The Best and Worst Vice Presidents Ever

Published: Fusion (October 4, 2016)

As Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, and Republican Indiana Governor Mike Pence prepare to square off in this year’s sole vice presidential debate, it’s worth taking a moment to analyze the history of the office they seek to occupy next year.

The story of the vice presidency, like that of the presidency, is perhaps best told through the experiences of those individual vice presidents who left the biggest mark on the office. While there are many presidents whose names are widely known, only a handful of vice presidents are remembered—and with good reason. As one vice president famously remarked, the authors of the Constitution so neutered the position that in its own right it is “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” More than two centuries later, however, the position is much stronger than our forefathers had ever conceived of it—although even during the early years of the republic, it was always full of colorful characters.

Hall of Fame

John Adams – The first vice president

John Trumbull's portrait of John AdamsJohn Trumbull via Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

We can start with America’s first vice president, John Adams. Although best known for going on to become America’s second president, Adams left his mark on the vice presidency in notable ways—even if it wasn’t always for the best. As his biographer points out, Adams was seldom consulted by President Washington when it came to either policy or politics, setting the precedent for veep powerlessness that would last for a century-and-a-half. When he tried to take on a more active role presiding over the Senate—one of the vice president’s constitutionally-designated responsibilities—he was criticized for his pompous lectures. Despite casting the tie-breaking vote a record 31 times, he ultimately became despondent about just how little influence he really had. He later complained to his wife Abigail Adams: “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

Thomas Jefferson – The vice president who really hated his boss

Rembrandt Peale portrait of Thomas JeffersonRebrandt Peale via Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Unlike his immediate predecessor, Thomas Jefferson didn’t mindlimiting his role as vice president to maintaining procedure during Senate debates. Indeed, because he had been fascinated by parliamentary rules for most of his adult life, he actually enjoyed presiding over debates and impressing both sides with his impartiality. That said, Jefferson was bound to be a controversial figure during his vice presidency due to a quirk in the Constitution that awarded that office to the loser in the previous presidential election. This meant that Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, had to serve under the administration of a Federalist, John Adams. Perhaps inevitably, Jefferson tried to undermine Adams’ policies throughout his administration, resulting in a rift between the two old friends that lasted until after Jefferson’s presidency ended more than a decade later. Fortunately for our country, the Twelfth Amendment corrected this flaw and was ratified in enough time to impact the very next presidential election.

John Tyler – The vice president who made the office matter

Daguerrotype of John Tylervia Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

John Tyler may be our most important vice president, since he was the first one whom history required to ascend to the office of the presidency. Although he had a reasonably cordial relationship with President William Henry Harrison, there was no reason to believe that he would be any more powerful under Harrison’s administration than any of the previous vice presidents had been during their tenures. One month into his presidency, however, Harrison unexpectedly took ill and died, immediately elevating Tyler to his place per the Constitution. Because no vice president had reached the presidency in this way, many of Harrison’s cabinet officers and advisers wanted to minimize his role. Tyler, however, insisted that he wasn’t merely an Acting President, but the legitimate President of the United States, and that he deserved the same respect and commanded the same authority as the nine presidents who came before him. Although his presidency proved tempestuous, Tyler’s interpretation won out, forcing future generations of American voters to consider their vice presidents as seriously as they did their presidents when casting their ballots.

Richard Nixon – A surprisingly solid vice president

American vice-president Richard Nixon talking to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1959)via Getty

Despite his infamous presidency, Richard Nixon’s vice presidency was actually one of the nation’s finest. After keeping his place on the Republican ticket through a brilliantly performed televised speech, Nixon became President Dwight Eisenhower’s de facto ambassador to the world, a role which he excelled in fulfilling. For instance, when touring Latin America in 1958, Nixon faced angry Marxist mobs in both Lima, Peru and Caracas, Venezuela, on the latter occasion even coming close to death. The following year, when touring the Soviet Union in a goodwill tour, he held his own in an impromptu debate with Premier Nikita Khrushchev in what were subsequently dubbed the “Kitchen Debate.” Although Nixon’s power as vice president was later minimized when Eisenhower couldn’t remember any major ideas that Nixon had contributed which the president adopted, this was unfair not only because Eisenhower’s remark was taken out of context, but because Nixon actually did a great deal to make the vice presidential office more influential.

Joe Biden – The vice president who should have run for president (again)

Democratic National Convention: Day ThreeGetty/Justin Sullivan

With a favorable rating of 57 percent, I suspect some Democrats deeply regret Joseph Biden’s decision to not run for president in this election—and those regrets would no doubt be increased if Biden’s performance as vice president was more widely known. When it was time to save America from the fiscal cliff or push for necessary (if ultimately unsuccessful) gun control legislation, Biden served as President Barack Obama’s point man, trusted aide, and friend. He also saved Obama from a potential loss in his reelection campaign against Mitt Romney through his stellar debate performance against the Republican vice presidential nominee, Congressman Paul Ryan. While Biden avoided crossing the lines of propriety that George W. Bush’s veep, Dick Cheney, regularly transgressed, he nevertheless became an integral player in the Obama presidency and has earned the right to be ranked as one of the better vice presidents our nation has had.

