Joe Biden is, in so many ways, a man from a Democratic Party of another time. Yet as he inches closer to a campaign to lead the Democratic Party of 2020, he is suddenly finding himself being asked questions that had lay dormant while he served ably as Barack Obama's vice president for eight years, questions that get right to the heart of what his party stands for.
In most of the polls that have been taken of primary voters, Biden comes in first with around a quarter of the vote, in no small part because he is far more familiar than the other candidates (with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders). But like all the other candidates, his long record in office is being reexamined, particularly those parts that look much more problematic from the perspective of 2019 than they did even in 2008.
There's his role in writing the harsh 1994 crime bill, his advocacy for banks and credit card companies, his denunciations of busing in the 1970s. And there's the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court, which Biden oversaw as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, when Anita Hill was mocked and abused despite the fact that she was the one telling the truth. Biden now says "I wish I could have done something" to make it less awful for Hill, as though he were some sort of bystander. One thing he could have done was allow the other women who were prepared to corroborate Hill's account to testify. But he didn't.
Biden has expressed regret over all that; whether he has done enough is a matter people could disagree about. But now another issue has been raised, one that has been in plain sight for years: Biden's tendency, when standing next to women, to act as though he has the right to put his hands on their bodies without their permission.
As so often happens, it took one woman speaking out to force everyone else to take seriously what people already knew and joked about. Lucy Flores, who in 2014 was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor of Nevada, wrote an essay in New York Magazine about what happened to her when Biden came to do an event for her, and they stood backstage waiting to go on:
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.
"In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort," Biden said in a statement responding to Flores's account. "And not once—never—did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention." He also stressed the need to listen to what women have to say and promised to keep doing so.
Flores's response hit the right note: "Frankly, my point was never about his intentions, and they shouldn't be about his intentions. It should be about the women on the receiving end of that behavior."
I wouldn't be surprised at all if Biden has no memory of this incident, because what Flores describes is exactly what he does all the time. To call him "handsy" is an understatement. It's not necessarily sexual, but it's deeply disturbing.
What's distinctive about Biden's behavior is that unlike many politicians who have been accused of acting inappropriately, his acts were both private and public, not hidden as though it was something he might be afraid to be caught doing. Go to YouTube and you can find plenty of videos of Biden doing exactly what Lucy Flores described to any number of women and girls, particularly during Senate swearing-in ceremonies where newly elected members pose for pictures with their families. Biden will find himself next to a female—sometimes a grown woman, sometimes a teenager, sometimes a girl who looks no more than seven or eight—whereupon he'll grab her shoulders, thrust his face into her hair with a smile as though drinking in her scent, and maybe plant a kiss. Here's a photo of him burying his nose in the hair of actress and activist Eva Longoria at the same event he appeared at with Flores.
At these moments one notices that the women, like former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter's wife Stephanie, stand stoically while he holds them, since this is no doubt not the first time they have experienced such a thing. The girls, on the other hand, like Senator Chris Coons' daughter, are more likely to squirm uncomfortably.
So what would we like to hear from Biden now that he's being forced to confront this issue? Perhaps something that demonstrates that he understands, or at least is trying to understand, how it can feel for a woman to have a powerful man walk up to her and put his hands all over her. How about something like this:
It has become clear to me that what I thought were moments of affection felt like anything but to the people on the other side. I can say I never intended to make anyone uncomfortable, but that's not good enough. I did make them uncomfortable. I treated them as though their bodies were available to me, at my whim, to stroke or smell or kiss, whether they wanted me to or not. I violated their autonomy, because I figured they'd enjoy it, and because I could. I understand, and I'm sorry. And I'm going to change.
Perhaps it would be naïve to hope that any politician would actually say something like that, to present themselves as something less than a hero who was always in the right and never had anything but the purest of motives. In these kinds of situations, they tend to respond in ways that are respectful to the accuser but insist upon their own innocence. But there isn't a question of Biden's innocence, since he has done what Flores describes so many times on camera. The question is whether he understands why it's wrong.
Of course, you could argue that this doesn't have that much bearing on what sort of president he'd be, and Biden points to his work on things like the Violence Against Women Act to show that he is an advocate for women's rights. But as Rebecca Traister argues in a devastating indictment of the former vice president, it is the things that supposedly make Biden "electable" that are precisely the problem with the idea of him leading the Democratic Party at this point in its evolution.
Joe Biden, we are told over and over, is the one who can speak to the disaffected white men angry at the loss of their primacy. He's the one who doesn't like abortion, but is willing to let the ladies have them. He's the one who tells white people to be nice to immigrants, even as he mirrors their xenophobia ("You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent," he said in 2006). He's the one who validates their racism and sexism while gently trying to assure them that they're still welcome in the Democratic Party. "In an attempt to win back That Guy," Traister writes, "Joe Biden has himself, so very often, been That Guy."
And Biden is the embodiment of the idea that winning the support of That Guy is the one true path to Democratic success. Not exciting African-American voters, or young voters, or Latino voters. Not engaging the millions of Americans who would vote for Democrats if someone convinced them to register. Not mobilizing the Democratic electorate as the party did so successfully in 2018, but winning over some of those endlessly glorified white working-class men.
It's not yet clear what policy agenda Biden will propose, though it's likely to be pretty standard Democratic fare that rejects some of the more ambitious goals other candidates have embraced. But Biden represents something more fundamental: a link to the politics and political style of the past. Even if that's not his intention.