Former United Kingdom Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock had kind words for Vice President Joe Biden Wednesday night, after Biden announced his decision not to seek the presidency next year.
“Joe's made a typically wise decision for himself and his family and for the Democratic Party. He's a credit to public service and deserves tribute,” Lord Kinnock told AMI Newswire in a statement.
Biden's first run for president shipwrecked after he was accused of of plagiarizing a previous address by Kinnock. Passages from a May 1987 Kinnock speech to the Welsh Labor Party appeared unaltered in a Biden stemwinder at the Iowa State Fair in September of that year.
Biden, then a U.S. senator from Delaware, was also found to have taken passages from Hubert Humphrey and Robert F. Kennedy in other speeches, and the presidential hopeful conceded that he had lifted a Fordham Law Review article for an academic paper in the 1960s.
Like Biden, Kinnock was a tireless political warrior. Unlike Biden, Kinnock had forebears who worked in coal mines. Biden borrowed those details and added them to his own family history.
The cheerful senator tried to dismiss the plagiarism as a “tempest in a teapot” at the time, but it didn't work. Biden dropped out of the 1988 Democratic primaries. Eventual nominee Michael Dukakis went on to lose to George H.W. Bush.
Kinnock, who led the Labour Party in opposition during the governments of Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, was paying tribute to another longtime veteran of the establishment left. Biden's announcement Wednesday afternoon followed months of will-he-or-won't-he speculation.
While Democratic Party watchers gamed out the potential impact of a Biden entry on frontrunner Hillary Clinton, Biden repeatedly tamped down supporters' hopes in recent weeks.
In what amounted to a pre-concession speech, the vice president thanked President Obama for “lending me the Rose Garden for a minute” to tell the assembled press that the “window on mounting a realistic campaign for president…has closed.”
Biden said he had missed the opportunity while mourning for his son Beau, who died in May of brain cancer.
Aaron Mannes, a University of Maryland researcher and historian of the vice presidency, felt the sting of Biden's exit professionally, but he was unsurprised by the choice.
“Hillary was in a very strong position from the beginning and as time passed, her position vis-a-vis Biden was only getting stronger," Mannes told AMI Newswire. "Best case is that it would have been a long shot for Biden. His real chance was if something went deeply wrong with Hillary's campaign.”
Yet Biden’s goofball persona and affable long-windedness, both on display in his announcement, masked the more serious threat he posed to Clinton: his position as vice president of the United States.
Fully a third of U.S. presidents, most recently the elder Bush in 1988, came into the Oval Office after holding the vice presidency.
Mannes’ own research helps shed more light on the towering, sneak attack role the vice president plays in American democracy. He points to an “explicit decision” by President Jimmy Carter to “elevate the vice presidency.”
After some negotiations, Carter agreed to provide Veep Walter Mondale “with a weekly private meeting, access to all White House meetings and paper-flow, and, most significantly, a West Wing office. Once these perquisites were established, future presidents continued them,” Mannes said.
Vice presidents have grown in knowledge and also in power.
When he was secretary of defense, Dick Cheney squabbled with Vice President Dan Quayle for Quayle’s role in conveying President George H.W. Bush’s orders to put down a coup in the Philippines. As vice president, Cheney unilaterally ordered U.S. fighters to shoot down planes over American airspace on 9/11 and obscured that fact until the Obama administration.
Biden doesn’t appear as grimly serious as Cheney, but a definitive history of the Obama administration will show how important he was. After all, Biden was the man who talked the late Arlen Specter into switching parties and thus secured a veto-proof Democratic majority in the Senate.
Later, when the political winds had shifted, Biden became known as the “McConnell whisperer” for his ability to bend the ear of Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But the power of the office itself is only a portion of the vice presidency's power. Forty-three men so far have been president. Fourteen of those were vice president first and made it to the top job by election, assassination or resignation.
For bettors, that means there’s about a one-in-three shot that any vice president will become president.