Hall of Shame

Aaron Burr – The vice president who killed someone

Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. After the painting by J. Mund.J. Mund via Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Aaron Burr, without question, deserves to be ranked at the very top of the Hall of Shame. As the last vice president elected before the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, Burr schemed behind the scenes to get Congress to choose him as the new president instead of Jefferson. If the matter had not been resolved before Adams’ presidency ended, America (at that point less than a quarter-century old) would have had to continue without a president and almost certainly been plunged into crisis. When his last-ditch attempt to salvage his career—namely, becoming Governor of New York as a Federalist—was thwarted by Alexander Hamilton, Burr famously challenged Hamilton to a dueland then shot him to death. Oddly enough, this wasn’t the last time that a sitting vice president would make headlines by shooting someone (more on that later).

Andrew Johnson – The drunk vice president

pres_andrew_johnsonvia National Archives

Although Andrew Johnson is best known as the man who took over after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, his ascension to the vice presidency is one of the most embarrassing our nation has ever seen. To understand why, turn to the words of an eyewitness who attended his inauguration, abolitionist Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan: “The inauguration went off very well except that the Vice President Elect was too drunk to perform his duties & disgraced himself & the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech.” Not surprisingly, Johnson kept a low profile in the weeks after this speech, and the likelihood is that his vice presidency would have been an insignificant one had it not been for John Wilkes Booth’s bullet less than two months later. While Johnson’s sympathies for the Southern states would have likely doomed his presidency even if he hadn’t made a spectacle of himself as vice president, his bout of highly public drunkenness certainly didn’t help matters.

Thomas Marshall – The vice president who had one job (and failed)

thomas_r-_marshall_cph-3a40666via Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Thomas Marshall served under Woodrow Wilson. When President Wilson went overseas to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles (which ended World War I), he asked Marshall to preside over cabinet meetings—the first time any president had ever done so—and it seemed that Marshall’s influence over the office would be a positive one. After Wilson had a debilitating stroke in October 1919, however, civic duty compelled Marshall to inform the public and lead the nation for the final 17 months of the president’s term. Because Marshall felt insecure about his ability to effectively govern, however, he instead became complicit in a ruse by Wilson’s closest advisers to conceal the president’s condition and secretly govern the nation in his stead. Considering that a vice president’s main job is to take over in the event of the president’s death, resignation, or incapacitation, Marshall’s unwillingness to rise to the occasion wasn’t just a personal failure, but a national disgrace.

Spiro Agnew – The most corrupt vice president

Nixon And Agnew Wave On Campaign, c. 1968.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Another disgraced vice president, Spiro Agnew, is best known for being one of two vice presidents to resign. Unlike John Calhoun, though, who stepped down to protest President Andrew Jackson’s policies, Agnew left office because he was about to be indicted by the Justice Department for political corruption, including accepting bribes. Because he was the first president to step down after the passage of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, he was replaced by Congressman Gerald Ford, and since Richard Nixon would have to resign due to Watergate less than a year later, Agnew’s corruption forced America to live under the presidency of its only unelected president (i.e., Ford). Ironically, because of Agnew’s trailblazing attacks on the so-called liberal media’s bias, he would have been in a prime position to lead America’s burgeoning conservative movement after Nixon left office. By failing to uphold ethical standards, Agnew denied himself the possibility of being Ronald Reagan before Ronald Reagan.

Dick Cheney – The vice president most like Darth Vader

Bush Makes Statement On War SupplementalGetty/Chip Somodevilla

It’s impossible to discuss the evolution of the vice presidency without arriving at Dick Cheney, who served as vice president under George W. Bush. Along with playing an instrumental role in convincing Bush to invade Iraq, Cheney was one of Bush’s chief overall policy advisers. In fact, he was so powerful that Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert provided him with an office near the floor of the House of Representatives. Cheney’s ability to concentrate policymaking power in his own hands—and his disturbingly secretive disposition—became so notorious that The Washington Post won the Pulitzer Prize for a four-part series of articles detailing just how much he had become the true President of the United States, despite Bush officially bearing that title. In addition to foreign policy, Cheney also upheld conservative orthodoxy in the development of economic policy and worked to promote business interests over environmental regulations. Of course, Cheney may ultimately be remembered best for sharing an odd distinction with Aaron Burr: having shot someone while in office—in his case, in a quail hunting accident.

