Joe Biden is an authentic politician.
But let’s leave that aside for a minute, because this conversation we’ve been having lately — about authenticity, who has it and who doesn’t, and the intangibles a politician may or may not possess — can obscure, for instance, the realities of a presidential bid.
Biden has run twice; neither campaign went particularly well. He will turn 73 this year; Ronald Reagan was first sworn into office at age 69. The last three late entrants to a presidential primary — Rick Perry (2011), Fred Thompson (2007), Wesley Clark (2003) — bombed.
Each of those races accelerated the financial and organizational demands, as well as the scrutiny, of a presidential campaign, and now here we are.
Biden would enter the race against Bernie Sanders, who has proven to be an incredible small-donor fundraiser ($1 million in one recent day), and Hillary Clinton, whose campaign has already far surpassed $60 million combined between her campaign and super PAC. There is a finite amount of Democratic political money, and Biden has never been an expert fundraiser. One person estimated to the Washington Post that he would need to raise $30 million in campaign contributions to run in the first four states of the primary, and for a companion super PAC to raise three times that sum. During the 2008 presidential cycle, he raised $11.3 million.
He would need to staff a campaign, as well, in at least some collection of early states. Last month, Biden’s would-be advisers indicated he would eschew Iowa and New Hampshire — states in which Clinton has poured staggering human and financial resources, and where Sanders enjoys natural support among the predominately white and either union-friendly or college-educated liberal electorates — for the state of South Carolina.
But his targeted coalition, per these same advisers, would be comprised of “Reagan Democrats, Jews, an LGBT base (…) and Rust Belt voters.”
That’s not actually a huge group of people in 2015 (a constant source of debate: Should Democrats worry that they’re losing, perhaps forever, the white working class?). More relevantly, though, about half of the voters in South Carolina’s last two contested Democratic primaries were black. That’s not necessarily a challenge for Biden, who is viewed favorably by black voters, but it’s also not a part of the strategy floated with less than five months before the primary begins.
There is the question of message, too. Biden seems likely to argue he would extend Barack Obama’s legacy, a role Clinton also implicitly seeks to fill. And Obama, the only one who can really arbitrate that dispute, seems unlikely to do so in public, in addition to reportedly preferring Clinton as his successor. She, meanwhile, has worked this year to systematically reverse or shift centrist positions she and Bill Clinton championed in the 1990s and 2000s. But Biden largely shares Clinton’s policy profile. They are both longtime establishment Democrats. He wrote the 1994 crime bill. He voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement. He’s taken credit for writing an early version of the Patriot Act. He too opposed driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants in 2007.
The difference between them, then, is the essential quality of Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton as public figures, their diametrically opposed sources of strength and weakness: his openness and her control.
And now let’s consider this virtue that Biden possesses, authenticity, and the way it often works in politics.
Eventually, if a candidate does well enough — the authentic candidate — things begin to shift a little, and the goodwill that propels this person fades and frays and twists, until this quality that we demanded becomes something else.
There is an off-color joke, maybe a line that doesn’t go quite right — Joe Biden Said X And The Response On Twitter Was — then two, then three, because presidential campaigns play out over the course of many months — “spontaneous” becomes “unpredictable” — "moments of candor" become "gaffes" — "the 'Uncle Joe' persona" reappears — Does Joe Biden Have An X Problem? — “donors privately worry” — “senior advisers acknowledge” — I’m Sorry, But It’s 2015, And I Don’t Think We Should Have A President Who — and on and on until, at least for some period of time, “authenticity” is no longer the virtue, but the cudgel.
“I don't understand why everyone's so mad at me,” Biden tells someone in the pages Double Down, after he said — inconveniently for the campaign — that he supported same-sex marriage.
Campaigns don’t always handle authenticity so well, and neither do the media nor Twitter, in avenues that go beyond politics, and in ways that have always existed, but are probably accelerated by the current intensity of the news landscape. Sometimes the candidate (or the athlete or the actress) becomes a little too authentic. The issue isn’t that this person is fake; it’s that this person has said the incorrect thing at the incorrect time. These conditions benefit a certain kind of person: someone who is controlled, but feels authentic.
Biden isn’t that. He is someone who speaks about loss in a precise and striking way; he is also someone who tells the president something’s a big fucking deal. National politics offer a risky proposition: Your personality can sometimes be flattened by the process (Mitt Romney), or by a moment (Rick Perry), into a narrow set of traits. But who can know beforehand whether that will happen or in which direction?
All of this isn't to say Biden couldn't win (he could), or emerge dignified and eloquent (he can) — just that presidential campaigns are long (132 days until Iowa) and entail difficult realities, including this Socratic method approach to personality. There would, for Biden, be the very real challenges of money, organization, and message — and the danger that what we actually want is something that only looks like authenticity.