Keep holding your breath, everyone. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) has said he'll decide by September -- at the earliest -- whether or not to run for president.
Already there are nine Democrats seeking the White House, so why, you might ask, do we need another? We already have at least one candidate, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who has made national security and terrorism the centerpiece of his campaign. We already have one candidate, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who ran for president in 1988. And we already have one candidate, former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.), from a tiny state.
Biden -- who is anything but media shy and probably enjoys the extra attention he can get by keeping the political press guessing -- told The News Journal of Wilmington that the reason he hasn't entered the race yet is because he wants to do it on his own timetable. "If it's too late, it's too late. So be it," he said, adding, "My reason for not doing it now is: I don't know how you can go out and do all the things you need to do to run for president and still try to shape -- or in some cases impede -- the president's agenda. Here we are talking about low-yield nuclear weapons and [Sen.] John Edwards [D-N.C.], Sen. John Kerry [D-Mass.], Bob Graham and Dick Gephardt are all somewhere else. They're not in the debate. I'm not ready to do that." Finally, he told the paper, "So far, none of these candidates have really caught on. I could be dead wrong, but I think there's still plenty of time left."
I agree with Biden that no single candidate has thus far energized the party; in other words, there's no definitive front-runner. However, the idea that there's plenty of time left is simply bizarre. As of March 31, two candidates -- Edwards and Kerry -- had raised about $7 million each. Catching up to that kind of fundraising (and surpassing it) won't be easy. As Kerry pollster Mark Mellman pointed out to The News Journal, "Anyone who gets into the race now is 20 to 30 Iowa visits behind Howard Dean. You need that time on the ground with Democratic Party voters." Biden's going to have to log a lot of frequent-flier miles fast to catch up with the nine declared candidates.
What's more, his poll numbers are in the basement. And while poll numbers more than a year before an election don't mean much, Biden is in the low, low single digits. Most Americans don't know who the senior senator from Delaware is. And building a base of support from a state with three electoral votes is a task I don't envy.
Then there's the issue of Biden's past run for the Oval Office. In the 1988 campaign, charges that Biden plagiarized a speech by a British political leader arose. Now, of course, plagiarism -- despite its topicality a la Jayson Blair -- isn't likely to sink a campaign, but any candidate who is running against President Bush doesn't need to start off with a mark against his character.
But the main reason I have doubts about Biden's candidacy is that I don't know what he hopes to gain by running for president. I don't see him as the answer to the Democratic Party's problems. I don't see him being able to put together a winning coalition of voters to get to the White House. I see him as a veteran senator who's good at making the Sunday political talk-show rounds -- and that's it.
It's a Washington joke (sort of) that when senators look in their mirrors, they see a possible president staring back. This crowd of Democratic contenders certainly supports that theory; four of the nine candidates, after all, are senators. Biden has spent about half of his life in the Senate, and he was elected to his sixth term last year with 58 percent of the vote. He's got little to lose by running; his seat is safe. So if he really had a fire in his belly, he would forgo some of his influence now for the chance to play a bigger role later as president. But he won't. As Biden told The Philadelphia Inquirer in January, "My instincts tell me that [waiting] is the right thing to do. If it is wrong, so be it. If I am not president . . . I think that is fine."
You don't get to be president -- you don't put in the hours away from your family, traveling to different states, not sure where you're waking up or which group you're supposed to speak to on any given day -- with an attitude that it's "fine" if you never become president. You've got to believe -- and convince campaign aides, fundraisers and grass-roots supporters that you would give your right arm, leg and first-born child to become president. Anyone who can't commit to that level of involvement will never make it through the grueling primary and general election cycle.
So, if Biden doesn't want to run, and I don't think he does, that's fine. But have the courtesy to your fellow candidates and to the party to just come out and say it rather than leave everyone hanging. We're really not on the edge of our seats anyway.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.