If there is anything we can learn about the vice presidency for the upcoming debates, it is that the office has grown immensely since the days when it was “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” he precedents established by Cheney and Biden make it very likely that Kaine or Pence would play a meaningful part in the administrations of their Commanders-in-Chief. The vice presidency may not be as interesting as the presidency, but it matters—making it worthwhile to pay attention to what Kaine and Pence say on Tuesday night.

Biden: The president we deserve, but not the one we need

Published: The Good Men Project (October 22, 2015)

To paraphrase a famous line from “The Dark Knight”: Joe Biden is the president we deserve, but not the one we need.

I’ve written quite a bit about Biden over the course of my career because – as a PhD student focusing on American political history – I can’t help but admire such a quintessential throwback. We live in a time of “authenticity” rather than authenticity, one in which presidential candidates can skyrocket to the top of the polls for blatant pandering and demagoguery that seems “real” rather than offering actual substance. By contrast, Biden has always been a politician who speaks his mind from a clearly genuine place (even if that makes him a bit gaffe-prone), usually with the underlying message that we need to create an America which focuses less on partisan bickering and more on helping those who need it most.

These qualities were particularly evident in the Rose Garden speech during which he announced that he wasn’t going to run in the 2016 presidential election. First he explained, with characteristic candor, that “as my family and I have worked through the grieving process [for the death of his son Beau earlier this year], I’ve said all along – what I’ve said time and again to others – that it may very well be that that process, by the time we get through it, closes the window on mounting a realistic campaign for president,” and that it turns out they are now “out of time.” After that, Biden went on to urge Americans to embrace President Obama’s legacy, which led America from “crisis to recovery,” and reminded the powerful that in the end they aren’t fighting simply for themselves. “Go back to your old neighborhoods,” he urged the reporters and politicians who had gathered to hear his announcement. “Talk to your contemporaries who aren’t as successful as you’ve been.”

If you think Biden came up with this rhetoric simply because it matched the occasion of his “choose not to run” moment, you’d be wrong. In fact, Biden’s first became a national figure for expressing very similar thoughts in a speech at an Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in 1985. At that time, the Democratic Party was mired in a fierce internal battle between center-conservatives who believed the party should abandon the progressive legacy of forebears like Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy and staunch liberals who were convinced that dyed-in-the-wool rhetoric could win converts despite the landslide defeats of George McGovern and Walter Mondale. In that address, Biden reminded his fellow Democrats that success would only come from focusing on the concerns of struggling Americans – from members of the working class to victims of gender or racial oppression – and listening to them regardless of whether their words fit into either a preexisting ideological agenda or the demands of specific special interest groups. ”It’s time we hear the sound of our country singing and soaring in the dawn of a new day,” he proclaimed. ”It’s time to restore America’s soul. It’s time to be on the march again. It’s time to get America on the move again. Our time has come.”

Throughout his career, Biden has remained faithful to this message, whether in terms of policy (such as passing landmark legislation protecting women’s rights or blocking the confirmation of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court) or his own life, most notably his decision to live in Wilmington and commute an hour-and-a-half to Washington during his Senate career instead of losing touch with his constituents and family by moving to DC. All of these qualities speak to a deeper idealism that America deserves… and, indeed, will be much poorer if it winds up losing. At the same time, they are qualities that seem out of place in our current election cycle, in which PR spectacle and incendiary rhetoric propel candidates far more effectively than any kind of coherent national vision.

That’s why the aforementioned line from “The Dark Knight” comes to mind as I reflect on the end of Biden’s career as a presidential candidate. At this point in our history, America probably won’t elect a politician like Joe Biden, but that doesn’t mean future Joe Bidens don’t have a place in our political life. Quite to the contrary, anyone who believes in America’s underlying ideals should hope that we will continue to benefit from their service in our political life. We deserve nothing less.

Why Biden’s Decision Matters (for the Vice Presidency)

Published: The Good Men Project (October 20, 2015)

As America prepares for Joe Biden’s decision on whether or not to run for president next year, it is perhaps appropriate to reflect on the impact his choice will have on the office he currently holds – the vice presidency of the United States.

In one sense, Biden’s legacy as vice president is already secure. While scaling back the excesses that caused his predecessor, Dick Cheney, to be widely viewed as the secret power behind the throne, he still played a key role in shaping and pushing for the Obama administration’s agenda on issues ranging from fiscal policy and gun control to the war in Afghanistan. He also deserves a great deal of credit for improving his commander-in-chief’s political fortunes, in particular turning attention away from Obama’s poorly-reviewed performance in the first 2012 presidential debate by decisively besting Paul Ryan in the vice presidential match-off. Despite occasionally attracting the wrong kind of attention with highly publicized gaffes, Biden ultimately falls into the modern tradition established by predecessors like Walter Mondale, Al Gore, and even Cheney himself – namely, that of an important player in the administration of the president whose name will always be associated with his own.

