On Friday, Lucy Flores, a former Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Nevada, accused Joe Biden of touching her inappropriately as they waited to take the stage at a 2014 election rally. He put his hands on her shoulders, she said, then nuzzled her hair and kissed the back of her head. She didn’t accuse Biden, who is reportedly close to announcing his presidential candidacy, of sexual harassment or assault, just of making her uncomfortable. “I’m not suggesting that Biden broke any laws, but the transgressions that society deems minor (or doesn’t even see as transgressions) often feel considerable to the person on the receiving end,” she wrote.
In response, Biden released a statement saying that while he’s often been physically affectionate as a politician, “not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately.”
Then, on Monday, Amy Lappos, a former aide to the Democratic congressman Jim Himes, told The Hartford Courant that Biden pulled her toward him to rub noses during a 2009 fund-raiser. “There’s absolutely a line of decency,” Lappos said, adding: “Crossing that line is not grandfatherly. It’s not cultural. It’s not affection. It’s sexism or misogyny.” Biden’s campaign hadn’t yet begun and was already in crisis.
Flores, Lappos and Biden are probably all telling the truth. There are countless photos of Biden behaving in the ways that Flores and Lappos describe: squeezing women, rubbing their shoulders, leaning in too close. All this was open, not furtive, presumably because it never occurred to Biden that he was doing anything untoward.
I don’t necessarily blame him. In the past few years, women have been calling out daily indignities that previous generations grew up quietly tolerating: lingering hugs from a boss, embarrassing intimate questions, crude office jokes. Individually, these are small acts, and most men probably don’t understand how cumulatively draining they can be. Women, after all, have only recently begun to articulate it.
I received plenty of unwanted shoulder massages when I was younger, and for a long time I assumed there was something wrong with me when they made me flinch. It was affirming to finally realize that other women also hated routine invasions of their personal space. But if it wasn’t always obvious to me that the men were at fault in these awkward encounters, it might not have been obvious to them, either.
So I don’t think Biden’s avuncular pawing is a #MeToo story. (Lappos specifically said the way he grabbed her “wasn’t sexual.”) But if Biden was more oblivious than predatory, his history still puts him out of step with the mores of an increasingly progressive Democratic Party. On Sunday, The New York Times reported that some Democrats are bracing “for an extended reckoning about Mr. Biden and gender if he enters the race.” The inevitably of such a reckoning should make Biden reconsider getting in.
Biden’s issues with gender, after all, go far beyond chronic handsiness. His waffling on reproductive choice troubles many feminists; as The Times reported last week, Biden’s “back-and-forth over abortion would become a hallmark of his political career.” He was the chairman of the hearings on Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination, where Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment, was demeaned and dismissed. Though Biden has expressed sorrow for how Hill was treated, he’s never directly apologized to her.
Beyond gender, on issue after issue, if Biden runs for president he will have to run away from his own record. He — and by extension, we — will have to relive the debate over the Iraq war, which he voted to authorize. He’ll have to explain his vote to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, which, by lifting regulations on banking, helped create the conditions for the 2008 financial meltdown. (Biden has called that vote one of the biggest regrets of his career.) In 2016, Hillary Clinton was slammed for her previous support of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which contributed to mass incarceration. Biden helped write the law, which he called, in 2015, the “1994 Biden crime bill.”
None of this means that Democrats need to disavow Biden. He is by most accounts a man of great personal decency. As vice president, he pushed Barack Obama’s administration in the right direction on issues including gay marriage and campus sexual assault. It’s not surprising that he leads most polls of 2020 Democrats; he is well known and well loved.
Still, the widespread assumption that Biden would pose the strongest challenge to Donald Trump is unwarranted. In recent years, neither party has done well when they’ve chosen candidates who were meant to appeal to some elusive cadre of swing voters but lacked a robust grass-roots base. On paper, the war heroes John Kerry and John McCain looked electable; Obama and Trump did not. To those desperate to unseat Trump, the centrist, establishment Biden might seem like the safest choice, but it would actually be risky to pick a candidate who will need to constantly apologize for himself.
Particularly when he doesn’t know how to do that very well. In response to Flores, Biden could have told her that he was sorry for making her uneasy. Instead, he focused on his intentions rather than her experience, a faint echo of the way he’d ignored Hill’s experience decades ago. No one should judge the whole span of Biden’s career by the standards of 2019, but if he’s going to run for president, it’s fair to ask whether he’s the right leader for this moment. He is a product of his time, but that time is up.
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