Politics abhors a vacuum, and Joe Biden has left one for months. So it’s getting filled without him—and not in a way that is likely to help if he decides to run for president.
Biden has teased and toyed with the idea, in public and in private. He’s talked about how close he is to getting in by percentages, slowly ratcheting it up. A few aides have gone further, saying he’s as certain as 95 percent, calling up donors and trying to nudge them into early commitments and spots on what would be his finance committee.
But still, nothing. He says his family wants him to run. Some close supporters have been told in recent weeks that, after his aides had telegraphed that he’d wait until the first week or two of April to announce a decision so that he could slip just past the March 31 first-quarter fundraising deadline, now he might wait until after Easter. That’s April 21. Three more weeks. At least.
So, observers ask: Is there some scandal that he’s afraid will pop? Is he afraid to lose? Does he not really have the fire in the belly to do it? Is he demonstrating how his age and mentality might not be the right fit for either a presidential campaign or the presidency? All those questions are going around. One prominent elected official told me about simultaneously assuming that Biden’s about to make the leap based on the public reporting and still feeling completely confused by the apparent delays.
People who assume they’d work on a Biden campaign have been stuck wondering whether they will in fact be offered jobs, what those jobs might be, when they’d be expected to start, and how much they’d be paid, not knowing when or whether they’re going to have to uproot their lives.
It’s obvious now that the work they’re not doing is taking a toll.
Friday afternoon, New York magazine published a bombshell: a first-person account from Lucy Flores, who said that at an event in 2014, when she was running for lieutenant governor of Nevada, she felt Biden “get closer to me from behind. He leaned further in and inhaled my hair. I was mortified … He proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of my head.”
Biden supporters were a mix of exasperated and expecting it. Biden has a long-established reputation for his touchy-feely ways. There are supercuts online of him at the ceremonial swearings-in of senators, rubbing shoulders, nuzzling, making comments to teenage girls about how they can’t date until they’re 30. Even if the behavior is not intended to be sexual, it can come off as creepy—especially in the context of the larger cultural shift under way in America—particularly to people who want it to come off creepy, and not, as one defender put it to me, as the actions of a man who is a “human golden retriever.”
That’s not an argument that the Biden campaign was making proactively, because there is no Biden campaign to make an argument proactively—even as everyone else in the race and every reporter covering the race treats him like it’s only a matter of time until everyone gets on the Amtrak to Delaware to see him declare.
The risks of Biden’s campaignlessness are evident in other ways, too. Friday morning, The New York Times ran a story pointing out Biden’s inconsistent record on abortion, and his public struggles earlier in his career to reconcile his Catholicism with being pro-choice. Biden, of course, hasn’t been talking much about his record on abortion rights because that would require campaigning, which he won’t do.
For all the hours he’s spent talking to allies about the polling data he has that shows a path for him right down the middle of the party and the country, Biden hasn’t spent the time doing the required diligence with many of the advocates and activists who want to hear from him. And that left the NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue matter-of-factly telling the Times about his being sufficiently pro-choice, “I can’t tell you if he’s there or not,” because she hasn’t heard from him about running, or where he stands. On Wednesday night, in a speech in New York, he said “I wish I could have done something” to help Anita Hill, and was immediately mocked by many who pointed out that he was at the time chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and had control of the hearings. For other stories about Biden’s record on the 1994 crime bill or his opposing school busing, the same general approach has applied. “Part of the issue here of only having an ongoing campaign-in-waiting is that there’s no infrastructure to adequately respond to a negative story. No political apparatus. No surrogates,” a sympathetic Democratic strategist told me on Saturday afternoon.
Here’s how an incident such as the Flores story might have played out, had there been a Biden campaign in place, in ways that are standard in presidential politics though rarely discussed publicly: Potentially even before the story ran but certainly as soon as it did, reporters covering the campaign closely would have heard from an aide, offering rebuttals and context. Maybe the aide would have pointed out that Flores was a prominent Bernie Sanders supporter in 2016, and a board member of his allied group Our Revolution until resigning last year, or that she spent Saturday morning in El Paso at the kickoff rally for Beto O’Rourke. Maybe the aide would have helped connect reporters with people who were also there that day at the Latino Victory Project event in Las Vegas, several of whom have been talking with one another since the story ran and questioning whether what Flores wrote could be true, because she was never alone with Biden, according to one of the people who’s been in the discussions.
(Flores knocked back both of these arguments when we texted on Saturday. “My piece does not say I was alone with him. It clearly says Eva [Longoria] was in front of me, Biden was behind me, as we were lined up and waiting to be called on stage. Of course no one says I was alone with him because I never was alone with him and I have never claimed to have been alone with him,” she said, adding, “I have also stated many times on the record that I am not supporting any candidate right now and I am listening and evaluating all the candidates just like everyone else. I’m allowed to go to a candidate rally.”)
Or maybe a Biden campaign would have fought the publication of the essay in the first place, arguing that it was obviously radioactive politically but impossible to fact-check. Or it might have pointed to pictures that exist online of Biden with his face in Longoria’s hair at that same event, and insisted that this was proof he is just a well-meaning nonstop nuzzler.
The response was a written statement after Flores’s piece ran. “Neither then, or in the years since, did he or his staff with him at the time have an inkling that Ms. Flores had been at any time uncomfortable, nor do they recall what she describes,” read the statement from the Biden spokesman Bill Russo. “But Vice President Biden believes that Ms. Flores has every right to share her own recollection and reflections, and that it is a change for better in our society that she has every opportunity to do so.”
Most importantly, if Biden were running already, he and his campaign would probably be on the campaign trail, talking about whatever they wanted to talk about, and taking up at least some of the attention and coverage for themselves. But Biden’s not in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina this weekend. He’s out of the public eye entirely, and all the stories are out there, generating secondary and tertiary stories of their own.
Meanwhile, Biden has left the political world confused about why he’s hesitating. It’s now been two full weeks since he appeared at the state Democratic Party dinner in Delaware and seemed to let slip that he’d made up his mind—“I have the most progressive record of anybody running,” he said, to a standing ovation in response to what seemed like an announcement. “I didn’t mean it—of anybody who would run.”
There’s a sense of inevitability among Biden supporters about the Flores allegations, and other criticisms of his long record—but there’s also a sense that none of it measures up to the seriousness of what is facing the country, or shakes their conviction that he’d be by far the strongest candidate against Trump. But the other Democratic campaigns aren’t waiting for him to make up his mind to start piling on. “I believe Lucy Flores,” Elizabeth Warren said when asked in Iowa on Friday night. “And Joe Biden needs to give an answer.”
“Democratic voters are tuned in whether he’s ready or not,” said an operative on one of those other campaigns. “Waiting in the wings means others get to define the first act of his campaign and he doesn’t have the operation to prepare or fight back.” Russo, the Biden spokesman, didn’t get back to me when I asked about the downsides of not having an operation in place to respond, or whether this really is going to stretch on past Easter.