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Opinion What to make of Joe Biden

The misconduct allegation against former vice president Joe Biden is the latest in Democrats' complicated reckoning with the Me Too movement in the Trump era. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Let’s get back to some legal basics: Sexual harassment in the workplace is either unwelcome sexual conduct — or if from someone in a position of power, conditioning work benefits on sexual conduct. If your co-worker slugs you on the arm every day as some weird good-morning ritual, you’ve got reason for complaint but it doesn’t make it sexual conduct. What is “sexual” conduct? To paraphrase the Supreme Court on pornography (which if shown to an unwelcoming co-worker would be harassment!): We’ll know it when we see it. Better put, if reasonable people in that situation would consider the conduct to be sexual, it probably is.

And yes, this brings us to former vice president Joe Biden. Any adult who’s paid attention to politics over the last few decades knows that Biden does not honor personal space, to put it mildly. He hugs, he pats, he rubs backs. He is a nondiscriminatory toucher — men, women, blacks, whites, children, seniors. This is understandable conduct with close friends and relatives, but Biden, for better or worse, treats everyone like a member of the family.

This is not an excuse. His touching is often inappropriate and can be unnerving. He should cut it out and apologize to those who felt uncomfortable. However, this is not #MeToo sexual harassment or assault. In the crazed atmosphere of immediate takes and absolute judgments, it’s difficult for some to make distinctions, but that is what grown-ups are supposed to do. Biden’s habitual embraces can be inappropriate without being sexual harassment; his conduct can be a demerit without being disqualifying. No, you’re not a hypocrite if you think Roy Moore should have been long ago banished from public life and Biden shouldn’t; these two situations are not the same.

From wearing blackface to having inappropriate physical contact, people who serve in public office must meet a higher standard of repentance. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

That still leaves Democratic primary voters with a decision, should Biden decide to run for president. Is he is the best person to lead their party, the best positioned to beat President Trump and then best equipped to govern in the post-Trump era? Others have observed that Biden’s obsessive touching dates him, underscoring the generational divide between him and most of his potential opponents (and maybe two generations apart from South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg).

Does the country want a choice in 2020 between two Social Security recipients, as it had in 2016? This is not only a question for the 76-year-old Biden, but for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is a year older than Biden. Talk to Buttigieg, and he’ll say it’s time to turn the page on the 70-year-olds and the 50-year-olds — generations that, truth be told, have done a rotten job running things recently. The response is that there are 70-year-olds and then there are 70-year-olds. Trump’s problem isn’t that he is over 70; it’s that he is mentally, temperamentally and morally unfit in almost every imaginable way for the office he holds.

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Biden will have other challenges to overcome -- his vote for the Iraq war, his support of the 1994 crime bill and his handling of the Anita Hill hearing, for which he hasn’t offered an unequivocal apology. There is also a palpable desire for someone/something new in the Democratic Party.

Democrats will have to decide in the big scheme of things whether Biden’s touching is a deal-breaker. Most, I suspect, won’t knock him out for being Biden in plain sight. For me, it comes down to a different consideration: Is there someone better positioned to beat Trump? I’m waiting to see.

Read more:

Karen Tumulty: Joe Biden needs to cut it out. So does the mob.

Molly Roberts: It doesn’t matter what Joe Biden meant to do

Paul Waldman: Joe Biden doesn’t get it

Richard Cohen: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are too old to be president