Anyone but Trump — even an accused sexual predator?
With former vice president Joe Biden as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, that harsh question is political reality for Democrats hoping for victory in November. Luckily for them, it’s getting lost in the misery of a global pandemic and President Trump’s atrocious handling of it.
But it does put some political rock stars in an awkward spot.
Biden has been endorsed by former president Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the party’s 2016 nominee; and by vanquished rivals, including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. And, their embrace came after Tara Reade’s ugly allegation that in 1993 Biden pushed her against a wall, reached under her skirt, and assaulted her with his hand. As The Wall Street Journal reports, other prominent Democrats who endorsed Biden before Reade’s allegation went public are sticking with him. They include Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Senator Kamala Harris of California, both of whom are thought to be under consideration as Biden’s running mate.
Through his campaign, Biden denied Reade’s allegation but has yet to address it personally. He should, even though at this point, there’s no way to prove its truth or falsity, just like accusations of sexual misconduct made against others, such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Of course, more than a dozen women have also accused Trump of sexual assault — which he, too, denies. Meanwhile, Trump is on the record bragging about grabbing female body parts, leading to an unpleasant political calculus that, for Democrats, goes something like this: Their accused predator is worse than ours.
For Democrats, backing Biden now requires a version of the mental gymnastics employed by Republicans. Trump supporters can overlook Trump’s vast moral failings because of the Supreme Court justices he nominates and the wall he promises to build. Biden backers can ignore Reade’s allegation because of the Supreme Court justices he will nominate and the policy bridges he promises to build.
Journalists, meanwhile, face their own questions: Why did it take so long to grapple with Reade’s story? And why isn’t Biden being pushed to respond personally to it? I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Reade’s allegation, mostly to argue that up against the totality of Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct, one unproven allegation against Biden is not disqualifying. Today, I make the same political calculation, but I also believe Biden should address the charge directly.
It’s worth noting that Democratic primary voters who rallied behind Biden couldn’t factor Reade’s assault allegation into their decision-making because they didn’t know about it. And that’s a real tragedy.
A year ago — in the spring of 2019 — Reade was one of seven women who came forward to tell stories of uncomfortable encounters with Biden. As Reade described it then, Biden “used to put his hand on my shoulder and run his finger up my neck.” She and the other women didn’t put their discomfort in the context of sexual assault; it was more about invading personal space. Biden explained such incidents as old-fashioned retail politics and promised to be “more mindful” about respecting boundaries.
It was not until a podcast interview on March 25 that Reade publicly changed her story to reflect her current allegation. The South Carolina primary, which launched Biden’s resurgence, took place weeks before that, on Feb. 29. Biden then solidified his front-runner status during multiple primaries that also took place before March 25. The April 7 Wisconsin primary took place after Reade’s podcast interview, but you would have to be a close reader of left-leaning and right-leaning online publications to know about it.
Yet as first reported by The Intercept, in January 2020, Reade reached out to Time’s Up, the organization established in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement to help survivors tell their story. However, lawyers connected to the group’s legal defense fund declined to take her case.
If Reade’s allegation had become public before the primaries played out and before the pandemic took over the news cycle, would it have changed the outcome of the Democratic primary process? There’s no way to know for sure, but the alternative to Sanders might have been someone other than a candidate who stands accused of sexual assault.