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Opinion writer

Anita Hill has kept a relatively low profile since her unfortunate time in the national spotlight back in 1991. But with Joe Biden leading polls in the Democratic presidential primary race, journalists are seeking out her opinion more. Here’s something she said in a recent interview:

Anita Hill said Thursday that she would “of course” vote for Joe Biden if he were the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, despite her holding the former vice president accountable for her treatment during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings nearly three decades ago.

Biden’s entry into the 2020 race has reignited a debate over how Hill was treated during those hearings. Hill has said Biden called her to express his regrets earlier this year, but that the conversation was not satisfying.

Hill, in an interview with NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell, said her criticisms of Biden do not mean she sees any moral equivalency between him and President Trump, who has been accused by more than a dozen women of sexual assault — allegations the president has denied.

In 1991, Hill testified that Thomas sexually harassed her and was met with intense cross-examination by Republicans on the Senate panel. Biden, then the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, didn’t intervene and declined to call witnesses who Hill said would have confirmed her account.

“Of course” is the right response. On one hand, Biden has a complex and in some ways problematic history with regard to Hill in particular and women’s rights in general. On the other, Donald Trump bragged about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity, was credibly accused by almost two dozen women of sexual misconduct, liked to burst into dressing rooms to catch teenage girls undressing, has a long history of making despicably sexist comments and will probably be responsible for the repeal of Roe v. Wade.

Even if that were the only issue Hill were concerned about, which I doubt it is, it wouldn’t even be a close call.

Hill isn’t going to come out and announce that Democrats shouldn’t make Biden their nominee, but she did say, “I think we will have to make our decisions about what we want our leaders to be doing in the future around these issues of gender violence.”

Which is exactly what’s so important about the process we’re in now. While we often think about the primaries as being just the prelude to the main event of the general election, from a substantive perspective this when the really important stuff is happening.

You may agree with Hill about Biden’s merits or not. But the point is that this is not just the best time to hash them out; it’s the only time to really do it.

Let’s imagine Biden wins the Democratic nomination. In the general election, are we going to have a real discussion about how to understand what happened in 1991, where we’ve come since then on issues of sexual harassment and equality for women, and what more work we have to do? Of course not. We won’t have a real discussion about much of anything, but certainly not that. Biden will say that Trump is a monster, and Trump will say he loves women and Biden is the real sexist. It will not be particularly illuminating.

But before we get there, voters will have at least some opportunity to consider the issue in a more thoughtful way. Almost all the people who genuinely care about this issue are on the Democratic side, so they’re going to debate it among themselves, just as they’ll debate what to do about climate change and what kind of health-care reform would be best for the country. Then once their nominee is chosen, pretty much every Democrat will line up behind that person, just as pretty much every Republican will line up behind Trump.

If you’re a Democrat, no matter how much Biden’s performance in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings disturbed you, you’re almost certainly going to vote for him if he’s the Democratic nominee (though you might consider not voting, which is its own issue).

In the general election, no disagreement that the two candidates have on any issue is going to be hashed out over an extended period of time in comprehensive ways. The issue debate won’t be meaningless, but most of it will be about simple binary options. Should we cut taxes for rich people or raise them? Should we address climate change or not? Should abortion be legal or illegal?

Those are all important questions, but any meaty, detailed discussion we’re going to have about issues is going to happen now, in the primaries. It’s where Democrats will decide not what they stand for broadly — they already know that — but precisely what they intend to do the next time they take power. So they had better not waste the opportunity.

Read more:

Ruth Marcus: Have we learned nothing since Anita Hill?

Angela Wright-Shannon: Joe Biden doesn’t owe me an apology. Clarence Thomas does.

Marc A. Thiessen: Trouble is brewing in Joe Biden’s presidential campaign

Nancy Gibbs: After this political era, can Americans forgive each other?

The Ranking Committee: And just like that, someone’s tied with Biden