Asking Joe Biden to not run for president is like asking teenagers to abstain from sex.
What else do you expect them to do?
Biden not only leads in most national Democratic primary polls, he tops Donald Trump in nearly all head-to-head matchups. Though numbers this far out have proven less predictive in recent elections, they’re likely more than enough encouragement for a guy who has been running for president since before Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born.
Still, the former vice president might want to pause to consider an excruciating prospect: He could end up as this cycle’s Jeb Bush.
Through the summer of 2015, the son of the 41st president and brother of the 43rd placed at the top or near the top of primary polls. His establishment support and historic super PAC haul were so impressive that he scared Mitt Romney out of politics, for a few months.
Then, as Trump rose, “low energy” Jeb! floundered so fast, so hard and so convincingly that he’s now better known as a human punch line than the once popular two-term governor of Florida. He ended up personifying everything the eventual GOP nominee pitted himself against: political dynasties, the Iraq War, speaking Spanish, complete sentences, monogamy, and detailed policy proposals the candidate actually read.
And Joe Biden may be even less suited for this political moment than Jeb was for his.
Read more commentary:
I hope Joe Biden runs for president. After Trump, we need a compassionate leader.
Campaign 2020: I really like Joe Biden, but he shouldn’t run for president
How billionaires like Schultz and Bloomberg can help America: Don’t run for president
Of course, Joe Biden is all of Mount Rushmore combined compared to Donald Trump.
The vast majority of Democrats, including me, would gleefully support him over Trump or Mike Pence. Yet it would be political malpractice, and voter delusion, to ignore the brutality of the undertow he’s about to encounter. And the people who are closest to him lack any incentive to be honest about what, in the worst-case scenario, this primary could do to his legacy.
Achilles heels in all the wrong places
Yes, the high points in Biden’s career tower over anyone who could be on the ballot in 2020. He wrote the Violence Against Women Act, he oversaw the implementation of the stimulus that prevented a depression, and he got out ahead of President Barack Obama to lead on same-sex marriage.
But Biden also has a nearly unparalleled collection of Achilles heels all strategically located at the hinges that hold the Democratic coalition together.
There’s his connection to Delaware’s financial sector. When Elizabeth Warren was fighting against changes to bankruptcy laws that “benefited credit card companies and hurt their customers,” she was fighting Joe Biden.
There’s race. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates recently said that Biden “has more than just criminal-justice baggage when it comes to race.” Biden not only played a key role in the 1994 crime bill that helped lead to mass incarceration of African-Americans, he also was one of many Democrats of the last century who tried to neutralize conservative attacks by moving to to the right of Republicans on issues like busing.
Kumbaya when we need to be ruthless
And there’s the treatment of Anita Hill, which takes on renewed significance in the #MeToo/Brett Kavanaugh era. Biden himself has said he owes an apology to Hill, who testified about workplace sexual misconduct at the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. But he still hasn’t answered for why he gave in to Senate Republicans’ demands to exclude three women as witnesses and allow Thomas to testify both before and after Hill.
At one time Biden’s support for the Iraq War would have been the most disturbing thing about him, but he seems to have learned from that and become far less hawkish. What’s most disturbing now is his politics.
He trumpets nostalgia for bipartisan kumbayas in a moment where the only civil thing to do is ruthlessly oppose a GOP that has enabled Trump to rack up untold corruption while doing a better job of tracking migrant girls’ menstrual cycles than the hundreds of children this administration has orphaned.
Biden knows that the guy who birthered his 2008 and 2012 running mate did not invent the GOP’s nosedive into political nihilism. Republicans refused to hold a hearing for Merrick Garland, Obama’s 2016 Supreme Court nominee, and blocked a bipartisan response to Russian attacks on the 2016 election while he was still vice president.
We will never go back to the way we were
Still, Biden recently called Pence “a decent guy.”
He walked back this comment a bit but then used it to take a swipe at his fellow Democrats. “I get criticized for saying anything nice about a Republican. Folks, that’s not who we are,” he said.
This urge to frame the party’s left as unreasonable may be perfect for a general election, especially in 1992. It’s all Howard Schultz’s third-party candidacy is about. But it may also be why Biden has fared poorly in two previous Democratic presidential primaries.
This is a candidate who by necessity has to argue that some good has come out of the way American politics has operated over the last 40 years, because he was instrumental in nearly all of it. But as the twin crises of climate change and inequality approach irreversible tipping points, and the vulnerabilities in our political system are being exploited by a wannabe authoritarian who may never be removed from office peacefully, what’s unreasonable is to expect, or even hope, that things will go back to the way they were.
Joe Biden represents normality. It’s a powerful lure. But I hope he understands that the 2020 presidential election will be anything but normal.
Jason Sattler, a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and host of “The GOTMFV Show” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @LOLGOP