That said, if Biden runs for president and doesn’t win the Democratic nomination, he will be the first sitting vice president to be spurned by his own party since Alben W. Barkley in 1952. And to paraphrase Biden himself, that will be a big frickin’ deal.

It’s important to remember that since 1960, every incumbent vice president who has sought his party’s nomination has managed to receive it: Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, George H. W. Bush in 1988, Al Gore in 2000. Even Walter Mondale, though not a sitting vice president in 1984, managed to win his party’s nomination that year on the strength of his record while serving under President Jimmy Carter. Indeed, the only vice presidents in the second half of the twentieth century who didn’t at least get nominated by their party either lacked the benefit of incumbency when their turn rolled around (Dan Quayle), passed away before they had the chance (Nelson Rockefeller), or had been forced to resign in disgrace (Spiro Agnew).

Once again, Cheney deserves special attention in this discussion. By the time he was elected in 2000, the expectation that any vice president would eventually make a White House bid of his own had become so firmly entrenched that Cheney was compelled to emphatically disavow any ambitions of his own as soon as he was picked by George W. Bush. One could argue that Cheney wouldn’t have been nominated had he later changed his mind (his approval ratings were infamously low by that time), but because he had already disclaimed any presidential ambitions, it’s impossible to know whether he could have had a strong base of support had he actively cultivated one from the get-go. All that we know for certain is that, by not running for president in 2008, Cheney broke a precedent that had been in place for nearly fifty years.

This brings us back to why, if Biden seeks and fails to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, the fact of his defeat will signify an important diminution in the vice presidential office’s political clout. Before the 1960 election, vice presidents had a pretty poor track record when it came to being tapped by their party as their successor’s heir apparent. This was largely because the office itself wasn’t held in particularly high regard; the Constitution only stated that the vice president would take over if the president died or was incapacitated and should president over (and occasionally cast the tie-breaking vote in) the Senate. America’s first vice president, John Adams, described the position as the “most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.” Not surprisingly, only three incumbent vice presidents had been elected directly to the presidency before 1960 – John Adams in 1796, Thomas Jefferson in 1800, and Martin Van Buren in 1836. Until Theodore Roosevelt’s election in 1904, even vice presidents who rose to the presidency due to the president’s death were consistently passed over when they sought to be nominated on their own (including John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur).

Of course, if Biden runs for president and does receive the Democratic nomination, it will affirm that the power that office has accrued since the mid-twentieth century continues to be a potent political force. That said, a defeat would indicate – regardless of the realities of what a vice president may do behind the scenes – the public no longer views a vice president as the rightful heir to the leadership of his or her party. This would be an event of no small consequence, and as such deserves to be acknowledged.

Stop telling Joe Biden to run for president

Published: Salon (September 17, 2015)The Daily Dot (September 14, 2015)

Perhaps it was inevitable that the Internet would want Joe Biden to run for president. After all, Hillary Clinton has maintained a massive lead in national polls since the beginning of the 2016 presidential election cycle and seemingly inevitable elections are kind of boring—especially when compared to the heated 2008 contest between Clinton and then Senator Barack Obama. Because he is one of the country’s most prominent Democratic politicians, has made two White House bids in the past, and also served in the Obama White House, Biden is a natural choice to face off against Clinton.

Even though Biden has yet to declare, #RunJoeRun has been continuously trending on Twitter. The problem, as revealed in a poignant interview from last week’s The Tonight Show with Stephen Colbert, is that Biden seems genuinely ambivalent about wanting the job. After discussing at length the pain of losing his son, Beau, to a brain tumor last May, Biden answered questions about a future presidential candidacy: “I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there. I’m being completely honest. Nobody has a right in my view to seek that office unless they are willing to give it 110 percent of who they are.”

Joe Biden knows these struggles well: This tragedy follows the loss of his first wife and his daughter in a car crash 40 years ago. However, his personal history raises an important question: At what point does pressuring someone in Biden’s position become inappropriate? Whether or not Biden does decide to mount a campaign, that’s his decision to make.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t reasons in favor of Biden running. As Clinton’s list of scandals—including her ongoing email woes and flip-flopping on major issues—has grown, her public polling has plummeted. Although Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is currently leading Clinton in New Hampshire and gaining ground on her in Iowa, polling experts like Nate Silver have noted that this has more to do with Sanders’ unique appeal among grassroots liberals than Clinton’s own potential weaknesses as a candidate. For those who want more viable candidates in what is becoming a two-horse race between Sanders and Clinton, it makes sense to encourage Biden to run.

