Former vice president Joe Biden is out with a new video that seeks to put to rest a simmering controversy over his physical interactions with women in recent years.
The video is well done and seems likely to help him move past the controversy, barring damning new developments. But it’s also important to emphasize what Biden doesn’t say and how carefully he characterizes his conduct.
First things first: The video reinforces Biden’s strengths as a candidate. Nobody can compete with him when it comes to folksiness and projecting empathy. Biden seems genuine and sends a rather firm message that his behavior will change. Given that the accusations against him involve not sexual assault but objectionable touching, Biden’s acknowledgment will probably go a long way with Democrats who need convincing.
What the video is not is an apology. Biden never says he’s sorry, for his actions or for how they made the women feel. Indeed, Biden essentially suggests that he is a victim of the changing times. “The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset,” he said. “I get it, I get it. I hear what they’re saying, and I understand it.” He then repeats that he’ll do better.
That doesn’t exactly account for what he’s accused of, though. A former Democratic congressional aide describes Biden rubbing noses with her during a 2009 fundraiser in a way that made her think he was going to kiss her. Former Nevada lieutenant governor candidate Lucy Flores (D) said Biden’s smelling of her hair and kissing her head at a 2014 event made her uncomfortable. Both seemed to interpret something creepier than just an overly touchy-feely politician.
In the video, Biden says he will change his behavior but does not address whether his behavior crossed the line.
Second, Biden seems to suggest that this wasn’t just about women. “I want to talk about gestures of support that I’ve made to women — and some men — that have made them uncomfortable,” he says. Two other times, he also mentions “men” alongside “women.” Except he’s not accused of inappropriate behavior by men.
By lumping men in with women, Biden is suggesting that this was an across-the-board approach, irrespective of gender. He seems to be playing down the idea that there was anything inappropriate about his conduct. But again, the women involved sure seemed to interpret it that way.
In the end, this seems to be an eminently survivable controversy for Biden — both because his conduct occupies such a gray area and even the most unfriendly interpretations of it may not be disqualifying. He’s getting votes of support from the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and even Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). Biden’s not-quite-apology is also more eloquent and personal than the types usually offered by politicians who are reluctant to give an inch and even suggest personal fault (Hillary Clinton being a great example).
But a non-apology is still a non-apology, and sometimes you can’t fully move on until you’ve been more explicit about whether you actually did something wrong. We still don’t know whether Biden thinks he did anything wrong, and it’s a fair question to continue to ask.