Biden and Clinton
(David Horsey/LA Times)

During the two years preceding his rise to the office of Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I remember hearing him speak at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where he expressed his belief that post-Saddam Iraq could never successfully unify and, so, should be split three ways into independent enclaves for Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

Given the subsequent bloody evolution -- or devolution -- of the Iraqi state, Mr. Biden's thinking was certainly no less wise than the alternative that has been followed. The worry among foreign policy experts was that Mr. Biden's proposal to partition Iraq would open the door to Iranian domination of the region. What we have today, though, is a "united" Iraq with a Shia-led government beholden to the Iranians, a Sunni militancy that has been co-opted by the horrific Islamic State and a Kurdish region that runs its own affairs.


Just as we will never know if Mr. Biden's plan might have brought about a better result in Iraq, we also now will never know if a third Biden candidacy for president might have succeeded. In the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday, flanked by his wife, Jill, and President Barack Obama, Joe Biden announced he would not be a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Grief and timing drove Mr. Biden's decision. The death last May of his son, Beau, the former Delaware attorney general who was the promising heir of the Biden political legacy, had clouded the elder Biden's choice about the presidency for months. His deep grief was poignantly obvious and painfully public. The delay stretched out so long that, finally, mounting an effective campaign became logistically impossible.

Another key factor may have been that Hillary Clinton's stumbling campaign regained its balance with her good performance in the Democrats' Las Vegas debate and with the exposure of the House Republicans' Benghazi investigation as largely a partisan hit job aimed at her. With the worries about Clinton's candidacy among Democratic Party insiders calmed, there was less pressure on Mr. Biden to offer a well-tested alternative to Hillary.

With this choice made, it is worth noting that the goofy "Uncle Joe" caricature of Mr. Biden exploited by various comedians may have been entertaining, but it ignored the depth of the man's political skill. Even some Democratic voters are apparently obtuse, in that regard. One not-especially-perceptive participant in a recent focus group composed of Democratic voters said he lacked enthusiasm for a Biden candidacy because Mr. Biden "didn't have enough experience" to be president.

Oh, yeah? Objectively, there is no person in the country -- barring anyone who has already been president -- better qualified to be commander-in-chief than Joe Biden. With 36 years as a consequential senator and seven years as a very engaged vice president, Mr. Biden could have effortlessly walked into the Oval Office and taken charge. Compared to the seasoned vice president, Republican frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson are rank amateurs.

If there is reason to bemoan Mr. Biden's decision, it is not merely because the country will be deprived of his skills; Americans will have also lost the opportunity to vote for one of the most decent, well-liked politicians on the national scene. One GOP presidential aspirant, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, calls Mr. Biden "the nicest person I've ever met in politics." "A good man," is the way the vice president is described by both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and former-President Bill Clinton.

It is rare that a person can spend four decades in politics and maintain the respect of both allies and opponents. It is even rarer that such a person can retain a common touch that endears him to average citizens. Joe Biden has done both. About the worst thing anyone says about him is that he talks a little too much, but at least he knows what he is talking about.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go tolatimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.