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Ending a game of “will he or won’t he?” that even he must have found tiresome, Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced that he wouldn’t seek the presidency in 2016. Biden’s conclusion that the window on “mounting a realistic campaign” had closed is sensible, especially in light of a new poll showing him badly trailing Hillary Rodham Clinton. An official declaration of candidacy might have improved those numbers, but it still would have been hard for Biden to catch up with potential voters and donors.

It’s possible to understand Biden’s reasoning and still bemoan what his decision means for his party and the nation, beginning with the fact that he would have brought an irrepressible enthusiasm to what has been a fairly joyless campaign. Atmospherics aside, a competitive race for the nomination is good for democracy. In April, before the Biden boomlet began, this page lamented that the Democratic field had exactly one candidate with a truly national profile: Clinton. Not much has changed in the ensuing months. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has established a loyal following, but he lacks the stature that Biden, a sitting vice president and longtime power in the Senate, would have brought to the race.

A Biden candidacy could have forced Clinton to take clearer positions and address questions about her judgment that have been easy for her to dismiss when they’ve come from the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” (Sanders has shown little interest in such matters, delighting Clinton at their first debate by declaring that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!”) Besides, it’s good for voters to have a more vigorous competition of ideas and more choices in an election, particularly one with such high stakes.

Biden suggested he would serve as a kind of continuity cop in his party’s campaign. “Democrats should not only defend this administration’s record and protect this record,” he said, “they should run on the record.” That may seem like a coded warning to Clinton. But while she has diverged somewhat from the administration line — opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, for example — in general she has sought to associate herself with the administration in which she served as secretary of State. At the debate she promised to “build on the successes of President Obama.”

Actually, even vice presidents who seek the White House try to distinguish themselves, however subtly, from the presidents they served — witness the campaigns of Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, George H.W. Bush and Al Gore. If Biden had decided to seek the White House, he also probably would have found a way to demonstrate that he was his own man. Watching him execute that maneuver is only one of the experiences Americans will miss now that he has decided not to run.

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