Joe Biden Can't Campaign on Tragedy

The vice president seems to be building his bid on emotion, not substance—and that’s unlikely to carry him very far.

Andrew Harnik / AP

If Joe Biden wants to run for president, fine. But not this way.

On Wednesday, the group Draft Biden released an ad that supposedly explained why Americans need him as president. It’s mostly about the death of Biden’s wife and daughter in 1972, and the way he found “redemption” through his surviving sons—one of whom, Beau, died of brain cancer this May. The ad closes with Biden saying some extremely vague things about Americans being “on the cusp of some of the most astonishing breakthroughs in the history of mankind,” and their responsibility to “translate those unprecedented capabilities into a greater measure of happiness and meaning.”

David Axelrod called the ad “tasteless” and “exploitative.” It was also vacuous. That same day, Politico reported that Biden himself had leaked to Maureen Dowd the story that his dying son Beau urged him to run.

Biden’s office vociferously denies the Politico report. And there’s no evidence the vice president or his aides helped craft the ad. But if Biden isn’t trying to build a presidential campaign around his family tragedies, he’s sure given a lot of people that impression. It’s not just the Draft Biden folks and Maureen Dowd. Last month another Times columnist, David Brooks, wrote that Beau Biden’s death gives Biden “a formation story … a story line that begins outside of politics with some experience or life-defining crucible moment.” For Biden, it is “a story of dual loss … Out of that loss comes a great empathy, a connection to those who are suffering in this economy and this world. Out of that loss comes a hypercharged sense of mission.”

Mission to do what? For two months now, Biden’s supporters have been stoking speculation that he may run for president. There’s been a great deal written about his personal struggles and the empathy they’ve instilled in him. But almost nothing about what he’d actually do as president. It’s as if the people around Biden have looked at Hillary Clinton, who the press depicts as calculating and reserved, and decided that the vice president will out-emote her.

Lurking behind all this is the awkward question of what Biden believes that distinguishes him from both Hillary and her main rival, Bernie Sanders. In a Democratic Party that has moved left, Sanders is finding success by running as the one candidate who can restore economic fairness because he isn’t bought by the ultra-rich. Hillary is struggling because her progressivism seems less authentic. Liberals remember that she was once hawkish, pro-financial deregulation, and tough on crime.

So was Biden. If Hillary supported the 1994 crime bill that Black Lives Matter despises, Biden authored it. He also backed the Iraq War and the Patriot Act and the Defense of Marriage Act and opposed federal funding for abortions. Anita Hill has criticized him for the way he ran the Senate hearings in which she testified against Clarence Thomas. Elizabeth Warren has criticized him for supporting legislation that made it harder for people to declare bankruptcy. (Biden was, after all, a senator from Delaware).

Except on foreign policy, where Biden has been more dovish than Clinton during the Obama years, he shares all her ideological problems, only more so. If he runs to her left, he, too, will have an authenticity problem. If he defends his old centrist views, he’ll be savaged by a liberal press that considers “New Democrat” a dirty word.

Maybe Biden has a bold, creative way out of this conundrum. But I fear that because he does not, his strategists are trying to substitute pathos for ideology. The longer this strategy continues, the more it will diminish him. And it won’t work. If Americans were in the mood for candidates who opened up about their personal lives, they wouldn’t be embracing Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

For five months, Hillary has been running against a socialist. Yet she still hasn’t effectively explained why she isn’t one. If Biden has a good answer to that question, he should run. If he doesn’t, his supporters should stop wasting our time.