August 20, 2019
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Joe Biden is leading the polls. But his other presidential bids were disasters.

Michael Dwyer | AP
Michael Dwyer | AP
Former vice president Joe Biden speaks at a rally in support of striking Stop & Shop workers in Boston, April 18, 2019.

“Today, I announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America,” said Joe Biden, the 44-year-old junior senator from Delaware, standing before the Wilmington train station in June 1987. The Democrat called for generational change and urged voters to reject the status quo established by President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush.

Now 76, Biden is the same age Reagan was in that summer of 1987.

Today, it is Biden’s generation that’s being asked to step aside. But on Thursday, he announced a third campaign for the Democratic nomination for president.

[Former vice president Joe Biden jumps into 2020 White House race]

“The most eloquent case against his current candidacy came from his own mouth in 1987,” said Paul Taylor, a former reporter who covered the campaign for The Washington Post.

Here’s a look at how Biden’s first two campaigns went. (Hint: not well.)

1987: Soaring oratory and plagiarism

With the end of the Reagan era just around the corner, Bush was already the GOP’s presumptive nominee. Sen. Gary Hart, a Colorado Democrat, was an exciting, young reform candidate who was hoping to become his party’s choice after narrowly losing in 1984. Then reports emerged that Hart was having a sexual relationship outside of his marriage. His campaign burned up like a meteor in the atmosphere, leaving no clear front-runner. That gave Biden a clearer opening.

In his announcement four weeks later, Biden urged a return to idealism and for the establishment to yield to a younger generation.

“Nobody was more explicit back in ’87 in sounding the generational trumpet than Joe Biden,” Taylor said.

His challenge to the old guard had become a hallmark of his career. After all, he was just 29 when he unseated a two-term senator in a 1972 upset.

Biden also hoped to capitalize on his gift of oratory and his ability to assemble a coalition of working-class and black voters. His critics, however, saw him as long-winded and “all flash and no substance,” Taylor reported at the time.

Biden hadn’t even been running for president six months when the accusation came. A videotape revealed that Biden had cribbed elements of a speech given by British Labor leader Neil Kinnock, among others. The details of Kinnock’s story, which broadly extolled the vigor of his coal-mining ancestors, didn’t exactly jibe with the facts in Biden’s own Pennsylvania background.

“It was one of those things where you pull on the thread, and it keeps on unraveling,” Taylor said.

Biden, needing to extinguish the scandal to save his campaign, attempted to explain away his borrowing of Kinnock’s words, but he admitted to a plagiarism episode in law school that had nearly gotten him expelled.

Biden, who was serving as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also faced considerable pressure from Republicans, as Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork prepared for confirmation hearings.

“He was hurting both causes,” said Paul Kane, The Post’s senior congressional correspondent.

The circumstances forced him to drop out of the race, but not before publicly raising the possibility of sabotage by a rival. Indeed, a member of the campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who would go on to become the Democratic nominee, had given the plagiarism story to the press and was fired as a result.

Not long after dropping out, Biden suffered an aneurysm that nearly killed him.

“He acknowledged that he probably owed his life to his failure as a presidential candidate,” The Post’s Helen Dewar wrote in September 1988, when he returned to the Senate.

2007: Gaffes and tough competitors

After Biden’s 1988 campaign failed, the opportunity to run for president seemed limited for Biden, Post senior political correspondent Dan Balz said. Biden had an opportunity in 2004, but again passed.

The chance wouldn’t truly come again until February 2007, when he announced another bid.

But, as had happened nearly 20 years earlier, gaffes struck. The New York Observer quoted him describing fellow Sen. Barack Obama as “articulate and bright and clean,” which many viewed as racially insensitive. He had made comments about other ethnic groups, as well. Regardless of his history of gaffes and attempts to clean them up, Biden faced serious head winds, Balz said.

“He was running against the biggest brand in the party [Hillary Clinton] and this sort of supernova [Obama],” he said.

Biden dropped out again after a dismal showing in the Iowa caucuses.

2015: Grief ends a possible campaign

Biden, of course, rebounded by becoming Obama’s vice president. With the end of Obama’s second term, Hillary Clinton was once again emerging as a front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

Biden surely was asking himself, “Wait, I’m the sitting vice president. Why is everybody racing off to sign up with a former secretary of state?” Kane said.

The scandal over Clinton’s handling of a private email server had exposed weaknesses in her campaign, which tempted Biden and his team of campaign veterans. Reports emerged that Biden had met with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, as a potential running mate. He was talking with labor leaders about potential endorsements.

But the desire to run was less about a competitor than a dream of becoming commander in chief.

“This is a guy who wanted to run for president practically his entire life,” Kane said.

In the end, Biden never jumped into the race, more out of his commitment to his family than anything else. His son Beau Biden had died in May 2015, and he was still grieving. He had concluded, he announced in the Rose Garden that October, that the window to launch a campaign “had closed.”

Four years later, the window has opened. And Biden is in a position he has never been in before: he’s leading the latest Monmouth poll for the 2020 Democratic nomination.

 



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