes?
The only certainty about the 2020 election is that no one has any idea how it will shake out—particularly those who claim they do. Biden could defeat Trump in the sense that anyone could defeat Trump, although the converse is equally true. Is he the most “electable” of all the Democrats in the field? With 301 days until the first primary votes are cast, how much are you willing to wager that the word “electable” holds any meaning whatsoever?
I’ll leave you with this possibly-interesting piece of trivia: The last non-incumbent former vice president to be elected commander-in-chief in his own right was Richard Nixon in 1968. Care to guess how many times it happened before that?