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If Biden Runs, It’s Bad News for Clinton

The current buzz in the 2016 campaign on the Democratic side is that Joe Biden is mulling over announcing his candidacy, and is more likely than not to enter. Ezra Klein over at Vox.com suggests that Biden running would be a boon to Hillary Clinton because it will allow people to focus on something other than Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses. Klein has a point, certainly, but I think Biden’s entry cuts the other way: if Biden enters, Clinton should worry. (I’m going to speculate a lot here, but I think it’s necessary, considering that I’m trying to tease out the implications of a potential future event that may not happen.)

For a few reasons, Hillary Clinton is a stronger candidate in 2016 than she was in 2008. It is worth summarizing those:

1. Bill Clinton’s tenure looks better every year. Say what you will about Barack Obama’s two terms–and certainly, liberals have a lot to appreciate–but economic growth and prosperity have paled in comparison to the Clinton years. The country has basically faced low growth since the end of the Clinton Administration. That’s a decade and a half of relative stagnation. The prosperity–and perhaps the comparative insouciance–of the 90s certainly feels like a better place to be than the tumultuous 21st century.

2. Hillary basically fought the premier presidential candidate of our generation to a draw, but lost on a “technicality.” Anyone who was watching Obama’s fundraising throughout 2007 knew that he would be a threat to Hillary Clinton once voters started paying attention. And Obama came through on his promise: he delivered some great speeches and electrified his voters. (Obama did not run a lackluster campaign in 2007, period. Once voters started paying attention, lots of people loved what Obama had to say.) And yet… Obama’s margin of victory in the delegate count really came because his campaign understood the complexities of delegate allocation better than Hillary Clinton’s, particularly with respect to caucus states. In other words, Clinton basically fought Obama–who was undoubtedly a fantastic candidate–to a draw, at least in terms of the overall votes cast. That speaks well of her appeal, and it is basically inconceivable that her campaign will make the same errors, in terms of following delegate allocation rules.

3. Hillary Clinton dramatically underperformed with black voters in 2008. As Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight.com points out, Barack Obama won 82 percent of the black vote in 2008. Prior to Obama’s emergence, it looked like Hillary Clinton had a lock on many of those votes; indeed, for months, people were wondering how Obama would break into Clinton’s support there. He eventually did, and still just barely defeated Clinton for the nomination.

4. It seems that the Democrats want to nominate the first woman presidential candidate from a major party. This one goes without saying, but it would be important and historic if the Democrats could nominate a woman as the head of their ticket, and a credible contender for that honor earns some points with voters.

None of this is groundbreaking stuff: Hillary Clinton is a very strong Democratic candidate on paper, and everyone knows it.

Meanwhile, we have one other important piece of evidence about how strong a candidate Hillary Clinton is: Joe Biden–who has wanted to be president for the last four decades, if Richard Ben Cramer’s What it Takes is to be believed–did not declare for the nomination back in the spring. It seems likely that Biden examined the situation, saw that his odds were incredibly slim, and opted not to go for the gold. This is particularly significant, because this is probably Biden’s last shot at the big prize, based on his age, and is certainly his last shot if Hillary wins the general election. Starting late is almost certainly a disadvantage in this context: lots of potential donors and staffers have already signed on with Clinton, and peeling them away from Clinton will be more difficult than locking them down in the first place.

And yet now we’re consistently hearing that Joe Biden might run as a late entry, even in the face of these massive structural headwinds. Maybe he lacks the “emotional fuel,” but evidently, he wants people to think he is considering a run.

We might be able to write off a standard late entrance into a race as merely opportunistic: after all, someone, somewhere, told Fred Thompson and Rick Perry that the Republican fields in their respective years were weak, and that the nomination was there for the taking without much work. Obviously, it didn’t play out that way.

But Joe Biden is not Fred Thompson and not Rick Perry: he’s the sitting vice president, and a very active one, in the Obama administration. He is personally closer to the president than is Hillary Clinton, even if Obama chooses not to endorse a candidate this time around.

