The media gave Biden a pass for years. It won’t in 2020.
Democrat Lucy Flores was preparing to give one of her final stump speeches in a race for lieutenant governor in Nevada when she felt two hands on her shoulders. She froze. “Why is the vice-president of the United States touching me?” Flores wondered.
Flores recounts her experience with Joe Biden in a first-person essay for New York Magazine, describing an incident in 2014 where Biden came up behind her, leaned in, smelled her hair, and kissed the back of her head.
“Biden was the second-most powerful man in the country and, arguably, one of the most powerful men in the world. He was there to promote me as the right person for the lieutenant governor job. Instead, he made me feel uneasy, gross, and confused.”
New York Magazine reached out to a Biden spokesperson, who declined to comment.
Flores’s experience isn’t unique. It is no secret in Washington that Biden has touched numerous women inappropriately in public. It’s just never been treated as a serious issue by the mainstream press.
Biden’s been caught on camera embracing a female reporter from behind and gripping her above her waist, just below her bust. At a swearing-in ceremony for Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Biden put his hands on the shoulders of Stephanie Carter, Carter’s wife, and then leaned in and whispered into her ear. (He’s whispered into many women’s ears.) He’s also touched women’s faces and necks during other photo ops. Once at a swearing-in ceremony for a US senator, he held the upper arm of the senator’s preteen daughter, leaned down and whispered into her ear, as she became visibly uncomfortable. Then he kissed the side of her forehead, a gesture that made the girl flinch.
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.
Joe being Joe
The Onion satirized Biden in 2009 in a viral article that cemented Biden’s image of a lovable everyman.
Real Biden remembers his working-class Scranton roots. Onion Biden washes his Trans Am on the White House lawn. Real Biden is handsy with women. Onion Biden is a womanizer: ‘Hey, hot stuff, looking good,’ [Onion] Biden told a passing aide. ‘Would you know where I could get a little bucket and sponge action? My mean machine needs to be cleaned.’
The images bled together over the years into the persona of Uncle Joe. When he dropped an F-bomb on a live mic, it was a classic Joe moment. When he made one of his many gaffes, it got added to numerous lists written in good fun. And when he did kind of creepy things to women at public events, well, that was just Joe being Joe, too.
All of those frames made appealing pitches just a few years ago. Editors would be happy to get a “lovable Uncle Joe strikes again” story. The environment is not the same now. Certainly the media is not nearly perfect when it comes to covering gender and power. But in the era of #MeToo, there is far less appetite for a story that makes light of a candidate behaving badly toward women.
As Flores writes, this conduct matters. “I’m not suggesting that Biden broke any laws, but the transgressions that society deems minor (or doesn’t even see as transgressions) often feel considerable to the person on the receiving end. That imbalance of power and attention is the whole point — and the whole problem.”
This is especially true in a context where Biden will be running against several women as well as defending a decades-long record of policymaking that’s involved past positions at odds with current Democratic Party orthodoxy.
Biden once said a woman should not have the “sole right to say what should happen to her body”
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 need to figure out whether they want to clean house
If Biden runs, he’ll occupy a lane in the Democratic primary as the “normal” candidate — a likable white guy who won’t lose it on Twitter, or pander to Russia, or throw children in cages at the border.
As Democrats grapple with the intense desire to beat Trump in 2020, many are anxious that a woman will have a tough time beating him because of sexist attitudes still held by some voters. Perhaps, the thinking goes, it’s better to go with the kind of leader that Americans are used to. Biden, who was in office for eight years under Obama, could fit that bill.
But Biden would still have to present a clear contrast to Trump. While Biden has not been accused of sexual assault (as Trump has a dozen times) and there are no tapes of Biden on the Internet joking about grabbing women by the genitals, there are tapes of Biden behaving inappropriately. One man’s behavior is far worse, but that doesn’t excuse the other.
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.