Joe Biden knows these struggles well: This tragedy follows the loss of his first wife and his daughter in a car crash 40 years ago.

But it’s important to keep in mind the very thing that’s made Joe Biden so appealing to begin with: He’s human. “Joe Biden’s unique trait as a politician is—and always has been—his honesty,”wrote Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post.“Sometimes that honesty gets him into varying degrees of trouble. Sometimes it makes it seem as though he’s the closest thing to a real person you could possibly hope for in politics.”

Poet and novelist Jay Parini made a similar observation on CNN, describing Joe Biden’s interview with Colbert as “uncommonly moving” because “of Biden’s offhand honesty, passion and wrenching humanity as he discussed his beloved son Beau’s death from brain cancer earlier this summer.” Parini wrote, “[I]t was life happening before our eyes, the kind of life we find in our own living rooms and kitchens.”

While Parini undeniably has a strong point, there is something troubling about a political culture that focuses so much on capitalizing off of authenticity that it forgets to show respect for it. Imagine you were in Joe Biden’s shoes—would you be willing to forge ahead as if nothing changed? Some would choose to continue our career ambitions despite (or because) of such setbacks, while others may need the time to grieve. But one thing is certain: We all would expect the rest of the world to give us space, so that we can have the breathing room necessary to make these tough decisions for ourselves. Why shouldn’t Biden receive the same regard?

Of course, this isn’t the first time a politician has faced unspeakable tragedy in the public eye. In  2012, when the Republican presidential primaries had boiled down to a contest between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, it came out thatSantorum’s daughter, Bella, was fighting complications caused by Trisomy 18, a rare genetic disorder that is often fatal. Although many conservatives had serious reservations about Romney and viewed Santorum as their last best hope, the consensus if Santorum put family first—and dropped out—that was OK.

More than 20 years earlier, Al Gore’s son was nearly killed in a car accident. Although Gore had placed a strong third in the 1988 Democratic primaries—and would have thus been an automatic frontrunner in 1992—he bowed out of that race with support of his party.

Imagine you were in Joe Biden’s shoes—would you be willing to forge ahead as if nothing changed?

None of this means that Biden shouldn’t run. Indeed, Beau himself reportedly told his father, shortly before passing away, that he wanted him to run for president, and recent reports indicate that Biden is meeting with top Obama fundraising bundlers, which suggests that is still seriously considering that possibility. But just as politicians and the public supported Al Gore and Rick Santorum, so too should the Internet’s anti-Hillary crowd recognize that Biden is a person first and a politician second.

It’s not just about whether America is ready for a Joe Biden campaign. Joe Biden needs to be ready for America first.

Joe Biden’s Legacy for Battered Women

Published: The Good Men Project (August 25, 2015)

I have a guilty conscience. Although I respect Vice President Biden quite a bit, I recently wrote an op-ed arguing that it would be a bad idea for him to run for president. My concern (then and now) is that Biden, despite being a qualified statesman, simply doesn’t have the political chops or base of support to mount a viable campaign against either the Hillary Clinton juggernaut or the Bernie Sanders insurgency. If anything, a Biden campaign would only weaken the Democratic ticket in November by dredging up all kinds of mud against his opponents – one of whom, of course, will eventually be the party’s nominee.

None of this means that Biden is a bad guy, though. Indeed, now that it seems increasingly likely he will throw his hat into the ring, I think it’s appropriate to do penance by looking at one of the best aspects of his legacy: The Violence Against Women Act

Passed in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA for short) was drafted by then-Senator Biden as a way to protect women who were victimized by domestic abuse and sexual assault. Its achievements include establishing an Office of Violence Against Women in the Justice Department, creating a rape shield law that prevents accused offenders of using a woman’s past sexual conduct against her during a rape trial, mandating that victims should not be required to cover the cost of their own rape exams or protection orders, and subsidizing community violence prevention programs, victim assistance services like rape crisis centers and hotlines.

When VAWA celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, Vice President Biden wrote an op-ed for Time Magazine observing how before the bill’s passage “few people understood and our culture failed to recognize” that women had a right “to be free from violence and free from fear.” He went on to explain:

“Kicking a wife in the stomach or pushing her down the stairs was repugnant, but it wasn’t taken seriously as a crime. It was considered a ‘family affair.’ State authorities assumed if a woman was beaten or raped by her husband or someone she knew, she must have deserved it. It was a ‘lesser crime’ to rape a woman if she was a ‘voluntary companion.’ Many state murder laws still held on to the notion that if your wife left you and you killed her, she had provoked it and you had committed manslaughter.”