You can point to Bernie Sanders as a surprise, certainly, and Clinton’s poll numbers are probably weaker than people would have predicted, but really, very little has changed about Hillary Clinton’s structural advantages in seeking the presidency. Nothing has changed the fact that the 1990s were a good time for most Americans, the Democrats would love to nominate a woman, Sanders is struggling to attract black voters, and Hillary must know the delegate apportionment rules this time around.

But there is one thing that might have changed the playing field: the ongoing email scandal.

No potential candidate is in a better position to know the particulars about it–and the risks surrounding it–than the sitting vice president. Will there be indictments? Prosecutions? Incriminating information released? Embarrassing information leaked? Presumably, the Obama White House has some idea of what they’re dealing with, considering that Clinton was serving as Obama’s Secretary of State as the potential malfeasance unfolded.

Essentially, we are dealing with asymmetric information. Biden probably knows more about Hillary Clinton’s emails than we do. Considering that the email situation is the only thing that has really changed about Hillary Clinton’s strength as a candidate, if Biden runs, we should assume that Biden thinks that the emails have substantially changed the calculus, so much so that he will run with the disadvantage of the late start.

There are other ways to read the tea leaves here: if he runs, it may be an indication that Biden just thinks that Clinton has underperformed and left him an opening. But I am inclined to think that a seasoned politician like Biden is unlikely to get caught up in the twists and turns of the “silly season.” Clinton is still an overwhelming favorite, and Biden is not on paper a good challenger for her.

Which means that if Biden decides to run, it doesn’t mean anything good for Clinton.

Cover image from Wikimedia Commons, and was “the work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties.”

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31 thoughts on “If Biden Runs, It’s Bad News for Clinton

  1. You are probably right but I still think that this is speculation and wishful thinking for the media looking to justify their paychecks.

    Still Biden is a solid candidate and Trump’s rise is starting to freak me out.

    I still kinda want Sanders v. Trump for the battle of the accents. Hope Brooklyn wins.

    Actually I don’t want Trump to get the GOP nod because I am a worrier and what if he wins? I want both parties to put their most competent candidate forward.

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  2. Suffice to say, I disagree with a lot of this.

    I think the perception of weakness on the part of Hillary’s campaign is fueling speculation about a Biden run, and probably is a factor pushing him more toward running than otherwise, I’ll grant that. But I don’t think there was any decision made in the spring that’s now being revisited. I think under any circumstances, Biden was going to play the waiting game, which is what he’s done. He has 90+% name recognition, and didn’t need to get his name out there early like others. There was always going to be speculation about a possible Biden run, which he could play up or play down as his needs warranted. But at the same time, he’s the vice president, which means that any campaign he’d run was always going to a more restrained affairs than the Clinton juggernaut. He’d aways have been campaigning in her shadow, so there wasn’t really much reason to try to get out ahead of her. Plus, I think there has always been deep ambivalence about another run, both within himself, and certainly in his family.

    So I think it just always made sense to wait and see before committing himself, not that there would have been a Biden campaign since spring if only he’d seen a way to get around Hillary. And then throw in Beau. I’m not sure what his health status was early in the year, but according to wikipedia, he was admitted to the hospital on May 20th with a recurrence and died ten days later. Certainly the shock of just the dignosis and so forth probably put into question whether Biden wanted to run, as I say, leading to aninlination to wait. the cancer was thought to be in remission apparently up until May 20th, so I suppose one could say we might have expected a decision before that date. But for the sitting vice president, especially one we now know was quite content to just wait and see, i don’t know why we’d expect. But then certainly after Beau’s death I don’t think it makes any sense to think that a decision was going to be made quickly, or that a decision against running that had been made would be quickly reassessed. At that point it seems like an approach of simply biding time was almost unavoidable. The emotional resources simply weren’t there to address the question with the focus necessary.

    But now it is getting late, and as you say, this is his last chance. And now there’s no Beau to carry forth any legacy; it could be speak now or hold your piece for the Biden name in politics. That alone seems, from a personal perspective, like a strong reason to take a hard look at running. Plus, as you say, he’s always wanted it. It’s now or never.

