So maybe Vice President Joe Biden was kidding when he said he was “going to run, in 2020” after presiding over a session of the Senate on Tuesday. But whether he was joking or offering an accurate reflection of the plans of a politician who has spent the last 30 years thinking he ought to be president, the fact that so many in the press corps were quick to take it seriously tells us more about the current state of the Democratic Party than it does about Biden’s unquenchable ambition.

The occasion was the passage of a cancer treatment bill renamed to honor Biden’s son Beau, so the normally loquacious veep was even more voluble during a chat with journalists who thought they were covering one of his last moments of active political life. But Biden made it clear he wasn’t interested in assisting anyone in writing a political obituary. That may have been a reflexive reaction from a veteran publicity hound who has been a senator or vice president since 1972. Yet the words he spoke are doubtless enough to put him on any short list of possible Democratic presidential contenders. But can we take seriously the notion that a man who will be 77 during the 2020 primaries can possibly be the Democratic nominee next time?

Biden will be far older than anyone who has ever been nominated, let alone elected president. He also has been running for president since 1988, the first time his hopes for the White House crashed and burned. Surely, the Democrats ought to be able to come up with a few credible candidates who weren’t in Congress during the Reagan administration, let alone when Richard Nixon was taping sessions in the Oval Office.

But, honestly, who else do the Democrats have? There’s Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has the affection of the liberal base. But she’ll be 71 in 2020. After that, the list dwindles and the discussion turns to people who are either not yet national figures or seen as marginal for one reason or another. In a couple of years, we might be talking about people like Senators Kirsten Gillibrand or Corey Booker, who will be 53 and 51 respectively during the next presidential cycle. But when you compare the Democrats 2020 plans to the way Republicans were already lining up and actively preparing to run in 2016 in the weeks after President Obama’s re-election four years ago, they are way behind.

Part of the problem is that no one in the party thought 2020 would be an open race since they all assumed Hillary Clinton would be running for re-election that year. It also has to do with a lack of talent in a party that has steadily lost ground in the last eight years at every level of political life. And the Democratic leadership has—as the House leadership race demonstrated—been populated by 70-year-olds with little interest in developing younger talent. Barack Obama was a unique success whose achievements other Democrats can’t replicate.

Anyone who wants to run in 2020 without the money or the name recognition/celebrity status of a Donald Trump needs to get started with serious planning now. The thin field of possible candidates is a sign of a party that has run out of steam. They may assume that opposition to the Trump presidency will energize their base. But that same reasoning was the foundation of their optimism about Clinton and we all know how well that worked out.

So while we can roll our eyes at Biden’s comic desire for continued attention, unless some serious Democrats who are not either lightweights like Martin O’Malley or protest candidates like Bernie Sanders step forward soon, a Biden 2020 campaign is far from a joke.

Joe Biden
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