After former Nevada state legislator Lucy Flores went public with her story that Joe Biden awkwardly kissed the back of her head at a 2014 event for her lieutenant governor campaign, a phalanx of pundits quickly deflected: On Sunday, #NeverTrump Republican Tom Nichols — who wrote in October that he was leaving the GOP because it’d become “the party of situational ethics and moral relativism in the name of winning at all costs” — tweeted, “Trump 2020 is coming along nicely.” Monday night on CNN, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni summed up his view that with Biden, among others, Democrats risked “tearing apart their candidates,” saying, “If this is the conversation that Democrats are going to have, we might as well give the election to Donald Trump right now.”
They’re suggesting that Democrats should breeze past a full vetting of Biden’s past conduct and that the former vice president should get an exemption from straight-ahead criticism of his behavior because he’s presumably the only one who can beat Trump in 2020. But even if that premise is true, it shouldn’t mean — and doesn’t have to mean — abandoning basic standards of interpersonal respect to clear the way for one candidate.
Flores described her encounter with Biden as “unnerving” and embarrassing. Former congressional staffer Amy Lappos said this week that at a 2009 campaign event, Biden leaned in to rub noses with her in an experience that she found “uncomfortable and not at all acceptable.” Surely, if a former vice president and potential future presidential contender made more than one woman feel this way, it’s worth sharing, right? If coming forward would help voters evaluate his qualities, if their stories might help others open up about their experiences of feeling violated in professional spaces, their stories should be told.
Not according to those who seem to have already concluded Biden is Democrats’ best, if not only, chance to make Trump a one-term president. By Tuesday, MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski was holding forth on air, saying intense scrutiny of Biden was Democrats “eating your young” and “eating those who can beat Trump.” Of the whole Biden conversation, she concluded: “He’s a nice guy. He’s not a predator, and this is ridiculous.”
Initially, Sunday, Biden issued a tepid statement trying to diffuse the situation, but by Wednesday, he’d tweeted out a video in which he acknowledged that he’s made different individuals “uncomfortable” at times, explaining: “I’ve always tried to make a human connection … I shake hands, I hug people, I grab men and women by the shoulders and say, ‘You can do this’ … it’s the way I’ve always been and it’s the way I’ve tried to show I care about them and I’m listening,” later acknowledging that “the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset. And I get it.”
Biden probably eased some voters’ concerns about his past coming back to haunt him on the campaign trail, but there was at least one thing noticeably absent from his message: an apology. It’s clear he’s aware of where he transgressed, but he didn’t reckon with how his actions made women feel. Where he saw politics as usual, women saw a violation of space and trust. Just because that’s been his approach over the course of his career, that doesn’t mean it was ever right.
While Biden’s alleged actions don’t come close to the level of the many misconduct allegations against Trump — the women saying Biden acted inappropriately have made it a point to say that they didn’t see his conduct as sexual — the view that Democrats need to shut the conversation down approaches the moral relativism Nichols decried. If Republicans are hypocrites (and they are) for continuing to overwhelmingly support Trump — he had 86 percent GOP approval in Tuesday’s Economist/YouGov poll — while breezing past his “Access Hollywood” video, the list of women who’ve accused him of sexual misconduct and the list of insulting comments he’s made about women, then Democrats would risk something similar by not even interrogating Biden when it came to inappropriate conduct.
That doesn’t mean Biden has to be universally condemned as a human being and public servant. And it doesn’t mean there can’t be a recognition that Biden has a reputation as a sunny, affectionate, avuncular guy who, at age 76, is someone who rose through the political ranks during an era where there was more tolerance for his too-familiar personal style.
But it also shouldn’t mean he’s exempt from criticism if he joins the Democratic primary field, particularly when Democrats have positioned themselves as the party that champions women and believes in their ability to know when their personal space has been violated, regardless of intent.
No doubt, if Biden gets into the race, he’ll be a favorite: He’s not even a declared candidate and he’s leading the field, with Tuesday’s Morning Consult poll showing he has 33 percent support, trailed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) with 25 percent and the rest of the pack way back in single digits. He’s the former vice president, with a reservoir of goodwill after having served two terms alongside still-popular former president Barack Obama. “He is,” in the view of New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister, “the guy whose self-assured conviction that his authority will protect him from rebuke has always preceded him into any room.”
And self-confidence is certainly an asset in a presidential race. But just because he’s confident, that doesn’t mean the Democratic race should be treated as a coronation, or that the 2020 nomination is his for the taking because he’s perceived as the antidote to Trump. It also doesn’t mean the conventional wisdom is automatically right. As Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, messaged me: “At this point in the process, very few voters are tuned into the primaries, so it’s not an accident that the two people leading the polls are also the two best known to voters — Biden and Sanders. Name recognition is massively important in the period known as the invisible primary.”
As primary season progresses, less-well-known candidates will have a chance to make their respective cases, outlining their platforms and responding to criticism. Biden has the same opportunity. Democratic voters will balance his experience and achievements, like his sponsorship of the Violence Against Women Act, against criticisms of his interactions with women and his management of Justice Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, a role that even he says he has regrets about. At the end of that process, Democrats may choose him as party nominee. But he has to earn it, just like the other candidates. The premature presumption that he’s Trump’s toughest matchup isn’t enough.
“If Biden is the candidate Democrats want, they will make allowances for his age, clumsiness and the shift in cultural mores that marked his political career,” Bloomberg Opinion’s Francis Wilkinson wrote Tuesday. And maybe that’s what Democratic voters will ultimately decide to do — but they shouldn’t have to.
Democrats have a diverse, accomplished, progressive-minded group of candidates competing for their party’s nomination and for the presidency. If Biden wants to be part of that group, he should face the same scrutiny as the other candidates. If he can answer his critics, it will be evidence that he’s earned the right to represent Democrats next year. It’s insulting, though, to be told that a man whose inappropriate conduct is a relic of the past is the only hope for our future.