Joe Biden steps back, as adults leave the room

Vice President Joe Biden speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Wednesday. He has decided against running for the presidential nomination.
Vice President Joe Biden speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Wednesday. He has decided against running for the presidential nomination. The Associated Press

Joe Biden was always a long shot as a third-time presidential candidate. As widely respected and, in some cases, beloved as the vice president is, he’s also a 72-year-old father struggling with grief for his son Beau, the former Delaware attorney general who died of brain cancer in May.

On Wednesday, he cited that grief in explaining his decision to pass on the 2016 race for the White House.

“Unfortunately, I believe we’re out of time,” he said from the White House Rose Garden, his wife, Jill, and President Barack Obama looking on. “The time necessary to mount a winning campaign for the nomination.”

The moment was poignant, and if his announcement felt like a loss for the nation, that was because it is.

At least for the moment, America is losing a clear-eyed class act at a time when the nation is in dire need of experienced and grounded leaders. Known for his authenticity, his knowledge of Washington and an honesty that he never quite managed to gaffe-proof, Biden led by inclusion, even as personal tragedy stalked him. He lost his first wife and daughter to a car crash in 1972, shortly after he was elected to the U.S. Senate; after Beau’s death, thousands of well-wishers showed up at the memorial to pay their respects to Biden in person.

He has been a key intermediary for Obama on matters foreign and domestic. Still, as he weighed a bid for the Democratic nomination all summer, the dollars just weren’t there for a campaign, nor were the numbers.

In the most recent poll, from ABC News and The Washington Post, Biden pulled in just 16 percent of likely primary voters. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, capitalizing on her strong performance this month in the first Democratic debate, got 54 percent of voters, followed by Bernie Sanders at 23 percent.

At this point, any candidacy by Biden would surely create a rift within the Democratic Party. Many of the party’s donors, strategists, advisers and aides, including many who worked for Obama, are already backing Clinton. And unlike too many of the voices that are currently ascendant in this country, Biden isn’t about creating rifts.

“Washington … has to begin to function again,” the vice president said Wednesday. “Instead of being the problem, it has to become part of the solution again. We have to be one America again.”

It was a plea that has become increasingly familiar in this country. His words echoed those of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who, as Biden spoke, was reluctantly agreeing to lead the House as speaker, but only if three warring factions of the Republican Party agree to endorse him. The hard-line Freedom Caucus kicked and screamed before not-quite-but-sort-of agreeing. They wanted Rep. Daniel Webster, even though the party’s mainstream rejects his agenda and his Florida congressional district is on the verge of being eliminated.

But this paralysis is what we have come to, as small, mean-spirited and shortsighted voices rise in our political system, driving one adult after another from the room. It has to stop, and only we, the voters, can stop it. Biden is right: This rising tide of pettiness and fear doesn’t reflect us as a nation, but if we don’t assert ourselves against it together, it will take on a life of its own.