    The point of all this being, there’s so much reason why it would have gotten to this point before a decision was made, other than that in the spring Biden simply looked at the polls and the campaign advantages of Clinton and decided not to run. Before May 20th, he really didn;t need to have made decision to run, and afterward, he could’t give it enough attention (until now – maybe). Which means that the fact of this public ruminating, and even a decision to run, need’t be the indication of serious weakness in the Hillary campaign you say it must be. It’s probably the case, as I say, that those perceptions facilitate a run somewhat. But it may be more fundamentally the case that now is when Biden has first been able to really give the question the thought it needs, with the full finality of the decision not to run perhaps now bearing down on him for the first time. And he may be finding that he has strong reasons to run, both of a personal nature as above, and of a civic nature (specifically as relates the role he could play in his party in this race).

    I definitely highly discount the likelihood that any inside knowledge of the extent of Hillary’s email problems are driving his thinking at all. Even more generally, my hope is that questions of a viable path round Hillary aren’t and haven’t ever really been a major condition on his thoughts of running. (They probably are more than I’d like, but I think it’s far less than widely estimated.) I hope his considerations are more about the personal and family-legacy reasons he may have to run, and especially the contribution a run could make to his party and to the country (facilitating a more wide-ranging policy discussion in the Democratic primary and offering the perspective of an eight-year Obama administration insider), balanced agains the cost of a run and strain on his family.

    Granted, it’s a lot to ask of a guy to run for president if there’s no way he can win (though… people do it all the time), so it’s reasonable that he’s also attentive to his chances. Moreover, if you’re going to ask people for money to finance a run for president, if you;re doing it knowing you have no chance to win, that’s avery a different kind of conversation than if you’re doing it because you really believe you can. But at the same time, I do wish we could look at this from a perspective that sees that Biden’s (and really, anyone’s) ideas about running for president don’t exclusively rise and fall with his prospects for winning. People run for all sorts of reasons, and in my view right now has more reason to run than most, regardless of his prospects. He may just now be getting around to feeling that way himself. Or, he may just be getting around to finally concluding that they’re just not quite great enough to justify the costs. Either way, I think it’s a mistake to see either decision as a major indicator about the shape that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is in.

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  3. Don Zeko: I’ll go on record now that nobody not currently running will successfully enter the race at this point. No Mitt, no Biden.

    That’s Don Zeko, on the divining thread; and it seems to be conventional wisdom as it pertains to the GOP; nobody outside the race already will be the nominee. Do you agree with that? I don’t; I think the GOP is much more likely to nominate someone not in the race now then the Dems; where Clinton not only leads in the polls, but in endorsements.

    Which is the weakness of the argument here.

    Clinton will always have a scandal, real or not, because that’s how the GOP and Fox play ball. Always. At some point, it reaches a level of burnout, the boy who cried wolf too many times, and people stop listening; and I think we’ve already reached that saturation point. Given status quo progress — R’s keep screeching ‘scandal, scandal, scandal,’ and no new information that paints Hillary as a nefarious traitor surfaces (the pattern of all the other scandals,) than it’s just so much distraction. Every second spent talking about Clinton scandals on the air is a second not filled with lack of a sound health care, energy, climate, or education policy.

    Have you gone and looked at the GOP candidate websites? Looked at their policies? What, exactly, are the clowns in the crowded car proposing?

    Jonathan Bernstein referred to Biden as an understudy; maybe. I’m not convinced; but I think Hillary’s resilient, and that’s a good quality. I think it’s too late for Biden to enter the race (see endorsements above), unlike the Republican side. There are close like 40 declared candidates, nobody will notice if a few more slip into the party.

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  4. I think your analysis is good and I am inclined to agree that if Biden jumps in it’s a bad sign and bad news for Hillary.

    I would, however, contend that it would be good news for the Party; a non-Bernie backup candidate would probably make the party bigwigs (and me) sleep easier. If, as I am hoping/suspecting, the email-gate stuff produces no substantive charges against her then it’ll be a non-issue by the time the primaries roll around. If, however, there’s something seriously bad and it cripples her than a backup who isn’t Bernie lowers my blood pressure even if he’s as old as Methuselah.

