In early 2015, it seemed obvious to most political observers (including me) that Jeb Bush was the most likely Republican presidential nominee. He may not have been heart-stoppingly charismatic, but he was raising lots of money, had extensive support within the party, and was just the kind of safe, established figure Republicans usually nominate. And who was going to beat him— a pipsqueak like Scott Walker or Marco Rubio? Not too likely.
Yet his campaign sputtered and faltered, even before Donald Trump entered the race and made clear what Republican voters were really looking for. One of the lessons is that in presidential politics, you can never tell what a candidate has in them until they jump into the rushing river of the race.
There is nothing quite like running for president. It challenges you in ways no other endeavor can, not even running for another major office: your stamina, your fortitude, your ability to think on your feet, your capacity to deal with crises, your strategic acumen, and much more.
And it requires you to navigate an obstacle course of emerging events, issues that crop up out of nowhere, and what will inevitably be a complex mixture of desires and agendas within your own party.
If you’re really lucky, the person you already are is exactly what the party wants at a particular moment. In 2016, a Republican electorate seething with racial resentment and told for years that their party leaders were weak and cowardly accommodationists, were primed to embrace someone like Donald Trump. In 2008, Barack Obama was everything Democrats wanted to be, or at least see themselves as: a young, dynamic, sophisticated, multiracial intellectual with the political prowess to roll over the GOP.
Though there are now an incredible 25 Democrats officially running for president, the clear leader in early polls is former vice president Joe Biden. Yet so far his candidacy has been essentially a string of controversies, all of which he has handled badly. It’s enough to make you question both Biden’s ability as a candidate and whether his timing is just wrong.
Like Warren G. Harding in 1920, Biden is building his campaign on the idea of a return to normalcy: After a time of tumult (in this case not a world war but the presidency of Donald Trump), Biden’s steady hand will restore order, responsible governing, and at least some measure of bipartisanship. He assures us that when Trump is gone, he can use his strong relationships with congressional Republicans to “get things done.”
As evidence of this proposition, Biden recently explained how as a senator he was able to work even with committed segregationists like James O. Eastland and Herman Talmidge. “At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done,” he said.
It was not the first time he made that argument, and though his staff had reportedly urged him to find an example of his ability to forge agreements that didn’t involve touting his relationships with vicious racists, he ignored their pleas. The result was a firestorm of controversy, including some of the first direct criticisms from other candidates in the race.
It was not the first time Biden seemed to be caught thinking, Wait, this isn’t OK anymore? What the hell happened? As The New York Times reported, “The criticism has deeply angered Mr. Biden, according to associates, and he is said to be indignant over what he sees as politically motivated hectoring from rival presidential candidates.”
If getting criticized by rivals has him indignant, what exactly did he think was going to happen when he ran for president?
Which, I’ll remind you, is something Biden did twice before, without success. He ran for the 1988 Democratic nomination, but pulled out of the race after a plagiarism scandal. Upon withdrawing he said he was angry at himself, but “I am no less frustrated for the environment of Presidential politics that makes it so difficult to let the American people measure the whole Joe Biden and not just misstatements I have made.”
Then he ran again 20 years later, placed fifth in the Iowa caucuses, drawing less than one percent of the delegates, and promptly withdrew.
What happened since then would likely make Biden a better president—as I explained here, he was an extremely effective vice president under Obama, and knows as much or more than the other candidates about how the federal government works—but it doesn’t appear to have made him any better at running for president.
That could change, of course; after all, we’re still more than seven months from the casting of the first vote. But the biggest question Biden confronts, apart from his own skills and propensity for saying precisely the wrong thing, is whether his timing is exactly right or spectacularly wrong.
He believes that this is the moment for someone like him: seasoned, reliable, with the ability to forge consensus. After the tumult of the Trump years, he’ll be what the electorate is looking for. Others would argue that he is precisely the wrong person for this moment: full of antiquated ideas, unable to understand the diverse Democratic electorate, and possessed of little discernible policy ambition at a time when his party is yearning for big, bold initiatives that will transform the country in positive ways, not simply return it to a time when everything wasn’t so awful.
We won’t know for a while if Biden will wind up being the Jeb Bush of 2020. But given how his campaign has gone so far, no one is going to be surprised if he turns out to be the wrong man at the wrong time.