Why Democrats Won’t Let Joe Biden Become the Next Al Franken
A sexual assault allegation against Joe Biden has forced Democrats to come to terms with the political costs of being accountable to the Me Too movement.
***Update 4/29/20: Since I published this post on April 15, a former neighbor of Tara Reade has come forward to corroborate Reade’s claim that she told people about Biden assaulting her around the time of the incident. Also, a video clip has surfaced from a 1993 episode of Larry King Live in which a caller, whom Reade says is her mother, asks for advice for her daughter who left her job on Capitol Hill due to problems with a prominent senator. Based on this evidence, I believe Tara Reade is telling the whole truth about what happened to her.
Last month as former Vice President Joe Biden took a near-insurmountable lead in the Democratic primary race, Tara Reade, a former staffer in his Senate office in the early 1990s, came forward with a shocking allegation: then-Senator Biden had sexually assaulted her on Capitol Hill.
Reade first shared her story on a leftist podcast hosted by Katie Halper, but only a handful online news outlets picked up the story at first. It wasn’t until early April, two weeks after the podcast interview, that the New York Times publicly revealed its investigation into Reade’s allegation against Biden. Although the investigation conducted by the New York Times aligned with information relayed to Halper — namely, that Reade had disclosed to her brother and a friend at the time that she’d had a traumatic encounter with then-Senator Biden — the Times made a bizarre social media post accompanying its investigation that suggested Biden had no known history of sexual misconduct. Yet in that same post, the Times acknowledges other women have come forward and accused Biden of behavior that made them uncomfortable.
The New York Times regularly draws ire from liberal commentators over its coverage of President Trump, but the newspaper’s clumsy handling of the Reade allegation against Biden has been unlike any allegation it has covered before.
Even liberals who opposed Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court in 2018 in light of multiple sexual assault allegations against him have been mum about the fact that the Democrat’s presumptive nominee for president is accused of sexually assaulting a woman.
Because Reade’s allegation against Biden was first disclosed by people who are politically aligned with Bernie Sanders, I was initially skeptical of her story. And based on an earlier account given to a Nevada newspaper, it seems that Reade’s story has changed over time, escalating from uncomfortable bodily touching on the part of Biden to penetrating her with his fingers.
There is also evidence from Reade’s social media history to suggest that Reade had been supportive of Joe Biden as recently as 2017, including liking and retweeting Twitter posts that praised Biden for his work on ending sexual assault. I was also baffled by the now-deleted blog posts she’d made in support of Russian president Vladimir Putin, given not only his efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election but his horrible record on women’s rights.
Still, the consistency in Reade’s initial story of sexual misconduct by Biden, as well as confirmation by the New York Times that Reade had told at least one person about her latest allegation against Biden (sexual assault) at the time of the incident does lead me to believe that Reade is at least partially telling the truth. Like other women who have come forward, I believe Reade was sexually harassed by Biden at some point; but I’m not so sure the story she is telling now of an assault is one that played out as well. That the New York Times investigation did not uncover any written complaints or locate former staff members who could corroborate Reade’s claim that she told multiple people in the office about the assault at the time does lend credibility to Biden allies who dispute Reade’s characterization of Biden’s Senate office as a toxic workplace for women.
But the gaps in Reade’s story aren’t the driving force behind Democrats’ or the mainstream media’s reticence over Reade’s allegation. As Branko Marcetic wrote for Jacobin, mainstream media outlets have covered sexual assault allegations against major public figures with far less information than what is alleged about Biden. Instead, I suspect that the problems with Reade’s story are being amplified for the purpose of rationalizing Democrats’ unwillingness to make her allegation consequential to their support of Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee for president.
With the DNC convention pushed forward to mid August, Democrats would, in theory, have plenty of time to draft another candidate for the nomination if Reade’s allegation turns out to be disqualifying for Biden. But even with this allegation, Democrats aren’t likely to see parity between Biden and President Trump, who faced multiple sexual assault allegations in 2016.
Having embraced the Me Too movement over the last three years, Democrats probably see themselves as the only major party that has been accountable to the issues Me Too activists care about, even if the party includes men like Joe Biden who are part of the problem Me Too activists are fighting.
To some extent this is true about the Democrats. In one Pew Research study from 2017, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to rate sexual harassment as a very important issue in society. But now the roles seem to have reversed, with Democrats exhibiting more caution and Republicans exhibiting more urgency around the allegation against Biden.
But the biggest problem for Democrats isn’t the appearance of getting outflanked by Republicans on sexual assault. It’s that their immediate silence and skepticism reflect the very sort of approach to women accusers that the Me Too movement wants to change. In other words, through their silence Democrats are promoting a culture where women accusers are denied any credibility unless they have physical proof an alleged assault took place.
For instance Clay Travis, a Fox Sports Radio commentator and ardent supporter of President Trump, took Democrats’ silence around the Reade allegation as an invitation to revert back to a public standard of neutrality toward women’s allegations against men. This standard might not explicitly presume women are lying, but it flattens their credibility to the legal standard of proving criminal liability.
In reality, victims don’t often have physical evidence or individuals who can corroborate their stories. Such a standard may protect the rights of the accused, but it ultimately has the effect of discouraging victims from coming forward.
At the same time, Tara Reade’s allegation against Biden forces liberals to come to terms with the limits of #BelieveAllWomen. It simply doesn’t matter that women are usually telling the truth when they make accusations against men — men have a right to their credibility too, and the public will usually give credible men the benefit of the doubt. The feminist fantasy of society doing little more than listening to women tell their stories to gauge the culpability of men was never a viable path for the Me Too movement to build support over the long-run.
Liberals must also come to terms with the political costs of being accountable to the Me Too movement. This includes not only the potential for Democrats to lose a presidential election if their candidate is credibly accused of assault, but the potential for backlash from Democratic voters who see women’s trauma being weaponized to take down one of their own.
While Al Franken’s resignation from the Senate in 2018 following allegations of sexual misconduct was largely driven by mounting evidence of his misconduct, many supporters of Franken felt that Democrats had played into Republicans’ weaponization of sexual assault and harassment by setting a precedent for many more Democrats to be forced to resign from office. If Biden is forced to drop out of the primary by Democratic leaders, voters’ anger would be even more pronounced given the list of allegations against President Trump.
There’s a human element to liberal reactions to the Tara Reade allegation that I think Biden’s opponents are mistaken to use as a shaming mechanism against Democrats. When Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren claimed that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders told her in a closed-door meeting that he did not think a woman could become president, supporters of Sanders were understandably skeptical, if not angry, about Warren’s claim. In retrospect, I believe that the skepticism shown toward the allegations against Justice Kavanaugh by the people who knew him should have been afforded the same understanding by the left, even if they felt his accusers were more credible than Reade.
That’s because when men in government are accused of sexual misconduct, there is no escaping the reality that there are political contests at stake if the men were to resign, and that these contests will provoke different reactions based on which side is hurt or helped by the scandal. To be clear, this is not an excuse for ignoring or downplaying allegations like those against Biden. But any sort of justice demanded must start with being honest about what matters to us and how these priorities shape the sort of justice we’re willing, or not willing, to work for.
I don’t know if Joe Biden assaulted Tara Reade, but it’s clear that he has a history with women that makes such an allegation more credible than not. Democrats would certainly be better off with a nominee without Biden’s baggage. But it’s clear that for most Democrats, doing the right thing for Reade doesn’t outweigh the dangers many more women face under four more years of Trump.