Joe Biden knows that winning in 2020 would require a shoot-the-moon set of circumstances and luck. So his team is on the hunt for a moon shot.
Between stops on his book tour and in the ramp-up for what will be a heavy midterms campaign schedule, a tight circle of aides has been brainstorming a range of tear-up-the-playbook ideas for a White House run, according to people who’ve been part of the discussions or told about them.
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On the list: announcing his candidacy either really early or really late in the primary process so that he’d define the field around him or let it define itself before scrambling the field; skipping Iowa and New Hampshire and going straight to South Carolina, where he has always had a strong base of support; announcing a running mate right out of the gate and possibly picking one from outside of politics; and making a pitch that he can be a bridge not just to disaffected Democrats, but to Republicans revolting against President Donald Trump.
They’ve also discussed an idea some donors and supporters have been pitching Biden on directly for months: kick off by announcing that he’d only run for one term. One person who’s pitched the idea said Biden would try to sell voters on “a reset presidency.” The former vice president would pick a younger Democratic running mate and argue that he’d be the elder statesman to get the country and government back in order post-Trump and be the bridge to the next generation.
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Biden is “thinking through a million unconventional options, because there is an acknowledgment that this could be an unconventional campaign,” said one person involved in the discussions.
Biden hasn’t been actively exploring the presidential options himself, and is far from making any decision about whether he’ll run. But, according to people who’ve spoken with him, he’s already pushed back on the one-term idea. If he runs, he doesn’t want to be a lame duck from Day One.
He’s also not a fan of essentially accepting the premise that he’s too old for the job and needs a pass to get into the Oval Office.
The discussions reflect realities that Biden and his team are facing as they weigh whether to get real about running. He definitely still wants to be president but knows that his age will be a factor (he’ll turn 78 two weeks after Election Day 2020). As a guy who’s been in politics for nearly 50 years, he recognizes how tricky it would be to run at a time of political upheaval. And he understands that if he runs, the regrets over Hillary Clinton’s attempted 2016 coronation will guarantee a crowded primary field, which he’d have to both fully participate in and stand apart from.
On Tuesday, Biden kicked off what will be a heavy campaign schedule this year with two appearances for Conor Lamb, the Democrat running for a House seat in the Pennsylvania special election. It was as much about trying to put Lamb over the top as it was about signaling how much of his 2018 will be about promoting people he sees as “Biden Democrats,” and cultivating the perception of him as the lone national Democrat who can campaign anywhere.
Both Republicans and “some in my party don’t get it,” Biden said in Pennsylvania. “It’s about our pride. It’s about our dignity. It’s about who the hell we are and what we’ve done. It makes me angry, it makes me angry when we’re not respected, when you’re not respected.”
He said Trump’s tax bill was fundamentally about the rich stealing money that “they didn’t earn” from working people, and he portrayed himself as a champion of national unity. “I worry about the left and the right in American politics insisting on, ‘Only my way,’” Biden said.
“Looking at the environment, it’s hard for someone who’s spent his life in public service to say, ‘I don’t think I can play any role in fixing this,’” said the person who’s been involved in the presidential brainstorming.
In recent private conversations, Biden has described to advisers a shift: from people telling him to run because they thought he could be the one to beat Trump, to them saying they think he has the credibility and experience to do the job. Biden leaned into that argument in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, reminding the crowd that he was always the one who former President Barack Obama sent to Capitol Hill to make deals.
As he started speaking to House Democrats at their retreat last month, he was greeted with a few “Run, Joe, Run!” cheers.
His book tour, which has put him on stage nearly every week re-living the emotional trauma of losing his son Beau, has left him drained, aides said. Though they know that the schedule and intensity of a presidential campaign would be exponentially greater, they also feel like he’d draw energy from the crowds as a natural extrovert and skilled practitioner of retail politics.
Biden loves to talk, and he loves when people talk to him about running for president. But he’s been urging people to focus on 2018, given the stakes for Democrats, insisting that it hurts the cause if at every stop he’s seen as campaigning for the sake of laying the groundwork for his own future.
“He was very clear that he didn’t want the narrative to be about him running in 2020,” said Robert Wolf, a major donor whom Biden courted during his last-minute exploration of a 2016 run, and who saw him recently in New York. “He shut it down very quickly.”
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