Biden’s article makes for powerful reading, but since I can’t quote it all here, I’ll leave with an observation he included near the end:

“Abuse is violent and ugly and today there is rightful public outrage over it. It matters that the American people have sent a clear message: you’re a coward for raising a hand to a woman or child—and you’re complicit if you fail to condemn it.

That’s a monumental change from twenty years ago, and it’s why the Violence Against Women Act is my proudest legislative accomplishment. But we know there’s more to do. One in five women in America has experienced rape or attempted rape. Sex bias still plagues our criminal justice system with stereotypes like ‘she deserved it’ or ‘she wore a short skirt’ tainting the prosecution of rape and assault.”

This, if anything, is why Biden’s work on VAWA still redounds to his credit. It’s one thing for a politician to rest on his laurels, but instead of insisting that the fight against domestic and sexual violence ended when his own contribution was in the books, Biden acknowledges that there is still more work to be done. At a time when Men’s Rights Activism is exploding in popularity and right-wing demagogues like Donald Trump spike in the polls despite making openly misogynistic statements, it’s refreshing to know that there are still politicians like Biden who won’t back down from doing the right thing.

I still don’t think you should run in next year’s election, Biden, but I definitely believe that if elected, you’d make a very compassionate – and quite likely very good – President of the United States.

Should Joe Biden run?

Published: Salon (August 9, 2015)Good Men Project (August 4, 2015)

Should Barack Obama’s vice president seek a White House term of his own?


No. Definitely not.

This article is a response to the recent rumors that Vice President Joe Biden is going to make a run for the White House in 2016. I’m not going to speculate as to the man’s intentions (I have no way of knowing them), but rather discuss in a point-by-point fashion why a Biden presidential campaign would be a bad idea. Let’s start from the top:

1. He could never beat Hillary Clinton … or Bernie Sanders, for that matter.

I’m not exactly going out on a limb when I say that Biden could never beat Clinton. The polls have consistently shown the former First Lady with more than 50 percent of the Democratic primary vote, which gives her a statistically formidable advantage over any prospective opponents. Even worse for Biden, however, is the fact that he doesn’t have any natural base to fall back upon. Just look at the candidate who usually ranks second to Clinton in the polls, Bernie Sanders. While Sanders also doesn’t have much hope when it comes to competing against Clinton, he at least has a locked in group of supporters—young, idealistic left-wingers who are turned off by Clinton’s neoliberalism. Biden, on the other hand, has nothing but his extensive Senate experience and reputation as a comparative moderate from a blue-collar background. Neither of those variables will be particularly compelling in an election cycle that seems to focus more on narratives than resumes. Certainly Biden has the qualifications to be president, but does he have a story that can match Clinton (who will possibly be our first female president) or Sanders (who is admired for his straightforward adherence to liberal values)?

That’s the bottom line: In this political culture, a politician like Biden is simply the wrong fit.

2. Nobody wants to see Biden humiliated.

Check out this quote from a recent New York Times article about the Clinton campaign’s reaction to the recent Biden rumors:

The scenario of a Clinton-Biden matchup brought mixed emotions inside Mrs. Clinton’s Brooklyn campaign headquarters. Many of Mrs. Clinton’s senior staff members previously worked for Mr. Biden and hold him in high regard. They have mourned for the Biden family after his son, Beau Biden, died in May at the age of 46 after a long battle with brain cancer.

At the same time, they make no bones about Clinton’s overwhelming advantage (see previous paragraph), and I doubt the Sanders campaign feels any differently. Although Biden has caught a lot of flak during his vice presidency, there is a general feeling of goodwill toward him within the Democratic Party. I say this not only as an observer, but as a Democrat myself; I’ve written several articles praising Biden over the past few years, and I stand by every one of them. If Biden runs for president, Democrats like me—i.e., individuals who respect him but don’t think he would be the strongest candidate in 2016—would be forced to oppose him. Should he conduct a civil campaign, the chances are we’ll forget about his candidacy shortly after it ends. On the other hand, if he fights fiercely and damages either Clinton or Sanders in the process, the current goodwill could be tainted.

3. Those of us who have supported Biden in the past didn’t anticipate the specific conditions of the 2016 election.

Let me return to one of those aforementioned articles that I penned about Biden. This is courtesy of a piece from PolicyMic more than two years ago:

Although pundits like to scoff at Biden’s tendency toward gaffes, his ostensible weakness could, in fact, be one of his greatest strengths. After all, Americans love a good comeback story; Harry Truman’s legendary upset victory over Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election continues to be a favorite of students of political history. Like Biden, Truman made a number of trivial blunders, and was widely disregarded. However, by remaining true to himself and embracing his plain speaking style, Truman defied conventional wisdom—Dewey was favored by nearly all of the pundits of his time—and famously demonstrated that authenticity can triumph over shrewd packaging. While Biden’s likely 2016 opponents are considerably to the right of Dewey ideologically, there is little question that pols like Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) could each give Dewey a run for his money in terms of sheer slickness. By following Truman’s example and remaining genuine, Biden would benefit from the contrast with any of them.

