I couldn’t declare anyone the clear winner of last Tuesday’s Democratic debate, but I was sure of one thing: that the strong performance of Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders (as well as former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley) should convince Vice President Joe Biden that there was no obvious opening for him to run for president.
Clinton, I wrote, “proved that the Democrats don’t need a (white) man on a white horse to come in and save them from her candidacy.” Meanwhile, “Sanders proved the party, and the nation, has a real choice–between a center-left reformer and a (peaceful) left-wing revolutionary.”
Apparently, I was wrong. If you believe reports from reputable mainstream media outlets this weekend, Biden was far less impressed by the debate than I was. Several trustworthy reporters say he’s still mulling a run. “Biden’s view of the debate,” Dan Balz wrote in The Washington Post, “confirmed that Clinton’s current competition is subpar at best.” CBS News adds that Biden “will not be bullied” by the Clinton campaign—chair John Podesta suggested last week it’s time for Biden to make a decision—and may not get in, if he does, until next month. On Monday morning, NBC’s Kristen Welker and CNBC’s John Harwood both reported that the vice president will decide in the next 48 hours.
So far pundits have depicted Biden’s potential candidacy as a verdict on Clinton’s campaign: that her e-mail woes have weakened her and rendered her less trustworthy, and that the country would be better served by, in Maureen Dowd’s damning words, “Biden values,” as opposed to Clinton values. But as the vice president keeps the summer rumors sizzling into the middle of the fall, increasingly his plans also look like a referendum on her opposition, particularly Bernie Sanders.
That’s despite the fact that Sanders has outperformed everyone’s expectations, including perhaps his own. He’s way ahead in New Hampshire, and just behind Clinton in Iowa. Polls show him defeating every leading Republican in a head-to-head race (though such polls aren’t worth much this far out). He’s drawing record-breaking crowds, and raising issues, like free college and Social Security expansion, that the campaign might have neglected without him. The CNN debate drew almost 16 million viewers, by far the most in Democratic debate history. There’s already a high intensity of interest in the Clinton-Sanders race.