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What If Joe Biden Had Run?

Middle class grit and ability to connect could have made him a formidable candidate

Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Wednesday. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Wednesday. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

When Vice President Joe Biden spoke to the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night, he delivered an explosive indictment of Donald Trump and a passionate endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president.  

“Everybody knows she’s smart and everybody knows she’s tough,” he said. “But I know what Hillary is passionate about.”  

He spoke of Clinton’s commitment to helping working parents and struggling families and described a woman prepared for the presidency and poised to make history.  

“There is only one person in this race who will be there for you. And that is Hillary Clinton,” Biden said. “She’s always been there.”  

Biden also ripped Trump as a man dangerously unqualified for the White House and he took strong exception to Trump’s mantra that America needs to be great again.  

“Americans have never, never, never, never let their country down,” Biden said to a roaring crowd. “We are America, second to none, and we own the finish line.”  

As Biden went on and the crowd chanted his name, it was impossible not to wonder what if, what might have happened had tragedy not stuck Biden’s family again last year when his oldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer at just 46 years old.  


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Beau’s illness and untimely death came in the midst of a time when Biden would ordinarily have been considering, and then planning, a third and final run for the White House. Biden was known to have wanted one last shot at the White House and many Democrats, even those who eventually supported Clinton, thought Biden’s middle class grit and ability to connect with voters would make him the party’s best shot to win again in 2016.  

Several months after Beau’s death, even as the presidential campaign was taking shape and moving forward, it was clear at a speech to a synagogue in Atlanta that Biden’s heart was still breaking. “The factor is, “Can I do it? Can my family? The honest-to-God answer is I just don’t know.” he told his friend Stu Eisenstat.  

A month after that, days after the first Democratic debate, Biden announced from the Rose Garden that he knew he had run out of time. He would not run for president after all.  

“He’s got to ask himself every day, ‘What if?” one state Democratic party chair said to me Wednesday as we talked about what Biden might have brought to the race. What if Beau hadn’t gotten cancer? What if Joe Biden had mounted one last run?  

Like Clinton, Biden would have been eminently qualified for the job. But unlike Clinton, Biden could really connect — with Democrats, with working class voters, with many of the people who lately seem ready to leave the party behind.  

Donald Trump now leads Clinton 58 percent to 30 percent among white voters without a college degree, according to a New York Times analysis. It would be a major improvement over Mitt Romney’s performance four years ago. Would Biden have been able to reverse those losses?  

Nearly 70 percent of voters recently said they don’t find Hillary Clinton to be honest and trustworthy. Would those same voters have trusted Biden more? Would he be leading Trump as a result?  

Biden’s candidacy would have certainly tacked closely to the values he said he’d continue fighting for in his Rose Garden speech — giving the middle class “a fighting chance;” draining the huge sums of money poring into American elections; providing free access to public education and ample access to increased tax credits for child care. He would have argued that Americans have to accept that we can’t solve all of the world’s problems, but it is our obligation to help each other get through our own.  


Joe Biden’s Full DNC Speech


The reality is that a Biden-Clinton showdown would undoubtedly have been bitter, and even Biden’s chances at the nomination weren’t guaranteed. He’d lost two presidential campaigns before and as vice president, he always seemed to be saying things that a more prudent politician would not.  

But there will always be people, probably most especially Biden himself, who will wonder what would have happened if everything had been different. Would he be accepting the nomination for president in Philadelphia himself instead of cheering Hillary Clinton’s nomination instead? But anyone who knows Biden also understands the real unknown in his heart is what if Beau had been okay? Would Beau be on his way to becoming the governor of Delaware, as he seemed poised to? Would it have been Beau, instead of his father, talked about at the Biden to run for president someday? Would he have won?  

At the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008, Beau Biden introduced his father on the night he accepted the nomination for vice president, and called him “my friend, my father, my hero.”  

And he asked the crowd to do him a favor in the next several months as he deployed to Iraq and away from his family at home. “Be there for my dad like he was there for me,” Beau asked.  

The crowd at the DNC was there for Biden in Denver and they were there for him again Wednesday in Philadelphia. They chanted his name, they joined him on his journey. They embraced him as their outgoing vice president and as the man they’ll always know as “Uncle Joe.” And some of them still wondered, and hoped, what if?

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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