These questions are admittedly premature; evidence is still unfolding. It was an important step for Biden on Friday to ask for a review of Senate archives to determine whether Reade, as she claims, filed a complaint about his behavior in 1993. If no such complaint is found, that is compelling, if not dispositive.
It was a mistake, and I suspect untenable, for Biden to resist a review of his own archives at the University of Delaware for any information relevant to Reade and her allegations. That it is unlikely such documents will be among Biden’s papers does not mean they are not worth searching for. There is little downside in terms of trying to get closer to the truth, and questions will persist until this happens.
In the interim, it is worth engaging in the uncomfortable thought experiment. As I analyze it, there are two separate strands of this inquiry: first, if true, how to assess Biden in relation to President Trump; second, how to assess Biden against the larger backdrop of the #MeToo movement and previous claims of sexual misconduct.
The difficult part, for me at least, is that the answers to these questions tug in painfully contradictory directions.
First, and far easier, Biden vs. Trump. Trump has a lengthy, amply documented and repulsive history of bad and assaultive conduct toward women. Indeed, he incriminated himself with his vulgar “Access Hollywood” remarks. The list of women who have alleged unwanted sexual comments, touching or worse by Trump is in the mid-20s.
By contrast, some women have complained that Biden’s hands-on style of personal interaction made them feel uncomfortable. Fair enough. But in nearly 50 years in public life, there has not been, before Reade, any similar allegation of sexual assault against Biden. In assessing the veracity of assault claims, such prior history, or the absence thereof, matters.
Biden also has a lengthy and admirable history of championing legislation to protect women against sexual violence and abuse. That does not prove that he did not assault Reade, but it is a mark on Biden’s behalf.
If the 2020 campaign were a contest over who has a better history when it comes to the treatment of women, whether on a personal or a policy level, there is no equivalence, none, between the two candidates.
The more difficult issue — if you get to the point of crediting Reade’s account over Biden’s strenuous, and now in-person, denial — is grappling with where that should lead. If you are among those who have previously demanded that such misconduct be taken seriously, should you now insist that the Democratic Party find a mechanism for replacing Biden as its presidential nominee?
To put a finer point on it: If you thought that the evidence against Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh was sufficient to deny him confirmation to a seat on the Supreme Court, are you a hypocrite if you don’t think the Reade allegations are enough to mean that Biden should not be president? One man is in a job for the rest of his life and the other is running for a four-year term, but that cannot be a sufficient answer. We are talking about the president of the United States, after all.
If — underscore, if — it becomes clear or even likely that Biden engaged in the behavior that Reade alleges, there must be a serious conversation about whether he can be the Democratic nominee.
What would make this decision, if it comes to that, so difficult is that the imperative of defeating Trump is so powerful. This is not an ordinary political contest against an ordinary incumbent. Ensuring that Trump does not enjoy another four years in office may be enough to justify egregious hypocrisy, but it would be hypocrisy, nonetheless. Democrats and feminists should be hesitant to expose themselves, once again, to accusations that their horror over sexual harassment and assault is purely situational.
This is why the facts, and as much factual development as possible, matter so much. As Biden said in his statement on Friday, when women “step forward they should be heard, not silenced.” But the other element of that equation is equally important: “their stories should be subject to appropriate inquiry and scrutiny.”
Biden’s senior aides, to whom Reade has said she brought her complaints about mistreatment, have said they have no recollection of such allegations, and that they would remember such an event. If the complaint that Reade says she filed cannot be located, that would be highly significant, particularly if other records from that period have been archived.
If Reade’s complaint is unearthed, that does not necessarily make it true. But it would mean Biden has a huge problem, one that cannot be conveniently ignored.