In the first presidential election season since Democrats elected a black man as president twice and nominated a woman for the first time, a white man with a terrible record of campaigning for the job and a litany of gaffes sits at or near the top of the 2020 primary polls — without even having to enter the race. It is perhaps a sign of the times that Joe Biden, a two-time presidential also-ran, is still viewed as a great hope for those Democrats who are skittish about nominating anyone who isn’t white and male to run against Donald Trump. You could nominate someone like Cory Booker or Amy Klobuchar to play a similar ideological role, but many fear that any kind of diversity, in the face of the bigotry incited by the president, will be a loser.
One problem is that the longer that Biden flirts with a 2020 candidacy, the better we get to know him. The caricature of “Uncle Joe” crafted over the Obama presidency, has crumbled bit by bit, revealing anew a politician who would likely be ill-suited to handle the political and cultural wreckage left in Trump’s wake. In her incisive essay about Biden’s surprisingly awful politics, Rebecca Traister writes that “so much of what is terrifying and dangerous about this time are in fact problems that can in part be laid at the feet of Joe Biden himself, and the guys we’ve regularly been assured are Democrats’ only answer.”
This campaign cycle has reintroduced us to the man who sounded like a Jim Crow segregationist in the 1970s when he spoke about school busing, who remains unwilling to account for his role in Anita Hill’s mistreatment during a hearing that he controlled, who eulogized the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond and who didn’t think twice before calling his vice-presidential successor Mike Pence “a decent guy,” despite homophobic policies being central to his political rise.
Biden, a co-author of the Violence Against Women Act and longtime champion of ending sexual assault, now faces another problem. Multiple women have come forward with allegations of inappropriate behavior, ranging from making them feel uncomfortable with his gestures and closeness to the “big slow kiss” Biden allegedly planted on the back of the head of former Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores five years ago before a campaign event.
In their urgency to rid the nation of Trump’s cancerous presidency, too many people on the left are ignoring one of their core principles to excuse a man who doesn’t merit the leeway. There has been a flood of progressives dismissing the allegations as “hugging” by a “tactile” politician and pleading with us not to make Biden a #MeToo casualty or to avoid giving him the “Al Franken treatment.” Film director Rob Reiner’s politics line up with mine most of the time, but I couldn’t stand by him when he tweeted on Friday that “you can’t punish both murder & jaywalking with a death sentence. Joe Biden has addressed the issue of personal space discomfort. Time to move on & focus on #1 priority. 86 The Liar!”
We shouldn’t move on, though, precisely because of how Biden has addressed these serious allegations. Thus far, he has handled this controversy not much better than Trump did the Access Hollywood crisis during his 2016 campaign. The magnitude of the alleged sins is different, of course. But the behavior in both cases boils down to not respecting the bodily autonomy of women. Both men took pains to avoid true accountability, and both found occasion to mock the seriousness of their alleged deeds and of the accusations themselves.
After the Access Hollywood tape emerged, Trump put the nation through the charade of recording a videotaped apology, before dismissing his crass, violative language as “locker room talk” two days later. He would ultimately deny that it was even him on the tape.
In a video posted to Twitter last week, we watched Biden admit that he suddenly realized that he should stop putting his hands, body, and lips on women without permission, along with other behaviors that have made them uncomfortable. This is a 76-year-old man, mind you, one who has long preached the gospel of affirmative consent to boys and men with his It’s On Us initiative.
Biden didn’t come even to this simple realization easily. In the wake of Flores’ March 29th op-ed in The Cut, Biden first released a broad statement denying having acted inappropriately in public life — ever — adding that the behavior alleged is “just who I am” and “the way I’ve always been,” as if that helped.
Wednesday’s cellphone confessional lasted a little more than two minutes, and it contained no apology to the at least seven women making allegations of improper behavior nor even a recognition of what they have alleged. “Social norms have begun to change, they’ve shifted and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset and I get it — I get it, I hear what they’re saying, I understand it — and I’ll be much more mindful,” Biden says in the video. “That’s my responsibility, my responsibility. And I’ll meet it.”
His response lost all effectiveness, however, two days later when Biden joked about the allegations in public. Speaking before the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Washington last Friday, Biden clowned around with the mostly male crowd, joking that he “had permission to hug” the union’s president and that a young boy whom he’d welcomed on stage “gave me permission to touch him.”
Downgrading what Flores alleged to a “hug” was already foul. Biden then went outside to reporters and said that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if more women came forward, adding: “I’m not sorry for any of my intentions. I’m not sorry for anything that I have ever done. I have never been disrespectful intentionally to a man or a woman.”
