Long before the likelihood that Joe Biden would enter the 2020 Democratic primaries became so high that his name began to be included on rosters of front-runners, people on the left worried that his history of being overly affectionate with female acquaintances would pose a problem. The question wasn’t whether that would happen: In a world primed by the #MeToo movement to take women’s experiences of male power seriously, it was just a question of what sort of problem would arise, and who would end up paying for it.
So far, a handful of women have described interactions with Biden that left them uncomfortable. In a recent essay for New York magazine, Lucy Flores detailed how a meeting with Biden during her campaign for lieutenant governor in Nevada concluded with the then-vice president allegedly placing his hands on her shoulders, smelling her hair and kissing her head. Amy Lappos has recounted an experience in which Biden allegedly grabbed her by the head, put his hands on her neck, and rubbed noses with her at a 2009 fundraiser in Connecticut; Lappos says she thought that Biden was going to kiss her on the mouth. A multitude of photos of Biden’s interactions with women attests to a long-standing tendency to be — depending on your perspective — affectionate and paternal, or invasive and entitled. In response to these allegations, a spokesman has said that Biden doesn’t believe he acted inappropriately, but will listen to women’s concerns going forward and champion their rights. In a two-minute video released Wednesday, Biden himself contextualized his behavior as “gestures of support,” and said he realizes that “the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset.” He’ll change his behavior, he vowed, going forward.
As The Post’s Molly Roberts points out, the fact that Biden never really had to consider how his behavior was received before now is a hallmark of power, and one of many complaints the #MeToo movement has advanced about how women are expected to engage in the world. How Biden responds to these women’s experiences is a problem for him — and his potential campaign, which Biden says is still “full steam ahead” — to deal with. How the left chooses to deal with them is a problem for us, and a serious one.
In my view, the question, at this point, isn’t whether the allegations against Biden are decisively disqualifying. But grappling with them will require answering a series of difficult questions made even more tense by the rise of #MeToo and will mean doing so in the midst of a contentious, crowded primary leading up to a high-stakes general election. Thus, a more immediate question is: Is Joe Biden worth figuring all that out — right now?
If we are indeed to press ahead with Biden, the first challenge for liberal-minded people involves making distinctions — the essence of philosophy, as Robert Sokolowski once observed, which is to say: no small thing.
It’s clear, for instance, that we can distinguish between the allegations against Donald Trump (who was caught on tape talking about grabbing women by their genitals) and those against Biden. But it’s harder to make a distinction between Biden and, say, former senator Al Franken, who resigned over similar alleged infractions, as encouraged by Democrats such as Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). People who feel Franken’s actions were inappropriate but Biden’s acceptable have to either engage in tortured reasoning or discount the experiences of Biden’s accusers — that is, to argue that the women speaking out about Biden aren’t accurately reporting either what happened or how they felt about it. Doing the former sets a mercurial, shifting standard for responding to allegations of sexual impropriety; doing the latter strays into another trap.
Since the rise of the #MeToo movement — and even well before — the question of how to take women’s accounts has roiled the left, with opinion generally gravitating toward a habit of affirming their own subjective experiences. Biden’s supporters will have a very hard time adhering to that norm. Claiming that the women who have said Biden made them feel uncomfortable are either lying to boost other candidates (as members of Biden’s team reportedly believe), or that their stories ought to be discounted based on how long it took them to come out would seem to set a chilling standard for a political movement that has aimed to put women’s experiences at the center of its advocacy.
Then there’s the matter of weighing competing goods: A person might hold that he or she does not approve of Biden’s behavior, but believe he has the strongest chance against Trump. Even setting aside the fact that these allegations could continue and that polls show other candidates to be just as strong against the president, this kind of reasoning discards the fact that primaries present an opportunity to build momentum around candidates. Why deploy time, energy, money and public relations efforts to try to explain why Biden’s behavior toward women is actually all right or that his accusers are not credible — when there are more than a dozen other candidates who don’t force this dilemma?
One could still maintain that, based on policies (and what has Biden proposed?) or experience, Biden is still the best of the bunch. But one wouldn’t just have to maintain that; he or she would have to maintain that those factors make biting all the above bullets worthwhile.
With so many other viable candidates in the race, the most important question to answer at the moment is whether Biden’s potential candidacy is worth all those hazards. And it seems to me it’s not.