    Also, I’d note that a couple primary opponents could be good for Hillary. Our Hill-dog has turned in her best performances only after quite a bit of revving up. So I’m 100% down with having some sparring partners on hand for her to get the engine going with so that she’s ready and willing to wood-chipper what ever stumbles out of the GOP primary clown car wreck.

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  5. I would, however, contend that it would be good news for the Party; a non-Bernie backup candidate would probably make the party bigwigs (and me) sleep easier. If, as I am hoping/suspecting, the email-gate stuff produces no substantive charges against her then it’ll be a non-issue by the time the primaries roll around. If, however, there’s something seriously bad and it cripples her than a backup who isn’t Bernie lowers my blood pressure even if he’s as old as Methuselah.

    It’s mostly the optics of having a responsible backup plan that matters here; understudy is a good term for it. Or Green Lantern. If you prefer heraldry, heir to the thrown of the nomination.

    Or so it seems to me.

    I think it much more likely we’ll see an outsider who’s not running now nominated by the GOP than the Dems.

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    • Bernie is a responsible backup plan. In terms of policies, he’s the best candidate out there. The centrist institutionalist leaders of the Democrats are just terrified of having someone out there who’s actually running from the leftward side of the party, and who’s making a genuine case for progressive policies.

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      • For some time, I’ve feared Bernie might be another Jimmy Carter; and it sort of makes me shudder because people seem to hate Jimmy Carter as president. He’s been my favorite, in my lifetime; he’s Jiminy Cricket; the conscience. If we’d listened to Jimmy, we’d be so much better off today than we actually are, or so it seems to me.

        But people are reconsidering Jimmy Carter now. Finally. So maybe that shouldn’t be such a discomforting thing.

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  6. The conspiracy theorist in me says it’s useful to Hillary if Joe toys around with running for a few months, filling up the doldrums of the news cycle on the Dem side, and allowing Hillary to continue to work through the shadow primaries in relative peace and quiet.

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      • I think if there was a ‘there’ in the email, the specifics would have leaked. The House Committee is, of course, GOP run and they’re not exactly shy about leaking whatever they feel like.

        As someone who has handled classified information, sensitive information, and proprietary information (sometimes all at once!) over a career, I can tell you this: Lots of stuff get slapped with those labels that would make the Average Joe say “WTF? Why would you even care?”.

        Especially “classified”. But the Average Joe hears “classified” without details and thinks “nuclear secrets” and “spy names” and “cloak and dagger” and their imagination comes up with things that SHOULD be classified.

        So take a trio of emails: One, to Hillary, from a staffer reporting some off-the-record statements made by a German counterpart at a meeting in Brussels. Another, Hillary informing Bill they’re running late, so she won’t be back in the US until the next day. Another, an aide sends a quick email that the morning briefing confirmed the suspicions aired about Iran last week.

        All of there would automatically be “classified”, as I understand State Department rules. But if you leaked the contents to the public, they’d laugh and ask “So what?”.

        If there was something nasty in the email, the specifics would leak because it’d do solid, concrete, irrefutable damage. Lacking something nasty, what gets leak is.. “there was classified information” because that will cause damage when the specifics won’t.

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  7. He wants the Precious. Oh how he wants it.

    Biden has an ego. He can suborn it to do job, but he has attempted runs before, in 1988 and 2008. Both times he attracted lots of attention especially from the press and his wonky buddies, but not quite enough support to get momentum.

    His friends, Precious. They tell him he can take it. They tells him he should have the Precious!

    VP for eight years is not living the dream: it’s close enough that he knows what it tastes like; he’s been at the Challenger desk for test drives while 44 is on vacation. If he didn’t like it, he’d have made that clear by now.

    He wants to find a reason to reach out and take the Precious, he does. He may see a reason, a chance, an opportunity, where truly there is none.

    But O how he wants the Precious.