Biden should be above that kind of thinking, given his long record as an advocate against sexual assault. We shouldn’t discard that, but the last week or so leave me wondering whether he understands anything that he preached. “Guys, a woman who is dead drunk cannot consent — You are raping her! We’ve got to talk about this. Consent requires affirmative consent!” Biden told a spellbound group of George Mason students in the spring of 2017, signing onto the “yes means yes” standard that California first made law for college campuses in 2014. “It’s our responsibility, men in particular, but all of us, to stop this culture. If you can’t get her to say ‘yes’ because she wants to, you ain’t much.”
The allegations against Biden have stopped well short of sexual assault; not even his accusers have gone that far. But should not the same standard of permission and respect apply to touching women in the way that Biden has done? After a dramatic appearance on stage honoring The Hunting Ground documentary with Lady Gaga during the 2016 Oscars ceremony, survivors’ rights advocate Sofie Karasek was confiding in Biden when the vice president grasped her arms and put his forehead on hers. “I was taken aback,” Karasek wrote of the encounter last week in the Washington Post. “I averted my eyes, hoping my body language could shorten the interaction. I didn’t think he was going to kiss me, but it felt like if I met his eyes, it wasn’t out of the question, either. It was unwelcome, uncomfortable and strange.”
A photo captured the moment. Even Karasek, whom I’ve known for years, noted for a time that it was a powerful image for the movement to end sexual assault on college campuses, but that she eventually became so disturbed by the photo that she took it off her bookshelf. I applaud her for demanding that Biden take ownership of what he did wrong. The image makes me cringe, too. It is one thing to touch or violate the personal space of a woman without her consent, but Biden had to know that it was wrong to do that to a woman whom he knew was a survivor of sexual assault. This is the way he’s always been, as he said, and thus his limited emotional vocabulary meant that Karasek’s choices were secondary.
The Democrats have been, and remain, the only major party that stands up for a woman’s safety and bodily autonomy. Republicans not only have voted recently against the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act at the behest of the National Rifle Association, but state legislators have been concocting bills to test the constitutionality of legal abortion, many of which have no basis in biology. I grasp that the extremism of the right often shifts the center of the conversation about women’s rights, but the left cannot afford to concede it simply when one of their guys screws up.
Franken is a better example than Biden’s defenders realize. Presidential contender Kirsten Gillibrand is likely told daily that her bid is doomed because she was the first to take a firm stand against her senatorial colleague after multiple allegations of sexual misbehavior emerged, but let’s review what actually happened. Minnesota replaced him with a Democratic woman, Tina Smith, who has voted consistently with the left. And rather than having Franken awkwardly questioning Brett Kavanaugh in the Senate Judiciary hearing, we got Kamala Harris taking his seat and bruising the nominee deeply with her questioning. What, precisely, did Democrats lose by giving Al Franken the “Al Franken treatment”?
Out of Gillibrand, Harris, and a multitude of other choices, the former vice president’s apologists want Biden as the alternative to an incumbent who himself has been accused by more than one dozen women of various forms of sexual harassment and violence. At a moment when we need a nuanced, comprehensive approach to dealing with all forms of sexual impropriety in our society at large, we see a political left instead making excuses for the misbehavior of one of their own. And why? Because they see the Scranton-born Biden as Trump Insurance.
But how can that be the case when Biden has a troubling past of positions on abortion, race, and other issues key to mobilizing the Democratic electorate? There are already nearly 20 people running for president. If voters want centrist policies that will keep the party stagnant, they already have choices in the field who aren’t prone to being inappropriate with women.
While Trumpism may live on through his judges and diseased politics, Trump’s actual presidency is an unmitigated failure that the American people, outside of his calcified base, appears to recognize. I would venture to say that every single person currently running for the Democratic presidential nomination would make a better president. Same goes for others who have not yet announced their candidacies. (Despite my criticisms, I would include Biden in their number. Even Flores said that she’d vote for Biden over Trump.)
This is the time to vet those people, though. Trump may be the worst human to ever serve in the Oval Office. That doesn’t mean that Democrats should nominate just anyone. Or that they should let a politician slide on one of their supposedly fundamental principles just because he is affable and a lot of them get a kick out of his peccadillos.
The struggle for women’s equal standing and citizenship remains an everyday war. The battles are not merely ones about sexual assault, harassment, and domestic violence, which remain objectively horrifying to all but those who either commit or enable them. No, they are also about the touches and kisses and other unwanted contact that remind women where the power lies.
In his Twitter video, Biden tried to explain himself. “In my career, I’ve always tried to make a human connection. That’s my responsibility, I think. I shake hands, I hug people, I grab men and women by the shoulders, say ‘You can do this.’ And whether they’re men, women, young, old, it’s the way I’ve always been, it’s the way I’ve tried to show I care about them and I’m listening.” But that only shows that even if his intentions were pure, and he truly did seek to reassure these women, he still was only thinking of himself. Biden should have understood that his role as a feminist and as a leader is not to rescue these women, nor to be their hero. If he had, he would have realized long ago that he could have kept his hands, and his lips, to himself.