As you may have guessed, this was an op-ed that encouraged Biden to seek the presidency in 2016 (it also cited his extensive political experience and poignant personal story). Its major flaw was the notion that “slickness” is a bad thing in politics these days.

That assessment may have been overly optimistic. While I’m not defending all of Biden’s gaffes, the reality is that a political climate that focuses so extensively on the negatives in a politician’s personal style—their quirks, their minor errors, etc.—is one that, like it or not, values a certain element of slickness. Even so-called “straight shooters” from both parties deliberately hone their would-be candor so as to appeal to the largest possible audience within their own parties (see Donald Trump on the right).

That’s the bottom line: In this political culture, a politician like Biden is simply the wrong fit.

Why Joe Biden Should Run For President in 2016

Published: mic (July 17, 2013)The Morning Call (July 17, 2013)

According to a recent Politico article, Vice President Joe Biden is being criticized by some of his backers for not doing more to promote his 2016 presidential candidacy. Should Biden choose to run, he would, no doubt, face a formidable opponent in Hillary Clinton, the erstwhile first lady, senator, and secretary of state who is widely considered to be the Democratic front-runner. It’s right that she should be considered a top contender for the Oval Office, given her impressive resume and long history of remarkable political resilience. But there is also a strong case to be made for Biden’s candidacy. To whit:

1. He has the experience we need.

As the recent string of landmark Supreme Court decisions has made clear, we live in an important time in America’s judicial history. Biden’s decades of service on the Senate Judiciary Committee give him an exceptional understanding of how our courts operate. As such, he may be able to ensure that the courts serve the people’s interests, instead of being hijacked by ideological radicals (his capability was best demonstrated by his handling of the Robert Bork confirmation hearings). Similarly, as a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a key foreign policy adviser for President Obama, Biden has been effective in grappling with complex issues ranging from ethnic conflict in the Balkans, to the Arab-Israeli peace process, to South African apartheid, to our seemingly intractable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Finally, he has long used his clout to champion the rights of the vulnerable, from women seeking refuge from physical and sexual abuse (he drafted the Violence Against Women Act of 1994), to low-income children struggling to afford a quality education (he championed a number of student financial aid and loan programs).

2. He has the right public image.

Although pundits like to scoff at Biden’s tendency toward gaffes, his ostensible weakness could, in fact, be one of his greatest strengths. After all, Americans love a good comeback story; Harry Truman’s legendary upset victory over Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election continues to be a favorite of students of political history. Like Biden, Truman made a number of trivial blunders, and was widely disregarded. However, by remaining true to himself and embracing his plain speaking style, Truman defied conventional wisdom – Dewey was favored by nearly all of the pundits of his time – and famously demonstrated that authenticity can triumph over shrewd packaging. While Biden’s likely 2016 opponents are considerably to the right of Dewey ideologically, there is little question that pols like Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) could each give Dewey a run for his money in terms of sheer slickness. By following Truman’s example and remaining genuine, Biden would benefit from the contrast with any of them.

3. He has an inspiring personal story.

As the media increasingly focuses on the issue of childhood bullying, attention should be paid to Biden’s personal history; as a child, Biden had a speech impediment that took him years to master. As someone who was bullied while growing up, I can personally attest to how such treatment instills within its victims a visceral empathy for others who are victimized, whether it is for being gay, having a developmental handicap, looking different, or anything else. What’s more, by virtue of his subsequent achievements, Biden is in a unique position to serve as a role model for victims of bullying who need to know that they can overcome their present hardships and experience a bright future.

None of this is intended as a way of saying that I’d prefer Biden over Clinton in the Democratic primaries next year. Indeed, a primary contest between Clinton and the vice president would pose a very difficult decision for me, as I suspect it would for thoughtful Democrats everywhere. Then again, at a time when elections often offer little more than a choice between lesser evils, I, for one, would eagerly anticipate the dilemma that comes with deciding between two genuinely appealing alternatives.

Joe Biden Gaffe: VP’s Jewish Comments Were Not Anti-Semitic

Published: mic (May 25, 2013)

While Joe Biden is notorious for his gaffes, his recent comments in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month should not be designated as such … despite the outcry from some critics claiming otherwise.

First, let’s take a look at what he said:

“The truth is that Jewish heritage, Jewish culture, Jewish values are such an essential part of who we are that it’s fair to say that Jewish heritage is American heritage. The Jewish people have contributed greatly to America. No group has had such an outsized influence per capita as all of you standing before you, and all of those who went before me and all of those who went before you.”

