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If not Hillary, how about Joe? [Commentary]

What if Hillary Clinton doesn't seek the presidency in 2016?

Waiting patiently and noncommittally in the wings is Vice President Joe Biden. He might well be reluctant to take her on, considering the powerhouse she has become, with an army of Democratic women "Ready for Hillary" to unleash them. But almost certainly Mr. Biden would run if she didn't, and why not?

Many, particularly Republicans relieved at not having to face her in the general election, would peddle their favorite impression: that Mr. Biden is a loose cannon who would run the country with his foot in his mouth. But as vice president he has been largely wary of getting out of line. One rap against him in the job was his premature endorsement of same-sex marriage in what turned out to be a helpful nudge to President Barack Obama to do the same.

In his nearly six years as veep, Mr. Biden has served as a visible partner in governance in the administration as perhaps no other second officer has other than Dick Cheney, whose outsized role was widely questioned. And unlike Mr. Cheney, he of the often "undisclosed location," Mr. Biden has routinely been openly at President Obama's side on many major occasions.

Beyond the easy and dismissive characterization of the sitting VP as a tongue-wagging joke, Mr. Biden brings some of the strongest credentials of any occupant to have held the office. He is a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations and Judiciary Committees during his 36 years in that body, and he has a history of globe-trotting personal relationships with world leaders in every corner of the planet.

Over that long course, Mr. Biden has been a popular, hard-working laborer across the political aisle in Congress and in a slew of foreign capitals. His geniality has been a successful bridge builder, and within his own party his down-to-earth manner has been compared to that of party icons Harry Truman and Hubert Humphrey.

To be sure, the man has his shortcomings, in sometimes shooting from the hip or making embarrassing remarks. But his good will usually gives him a safe haven among his political contemporaries. His two previous bids were cut short, one in 1987 in charges of campaign plagiarism that could be written off as unintentional or just careless. In the other in 2008, he was clearly outgunned, financially and otherwise, by superstars Obama and Clinton.

A Biden candidacy in the absence of Hillary Clinton on the ticket would draw much bantering about Old Joe and his gaffes. But it would be countered by the popularity within his party of this old-fashioned fighting Irish stem-winder with a Willie Loman smile and a shoeshine, as well as all his hands-on practical political and foreign policy experience.

Many millions of Democrats, and particularly women, would be crushed by a surprise "No" from Hillary to making the 2016 fight for the presidency. But the party would have a Democrat of the old-school blue-collar variety to step in on day one to take on the challenge. It's the job, after all, for which he will already have been standing by for nearly eight years, with sleeves rolled up and pitching in all that time.

There is the question of Mr. Biden's age. If elected, he will have just turned 74 on inauguration day, with a history of two brain aneurysms. But those happened 26 years ago, and he has handled a full workload in the Senate and in the vice presidency ever since then.

When you think about it, putting all the Biden-bashing aside, his candidacy would seem a pretty good alternative for the Democrats, even for all the women so ready for Hillary. His authorship of the Violence Against Women Act in the Senate has earned him high marks, along with his celebrated talent for schmoozing with what his generation still calls the fair sex.

Meanwhile, the man everybody calls Joe just continues to serve — and wait to see what Hillary does.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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