It says a lot about US politics that it was lack of time that apparently convinced Joe Biden against launching a White House bid. His announcement came 101 days before the Iowa caucus — the first contest in America’s primary calendar — and more than a year before the presidential election. Mr Biden conveyed his decision a few hours after Canada finished its longest ever general election, which took all of 78 days.
Yet in the US context, Mr Biden’s decision is entirely rational. Raising money — particularly enough to compete with a machine as well-oiled as Hillary Clinton’s — takes time. So does grieving (Mr Biden’s son, Beau, died of brain cancer in May). So too does finding good operatives to build ground games in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and beyond. It also takes energy. At 72, would Mr Biden have had the vim to race around the country raising money while carrying out his vice-presidential duties? In other circumstances, perhaps. But the prospect looks exhausting if Mrs Clinton is your full-time opponent.
Yet it is also hard to believe Mr Biden was not swayed by Mrs Clinton’s robust performance in the Democratic debate last week. The vice-president set himself up as an insurance policy against the implosion of Mrs Clinton’s campaign. As her numbers fell during the summer amid the drip-drip of leaks and allegations about her private email account, the Biden option looked ever more enticing to senior Democrats. A bad first debate would have reinforced doubts about Mrs Clinton’s lacklustre showing on the campaign trail.
But she came out confident and well-prepared on a podium of has-beens and never-will-bes. To cement Mrs Clinton’s good fortune, her only serious rival, Bernie Sanders, 73, dismissed the email controversy as an irrelevant distraction. That and her strong showing stopped the haemorrhaging. In the past week, Mrs Clinton’s numbers have begun to creep back upwards. Mr Sanders still leads in the crucial early states of New Hampshire and Iowa. But the political futures markets continue to treat Mrs Clinton as the firm favourite. To have entered the race now would have risked a sad ending to Mr Biden’s long career.
It goes without saying that most of the US media is disappointed by Mr Biden’s forbearance. His entrance would have enlivened the Democratic contest. Which of the two candidates to back would also have put President Barack Obama’s administration into a deep quandary. All of which would have been good for the news business.
A Biden campaign would also have been good for late night comedians. Whether it is introducing the US president as “Barack America”, or complimenting Mr Obama on his “big stick”, Mr Biden’s proneness to gaffes is a gift that keeps on giving. My favourite was his line about knowing eight US presidents, “three of them intimately”. On the day that Mr Biden chose not to run, perhaps the most fitting to recall is this one from 2009: “My mother believed and my father believed that if I wanted to be president of the United States, I could be, I could be . . . vice-president.”
There was doubtless relief as well as sincerity when Mrs Clinton tweeted that Mr Biden was a “great man” who had earned his place in history. The consolation for Mr Biden is that he can bow out of politics in 2017 in the knowledge that posterity will treat him kindly.
The sting for Mrs Clinton is that he did not endorse her candidacy. Moreover, he made thinly disguised swipes at her brand of “divisive” politics that spoke of Republicans as “enemies” — a line taken from one of Mrs Clinton’s debate answers. He also vowed to speak his mind “clearly and forcefully” in the coming months. In so doing, he put Mrs Clinton on notice that she would have to earn his support. Mr Biden is out but he is not down. Mrs Clinton will need to walk a fine line to undercut Bernie Sanders’ appeal in the coming weeks without taking positions that alienate Mr Biden and Mr Obama. You need not be from Canada to believe that a lot can still happen in 101 days.