The Biden Backlash
The early frontrunner for the Democratic nomination is drawing fire from multiple fronts. It may destroy his candidacy before it begins.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has been both coy about whether he will run for the 2020 Democratic nomination for President and the frontrunner for the prize. This morning, I awoke to three stories arguing he should not get it.
Lucy Flores writes for The Cut (“An Awkward Kiss Changed How I Saw Joe Biden“):
In 2014, I was the 35-year-old Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in Nevada.
As I was taking deep breaths and preparing myself to make my case to the crowd, I felt two hands on my shoulders. I froze. “Why is the vice-president of the United States touching me?”
I felt him get closer to me from behind. He leaned further in and inhaled my hair. I was mortified. I thought to myself, “I didn’t wash my hair today and the vice-president of the United States is smelling it. And also, what in the actual fuck? Why is the vice-president of the United States smelling my hair?” He proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of my head. My brain couldn’t process what was happening. I was embarrassed. I was shocked. I was confused. There is a Spanish saying, “tragame tierra,” it means, “earth, swallow me whole.” I couldn’t move and I couldn’t say anything. I wanted nothing more than to get Biden away from me. My name was called and I was never happier to get on stage in front of an audience.
After the event, I told a few of my staff what happened. We all talked about the inexplicable weirdness of what he did, but I didn’t plan on telling anyone else. I didn’t have the language or the outlet to talk about what happened. Who do you tell? What do you say? Is it enough of a transgression if a man touches and kisses you without consent, but doesn’t rise to the level of what most people consider sexual assault? I did what most women do, and moved on with my life and my work.
Time passed and pictures started to surface of Vice-President Biden getting uncomfortably close with women and young girls. Biden nuzzling the neck of the Defense secretary’s wife; Biden kissing a senator’s wife on the lips; Biden whispering in women’s ears; Biden snuggling female constituents. I saw obvious discomfort in the women’s faces, and Biden, I’m sure, never thought twice about how it made them feel. I knew I couldn’t say anything publicly about what those pictures surfaced for me; my anger and my resentment grew.
Had I never seen those pictures, I may have been able to give Biden the benefit of the doubt. Had there not been multiple articles written over the years about the exact same thing — calling his creepy behavior an “open secret” — perhaps it would feel less offensive. And yet despite the steady stream of pictures and the occasional article, Biden retained his title of America’s Favorite Uncle. On occasion that title was downgraded to America’s Creepy Uncle but that in and of itself implied a certain level of acceptance. After all, how many families just tolerate or keep their young children away from the creepy uncle without ever acknowledging that there should be zero tolerance for a man who persistently invades others’ personal space and makes people feel uneasy and gross? In this case, it shows a lack of empathy for the women and young girls whose space he is invading, and ignores the power imbalance that exists between Biden and the women he chooses to get cozy with.
For years I feared my experience would be dismissed. Biden will be Biden. Boys will be boys. I worried about the doubts, the threats, the insults, and the minimization. “It’s not that big of a deal. He touched her, so what?” The immediate passing of judgement and the questioning of motives. “Why now? Why so long after? She just wants attention.” Or: “It’s politically motivated.” I would be lying if I said I didn’t carefully consider all of this before deciding to speak. But hearing Biden’s potential candidacy for president discussed without much talk about his troubling past as it relates to women became too much to keep bottled up any longer.
Laura McGann quickly followed up with an essay at Vox (“Lucy Flores isn’t alone. Joe Biden’s got a long history of touching women inappropriately.“):
It’s all out in the open. News outlets wrote about these incidents. But the stories ran under light-hearted headlines like, “Photo of famously friendly Joe Biden goes viral” or “Here’s Joe Biden being Joe Biden with Ash Carter’s wife” or “Joe Biden: Sex symbol?,” a piece that I edited and now regret.
Ideological media outlets did write some critical pieces during the Obama era. At the Federalist, Mollie Hemingway questioned whether liberals would tolerate the same conduct from a conservative. At Talking Points Memo, Alana Levinson criticized liberals for giving him a pass.
But, overall, Biden got a pass from the political media.
Times have changed. Reporters now would look twice at a new politician who is handsy on camera. They’d ask questions about it and likely look into his private conduct. And women like Flores are taking big risks and speaking out.
Biden avoided scrutiny in the past, but if he wants to be the next president he’ll face pressure to account for his actions.
Flores and McGann are right: Biden’s misconduct has been known about and excused for years because he otherwise seems like such a good, likable guy. The culture has changed drastically since Biden left office. At very least, he’s going to have to confess his sins and beg forgiveness. But that’s going to be hard to accomplish given the other front on which Biden is being attacked.
McGann hints at it later in her piece:
Biden, 76, arrived in Washington at the age of 30. His substantial public record includes a mixed history on women’s issues, a legacy that makes his in-person conduct even more worthy of discussion.
Lisa Lerer unpacked his history on abortion for the New York Times, reporting that Biden, who is now pro-abortion rights, has not been a solid liberal on the issue for his whole career.