Normally a paragraph like this would be considered innocuous, even a tad generic. After all, it is a longstanding tradition for politicians of both parties to lavish praise not only on the concept of American demographic pluralism, but on the specific ethnic groups who make our diversity possible in the first place (whether this rhetoric is followed up by substantive action is an entirely different matter). Had Biden made a comparable statement about any other religious community or nationality, it is doubtful his remarks would have received any meaningful attention.

Unfortunately, the claim that Jews have had an “outsized influence per capita” in shaping America and the world has long been a potent fuel for anti-Semitism. One need only look at the ongoing popularity of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion — a hoax churned out more than a hundred years ago by Tsarist Russia which purported to chronicle a meeting of powerful Jews discussing their plot for global domination — to fully appreciate this fact. Indeed, a recent State Department report documenting a worldwide increase in conspiratorial anti-Semitism (e.g., official Holocaust denial by the Iranian government, President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt supporting an imam’s public prayer for “Allah” to “destroy the Jews and their supporters,” the reciting of the “Protocols” by a member of the Greek parliament) prompted Secretary of State John Kerry to name a special envoy to specifically address this problem. Yet does that mean that Biden said anything wrong?

Certainly his remarks weren’t factually erroneous. It is true, as Biden pointed out, that Jews “make up 11% of the seats in the United States Congress” (despite being less than 2% of the American population) and “one-third of all Nobel laureates” (despite comprising less than 0.2% of the world population). Likewise, Biden was correct in observing that “you can’t talk about the Civil Rights movement in this country without talking about Jewish freedom riders and Jack Greenberg,” that “you can’t talk about the women’s movement without talking about Betty Friedan,” and that “you can’t talk about the recognition of … rights in the Constitution without looking at incredible jurists” on the Supreme Court like Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter.

While it is hardly a coincidence that Biden’s party affiliation accounts for his emphasis on Jews’ historic proclivity toward liberalism (Jews have voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1924, with 74% identifying as liberal or moderate today and, excepting in the year of Jimmy Carter’s defeat, between 64 and 80% voting Democratic in every presidential election over the past 40 years), he did not overlook non-political achievements as well. By the time he had finished extolling everything from the contributions of Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan in American science to the influence of George Gershwin and Bob Dylan in American music, his only notable factual error had been one almost born of his well-known penchant for hyperbole — i.e., his statement that “85% of those changes” in Hollywood and social media that had led to gay rights had been “a consequence of Jewish leaders in the industry” (although it is true that Jews have also been disproportionately supportive of gay rights). His overall thesis, on the other hand, was entirely sound. After listening to his recitation of the facts of American Jewish history, it would be hard to argue that “Jewish heritage has shaped who we are – all of us, us, me — as much or more than any other factor in the last 223 years.”

Then why have Biden’s comments provoked such consternation?

Simply put, it is because America’s obsession with political correctness is rooted more in insecurity than conviction. Even the shrillest avowed non-bigot will, as a rule, become uncomfortable when confronted with facts which seem to support bigoted worldviews. Because the disproportionate Jewish influence in politics, science, art, business, and academia seems to confirm anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, non-bigots who can’t think of an argument to account for that reality instead opt to ignore it. When asked to justify this decision, they usually do so by arguing that they’re merely trying to avoid playing into the hands of anti-Semites. However, given that anyone so inclined to feel this way about Jews will no doubt already be aware of these or similar statistics, that explanation doesn’t hold much water.

More significant, though, is that it misses the point entirely. For one thing, the notion that Jews should be expected to defend themselves for their achievements is in itself implicitly anti-Semitic, operating as it does on the presumption that a Jewish conspiracy might exist and as such needs to be disproved. What’s more, these arguments diminish the various qualities that have contributed to Jewish success, such as the Jewish culture’s emphasis on education and hard work, its ability to maintain a cohesive communal identity after five millennia, and the moral premium it places on providing tangible charity and socioeconomic uplift for the less fortunate (as Diego Rivera once put it, “My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work.”)

The worst part, though, is that these arguments are fundamentally un-American. To explain why, I turn to one of America’s last libertarian presidents. As Grover Cleveland explained during a Thanksgiving Day speech in 1905, only two years after the Protocols of the Elders of Zion became a worldwide hit, Jews should be proud that “the toleration and equal opportunity accorded [them] have been abundantly repaid.” His closing words are the perfect conclusion for this piece:

“I know that human prejudice, especially that growing out of race or religion, is cruelly inveterate and lasting, but wherever in the world prejudice against the Jews still exists, there can be no place for it among the people of the United States, unless they are heedless of good faith, recreant of the underlying principles of their free government, and insensible to every pledge involved in our boasted equality of citizenship.”

PS: In the name of full disclosure, I myself am Jewish.