WASHINGTON --That Hillary Clinton will seek the presidency in 2016 is now widely taken as a given. Certainly she has given every sign of it, short of saying "Yes." But what if she doesn't?
Waiting patiently and noncommittally in the wings is Vice President Joe Biden. He might well be reluctant to take her on, considering the powerhouse she has become, with an army of Democratic women "Ready for Hillary" to unleash them in the 2012 party primaries. But almost certainly Biden would run if she didn't, and why not?
Many, particularly Republicans relieved at not having to face her in the general election, would peddle their favorite impression: that Biden is a loose cannon who would run the country with his foot in his mouth. But as vice president he has been largely wary of getting out of line. One rap against him in the job was his premature endorsement of same-sex marriage in what turned out to be a helpful nudge to President Obama to do the same.
In his nearly six years as veep, Biden has served as a visible partner in governance in the administration as perhaps no other second officer has other than Dick Cheney, whose outsized role was widely questioned. And unlike Cheney, he of the often "undisclosed location," Biden has routinely been openly at Obama's side on many major occasions.
Beyond the easy and dismissive characterization of the sitting VP as a tongue-wagging joke, Biden brings some of the strongest credentials of any occupant to have held the office. He is a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations and Judiciary Committees during his 36 years in that body, and has a history of globe-trotting personal relationships with world leaders in every corner of the planet.
Over that long course, Biden has been a popular, hard-working laborer across the political aisle in Congress and in a slew of foreign capitals. His geniality has been a successful bridge builder, and within his own party his down-to-earth manner has been compared to that of party icons Harry Truman and Hubert Humphrey.
A Biden candidacy in the absence of Hillary Clinton on the ticket would draw much bantering about Old Joe and his gaffes. But it would be countered by the popularity within his party of this old-fashioned fighting Irish stem-winder with a Willie Loman smile and a shoeshine, as well as all his hands-on practical political and foreign policy experience.
There is the question of Biden's age. If elected, he will have just turned 74 on inauguration day, with a history of two brain aneurysms. But those happened 26 years ago and he has handled a full workload in the Senate and in the vice presidency ever since then.
When you think about it, putting all the Biden-bashing aside, his candidacy would seem a pretty good alternative for the Democrats, even for all the women so ready for Hillary. His authorship of the Violence Against Women Act in the Senate has earned him high marks, along with his celebrated talent for schmoozing with what his generation still calls the fair sex.
Meanwhile, the man everybody calls Joe just continues to serve -- and wait to see what Hillary does.
Jules Witcover is a nationally syndicated columnist.