In the Reagan era, Biden voted for a bill in committee that the National Abortion Rights Action League called “the most devastating attack yet on abortion rights.” Biden, who is Catholic, said at the time: “I’m probably a victim, or a product, however you want to phrase it, of my background.” He called the decision “the single most difficult vote I’ve cast as a U.S. senator.”
Biden also held the opinion that the Supreme Court went “too far” in deciding Roe v. Wade. In an interview in 1974, he said he did not think a woman should have the “sole right to say what should happen to her body.”
Biden declined to speak with Lerer for her article, so we don’t know exactly how and why he evolved on Roe. A spokesperson for Biden did not respond to an email asking for comment.
In his years in Washington, though, Biden has voted for pro-abortion rights bills. He’s championed the Violence Against Women Act. And he’s spoken forcefully about the problem of sexual violence.
Democrats are conflicted about what to do about this category of behavior. It’s not the same as what other men of the #MeToo movement have bee accused of, but it’s also not what liberals want to endorse. Sen. Al Franken’s resignation is still controversial for this reason. Some Democrats feel the party is putting itself at a disadvantage against Republicans, who let the president get away with far worse than any accusation Franken faced.
Flores confronts the issue of whether some bad behavior is okay, forcing us to consider what these seemingly small incidents are really like. “The vice-president of the United States of America had just touched me in an intimate way reserved for close friends, family, or romantic partners — and I felt powerless to do anything about it.”
The Democratic Party is more than half women. More women than ever in history ran as Democrats in the 2018 elections — and won. They outperformed their male peers. They were central to Democrats retaking the House. Women are leading the sustained resistance to Trump. The party should be committed to making sure that women and girls participate in government and politics to their fullest potential. The party needs them.
The question is whether the party needs a president who disrespects them.
Rebecca Traister, also writing at The Cut, answers that question directly: “Joe Biden Isn’t the Answer.”
Biden is the Democrats’ answer to the hunger to “make America great again,” dressed up in liberal clothes. The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie has in fact argued that Biden’s racial politics have offered a form of Trumpism on the left, a “liberal cover to white backlash.” To that I would add, he has provided liberal cover to anti-feminist backlash, the kind of old-fashioned paternalism of powerful men who don’t take women’s claims to their reproductive, professional, or political autonomy particularly seriously, who walk through the world with a casual assurance that men’s access to and authority over women’s bodies is natural. In an attempt to win back That Guy, Joe Biden has himself, so very often, been That Guy.
Now it seems, That Guy is widely viewed as the best and safest candidate to get us out of this perilous and scary political period. But the irony is that so much of what is terrifying and dangerous about this time — the Trump administration, the ever more aggressive erosion of voting and reproductive rights, the crisis in criminal justice and yawning economic chasm between the rich and everyone else — are in fact problems that can in part be laid at the feet of Joe Biden himself, and the guys we’ve regularly been assured are Democrats’ only answer.
Rather than lean into an energetic defense of the values of liberty, equality, and inclusion that might define their role against the racist and anti-feminist backlash of the era, the Democratic Party appeared anxious to distance itself from being the feminized “mommy party,” and shunt to the side — rather than vigorously advocate for — the priorities of women, especially poor women, and people of color.
The party continued to be represented and led by mostly white men. And while officially Democrats remained on the progressive side, supporting reproductive rights, civil rights, and affirmative action, a contingent of Those Guys, Joe Biden notable among them, made folksy rationalizations for abrogating, rather than expanding and more fiercely protecting, new rights and protections. Those Guys soothed; Those Guys were familiar; Those Guys enjoyed their own power and wanted to reassure everyone that it wasn’t really going to be so dramatically reapportioned.
A young Joe Biden was reliably anti-abortion, claiming that Roe v. Wade “went too far” and that he did not believe that “a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.” He voted consistently for the Hyde Amendment, the 1976 legislative rider which forbid government-funded insurance programs from paying for abortion, making abortion all but inaccessible to poor people. In 1981, he proposed the “Biden Amendment,” prohibiting foreign aid to be used in any biomedical research related to abortion. The next year, he supported Jesse Helms’s amendment barring foreign NGOs receiving United States aid from using that aid to perform abortion. Biden was one of two Democrats on the Senate Judiciary to vote for the 1982 Hatch Amendment, which would have effectively nullified Roe by turning abortion rights back to federal and state legislatures. At the time, he expressed concern about whether he had “a right to impose” his anti-abortion views on the nation. Then he went ahead and imposed those views anyway.
Over the decades, Biden has evolved on the issue, yet into the 1990s and 2000s, he voted for the so-called “Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.” And he regularly declined to fully support the Freedom of Choice Act, which would have banned the wide variety of oppressive state restrictions on abortion.