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    • BUT HIS SON DIED IN MAY BEFORE HE REMOTELY HAD TO MAKE A DECISION AND THEN HE HAD TO HELP HS FAMILY MOURN AND HE ALMOST RESIGNED SO HE’S ONLY NOW GETTING AROUND TO FIGURING OUT IF HE EVEN REALLY WOULD WANT TO DO IT IF THERE WAS A WIDE-OPEN PATH, MUCH LESS GO AGAINST HILLARY CLINTON SO THIS IS NOT AT ALL MAINLY A FUNCTION OF HOW DAMAGED SHE IS ALTHOUGH IT’S NOT LIKE THAT’S NOT A FACTOR AT ALL BUT REALLY IT’S ABOUT WHETHER JOE CAN ACCEPT IT ALL BEING OVER LIKE THIS GAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      [Steam blows out of ears.]

      You know what, F it. Whatever. I bow the the C-dub. It’s wrong, but I bow nevertheless.

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      • …Though I will say, this Joan Walsh piece is almost inhumane.

        the time has passed for him to declare himself a serious 2016 candidate – barring a genuine, not media-confected, stumble by Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. I acknowledge that Biden’s capacity for planning a run had to be shattered by his son Beau’s cancer diagnosis in 2013 and death earlier this year. Still, even until that point, while he kept his options open, he took no steps — in terms of fundraising, organizing or staffing — to telegraph he was seriously interested in 2016.

        I find his late maneuvers disturbing, even allowing for the possibility that Beau Biden’s illness and death kept him from making an earlier move. Now his exploration of a run is being read as a show of no-confidence in Clinton’s campaign, and try as I do to resist simplistic Beltway readings of complicated political matters, I can’t see it any other way myself.

        If he should join the race, he’d be doing so because he thinks she can’t win.

        She knows that Beau’s death threw a monkey wrench in any planning process that could have taken place. She knows that there’s absolutely no reason a sitting vice president must (or should) make moves toward a run by May of the year before, especially a run that could only likely be more a valedictory career capstone and advertisement for the outgoing administration than a serious challenge to a dominant favorite. She knows Biden deserves for her to actually allow that tragic situation to let him make the decision when he needs to make it, and treat it like she would have done had the family tragedy not intervened.

        But now she just doesn’t care because Hillary screwed up the response to a non-scandal (not a fake scandal, it’s a real question, it’s just not much of a scandal at all), so it doesn’t look quite right for Biden to get in now (even though it’s in fact in no way too late for him to do so, though it’s getting there).

        All her other arguments against a run are belied by the fact that she says she’d have been supportive if he’d just happened to show interest in April.

        If anything, it appears to me that Clinton’s stumbles have made getting in harder for Biden, since it’s made party actors much more concerned about how it reflects on Clinton. If not for the email problem, I suspect Biden would be on his way to a low-key entry to a largely symbolic run in an empty primary. Or: not, because he doesn’t have the emotional reserves for it (which is what it’s sounding more and more like to me).

        Also, ask yourself this question: if Hillary were not weakened (or perceived to be) by the email, do you think Walsh would then be welcoming Biden not the race? No, she’d be saying Hillary’s got it wrapped up, so whats the point? The upshot being, apparently it had to be done pre-Beau’s death (which no one knew was coming) or never for Biden. Which is both unnecessary and unrealistic for a sitting VP considering a run that at the time very likely had no path to the nomination (and still most likely doesn’t).

        It’s a totally unfair position to take, and the pretense of giving fair consideration to the effect of the guy’s loss of his son at the most inopportune time (from Joan’s perspective) while in fact completely failing to give him that consideration, actually borders on inhumane.

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      • I’m not criticizing him! I’m just saying that timing is everything.

        We can create hypotheticals all day long about what might have been had Biden had no reason to (rightly!) spend more time with his family over the last year than with his staff getting stuff prepared for 2016. Maybe he’d have done all sorts of things.

        As it is, though, what happened happened. Would that it hadn’t.

        And if Hillary was going through the opposition like a chainsaw, we wouldn’t be having this conversation about anybody else throwing his or her hat in the ring.

        But she ain’t.

