In the already tiresome guessing game of whether or not Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2016, there's a wide assumption among Democrats that the nomination is hers for the asking. One apparent rationale is that the party has no one else to turn to who has comparable national recognition or appeal.
The assumption is somewhat predicated on an expectation that Vice President Joe Biden would step aside, either out of a conviction that he could not beat her in primary competition or that his public image is so tattered as to render his nomination inconceivable.
One reason for those views includes the fact that he has been an early casualty in his two previous presidential bids. In 1987, he dropped out of the 1988 race in the wake of allegations of mild plagiarism. And in 2008 he was an uncompetitive casualty of the intensive primary fight for the Democratic nomination between the former first lady and the charismatic Sen. Barack Obama. Also, he would be almost 74 if elected in 2016.
Another basis for denigrating him as the nominee is the Biden persona. An openly opinionated and loquacious politician sometimes given to verbal gaffes, Mr. Biden has acquired the image of a loose cannon who cannot be depended upon to say the right thing. As vice president, he was notoriously criticized in the first Obama term for coming out in support of same-sex marriage, temporarily making Mr. Obama, who had not then done so, looking like a foot-dragger to party liberals.
Other examples of Mr. Biden's quick and somewhat unmonitored tongue have been seized on by critics, especially in the opposition party, casting him as too unreliable to have in the presidency. All these reasons appear to have given rise to an impression in some quarters that a third bid for the Oval Office would be an act of folly.
Mr. Biden himself has expressed his own bafflement over why he shouldn't run. He recently observed: "There may be reasons I don't run, but there's no obvious reason for me why I think I should not run."
While also saying he hasn't made up his own mind and that any decision to run would be a family one, as a re-elected vice president Mr. Biden has every reason in terms of history at least to try. Six of the nine previous veeps were subsequently their party's presidential nominee, though only one, Republican George H.W. Bush, was elected.
The senior Mr. Bush's election in 1988 was projected by some as the equivalent of a third Ronald Reagan term, inasmuch as he largely ran on the Reagan record. Mr. Biden likewise would probably run on the Obama record, in which he has played an even more prominent and visible role.
Beyond all this, Mr. Biden also remains in much higher esteem in the Democratic Party than Mr. Bush ever did among fellow Republicans, many of whom suspected him as not sufficiently conservative.
Furthermore, Mr. Biden came to the vice presidency after 36 years of service in the Senate and having been chairman of its Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees, with wide personal contacts among foreign leaders. In his current office, he has been a close and daily adviser to Mr. Obama to a degree perhaps unmatched by any predecessor save Dick Cheney under George W. Bush.
It would be hard to find another Democrat, beyond Hillary Clinton, who could boast a stronger resume for the presidency than Mr. Biden offers, including on-the-job-training as an active member of Mr. Obama's inner circle, handling assignments ranging from overseeing his critical stimulus program to heavy political duty on the campaign trail.
Should Mr. Biden decide in the end not to run for president again, it should be noted that there is no constitutional barrier to serving a third term as vice president. On his record, he has proved to be a strong and dependable presidential standby, and has seemed to be very comfortable in the job. As an alternative to trying for the top office again, Joe Biden could do worse than seek another four years in the one he now has. And so could his party in offering it to him, if it came to that.
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 email@example.com.