Biden’s stances against women’s full reproductive freedom have been key to how he has proudly presented himself to the public. Even in the years since he has officially become pro-choice, he’s retained the sensibility first reflected in his comments about how women shouldn’t be wholly in charge of their own decisions, writing in his 2007 memoir that even though he’d vote against a constitutional amendment barring abortion, “I still vote against partial birth abortion and federal funding, and I’d like to make it easier for scared young mothers to choose not to have an abortion.” His is the language of restrictive authority dressed up as avuncular protectionism.
Biden wasn’t simply a comforter of patriarchal impulses toward controlling women’s bodies. Though he campaigned in 1972 as a strong supporter of civil rights, and initially voted in favor of school busing legislation intended to integrate schools in both the North and South, Biden changed his tune a couple of years into his Senate tenure. Faced with angry pressure from white constituents rearing back from integration measures that would mean busing white children into black neighborhoods, Biden previewed his anti-abortion agreement with Republican Jesse Helms by siding with him on anti-busing measures, calling the approach to school integration “a bankrupt concept” and “asinine policy.” Biden’s anti-busing stance offered an out for his Democratic colleagues, several of whom also turned on busing, helping to defeat the legislation.
In later decades, Biden’s legislative efforts reinforced other kinds of racial disparities. In 1988, he co-sponsored legislation that enacted mandatory-minimum sentences for drug possession, including higher sentences for those in possession of crack over powder cocaine, a ruling that specifically targeted poorer African-American and Latino populations, while letting wealthier white drug users off the hook. He wrote the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act signed by Bill Clinton, which helped strengthen and codify what has become the United States’ carceral state, and was an enthusiastic supporter of Clinton’s punishing welfare-reform policy. Biden was one of his party’s transmitters of what Bouie has called “sensitivity to the fears and anxieties of his white constituents.”
But even those constituents — those guys in diners, worried about jobs and mounting debt — haven’t always been served by him. Biden, the senator from Delaware, where many credit card companies and banks are incorporated, has long advocated on behalf of those financial entities. This is one of the ironies of his role as blue-collar Everyman; that guy is regularly screwed by the very companies Biden represents. As beneficiary of enormous campaign donations from his home state’s financial behemoth MBNA, in 1999 Biden voted to repeal Glass-Steagall legislation that, since 1933, had separated commercial and investment banking, paving the way for the financial crisis. Biden was one of a handful of Democrats to oppose a measure that would have required credit card companies to warn consumers of the risks of only paying the minimum due on their credit card bills and worked against legislation that would have increased protections for those whose debts mounted thanks to medical bills and for those in the military.
In the mid-2000s, he was a major Democratic supporter of a bill that made it harder for individuals, many of them struggling with enormous credit card debt, to declare bankruptcy. In a 2002 negotiation over the bill, Democrats added an amendment that targeted anti-abortion protesters, a move that both sweetened it for Democrats and made it less palatable to Republicans. (In a livid letter to the New York Times, calling the bankruptcy bill “unconscionable” and noting that it particularly imperiled female-headed households and used abortion as a strategic wedge, Elizabeth Warren, then a Harvard Law professor and advocate for consumer reforms, wondered whether “politicians like Mr. Biden … believe they can give credit-card companies the right to elbow out women and children so long as they rally behind an issue like abortion? The message is unmistakable: on an economic issue that attracts millions of dollars of industry support, women have no real political importance.”)
Then, of course, there was his stewardship of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which hit its infamous nadir with the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas. Biden was reluctant even to let Anita Hill testify as to how Thomas had repeatedly sexually harassed her, since — as he would explain afterward — he had given his word to a Republican colleague, in the Senate gym, that he’d make sure Thomas’s confirmation was speedy. When Hill did testify, and was treated with disrespect and disregard by leering and patronizing Republicans on the committee, Biden did not defend her or rebuke them; he permitted her ill treatment. Perhaps most crucially, he declined to call any of the three women — Rose Jourdain, Angela Wright, and Sukari Hardnett — who were willing to testify about their own experiences of Thomas’s inappropriate behavior, and thereby corroborate Hill’s claims.
There’s more but you get the idea.
As an erstwhile Republican who struggled with the party’s policies for years and was ultimately driven out by Trump, I’m much less bothered by Biden’s centrist politics over the years. But a reminder of where he was on those issues is likely to not sit well with Democratic primary voters. And the combination of that and his inappropriate behavior towards women may well be fatal.
Part of this circles back to the age issue. While we always focus on the health implications, this setup paragraph in Traister’s piece gets to a more core problem:
Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1972, 18 years after Brown v. Board of Education, less than a decade after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and just three years after the Supreme Court case Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education would actually force many schools to fulfill the promise of integration put forth by Brown. Biden took office less than three weeks before Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court and a couple of years before the term “sexual harassment” would be coined by Lin Farley.
I can’t help but like Joe Biden, even knowing what I know now about his transgressions. I found him likable even when I was a conservative Republican. But the fact of the matter is that Biden was born the year before my parents, both of whom are now gone. While he has enormous experience and wisdom, his attitudes and values were shaped in a completely different era. That makes it awfully hard for him to lead us into the future.