        And here we are.

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        • No, I don’t take it as criticism.

          My point is I just think it’s mistaken to think that a decision by him really strongly reflects the level of damage done to Hillary. Because I think there are good reasons to think he was going to wait to decide, and certainly sought to wait after Beau died. So now he’s looking at it, andI thnk there is also reason to think he was inclined to run all along. It’s just largely a matter of his emotional resources and his family.

          So if he gets in, it’s not really such an indicator of the shape of Hillary’s campaign. If she gets in worse trouble, it might become almost irresistible, to the point where clearly if she just implies, then that will profoundly affect the status of a Biden run unavoidably. But she remains basically strong. And Biden might get in anyway. If it stays that way I think it would a mistake to read Biden’s decision as a strong indicator that he thinks she’s in trouble. It’s an indication he decided he wanted to run after all.

          That’s what I was saying there. Not that I think you’re criticizing him for it being an indication about Hillary. Just that you’re WRONG.

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            • If the party truly gets in real trouble and needs him, then his entry (if it hadn’t happened by then) would be …yes, *tightly* correlated. (This is, by the way, another reason he should be in the race way before then… like, now’s good.)

              But until that point, the argument goes the other way – that if he gets in in the interim (before the Hillary train is clearly off the rails) it’s not that the party needs him, but that he “sees an opening” – i.e., he’s only in then because he then thinks he can beat her, and absolutely wouldn’t be if he didn’t. Which would indicate that he and other party actors deem her quite damaged.

              I’m saying *that’s* wrong. I don’t think that’s the determining factor in Biden’s decision process right now. I think it’s about whether he determines he has the fuel left. But that’s just what I think; obvious I can’t prove it.

              The other problem, though, is that some party actors (like Joan Walsh) don’t care what’s true about the relationship between Clinton’s campaign condition and Biden’s decision. They care about how a decision to run by him in this environment for any reason affects the perception of Hillary’s campaign as weak. Which is another reason for him to get in now, even from their perspective. His being on the outside creates inevitable speculation about getting in, which creates this dynamic about what the potential decision would mean bout Hillary’s campaign. If he were to get in, the decision would be made and that dynamic would quickly pass. The mere fact of his being in the race would turn out to indicate very little in particular about Hillary’s campaign.

              But that part wasn’t what Jaybird was speaking to. He was speaking to what Biden’s decision making process itself indicates about perceptions of Hillary’s campaign being weakened among those able to contribute to the decision (a select group of party actors, but of course mainly Biden himself). I’m telling you it doesn;t indicate as much as the CW says it does. I could be wrong.

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                  • No forcing on your part MD, I’m fond of Clinton but my top desire is to see a Democratic Candidate in the White House for as long as the GOP remains utterly loony tunes.
                    Unless it degenerates into an utterly historic mudfest (not likely) there’s really no angle where a Biden entry is bad news. If Hilldog is foundering then he’ll be an alternative; if she’s fine then he’ll be a sparring partner.

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                    • I just have a hard time seeing Biden wanting to go out as the guy who tried to hatchet Hillary Clinton. I just don’t think there’s any reason to think he would, or that he couldn’t grasp the value of the kind of campaign I envision for him that simply argues for the Obama legacy and highlights his experience.

                      But if she’s ever so damaged that it actually gives him a true chance, she’ll probably go down on her own at that point; he won’t have to do any chopping. Actually the business at hand at that point would be dealing with Bernie.

                      And as to the less attractive parts of Biden’s record that people say his running could dredge up and tarnish his legacy: they’re part of his legacy anyway! I don’t see how going out offering his final apologies (whether in the classical or modern sense) for those actions could really worsen maters all that much. And it could help.

                      Moreover, especially on the crime bill, that really is stuff the party should wrestle with, and I don’t think it’s something that Hillary really wants to cover if she doesn’t have to. Biden being there might force the issue (though I actually am not convinced of that). If so, and if he doesn’t choose to follow her down the path of mea culpa, then that’s an opportunity for her to get in some good lines about that stuff.

                      Which is to say, right you are.

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