Update: Almost a year after I originally wrote this piece, here’s a disturbing development: Tara Reade, a staffer in Biden’s Senate office in the early 1990s, in 2019 went public with accusations of his misconduct back then, ranging from inappropriate touching to sexual assault. She was smeared as a Russian troll. Then, in January of this year, she sought the aid of the organization Time’s Up, which provides legal defense for survivors of such abuse — only to learn that they would not help, “because the person she was accusing, Biden, was a candidate for federal office, and assisting a case against him could jeopardize the organization’s nonprofit status,” the Intercept reported.
Biden isn’t president yet, but we’re seeing that he’s already shielded by the kind of executive privilege that Trump likes to invoke.
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For all that we’ve heard and will continue to hear about Joe Biden touching women inappropriately over the years, there’s still a decent chance he’ll be our next president. Trump is all the evidence you need that sexual misconduct is no barrier to the highest office in the land (and essentially never was). Biden’s most vocal supporters are already angling for a favorable comparison with the predator-in-chief, pointing out that Trump’s alleged offenses are far more severe, that he’s been accused by many more women.
To that I can only say… give it a minute.
This is like if a vice presidential candidate were criticized for accidentally shooting a person in the arm, and his loyalists replied, “Well, Dick Cheney accidentally shot a guy in the face.” The two events are only connected insofar as we have a cultural problem with guns — or, in the case of the Biden-Trump matchup, men grabbing women — and measuring their relative badness is an exercise in ignoring the systemic issue.
Whatever daylight lies between Biden’s behavior and Trump’s is also, contrary to what Resistance grifters believe, not an advantage heading into 2020. Do they imagine the president won’t call him “Creepy Uncle Joe” a dozen times a day? Haven’t they noticed Trump trashing his enemies for whatever he’s guilty of? Did they forget when he held a press conference with Bill Clinton’s accusers? This dumbfuck’s entire style is hypocrisy.
People wondered how those women — Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey — could possibly back Trump, who has bragged about committing sexual assault, given their alleged experiences with Clinton. Weren’t they swapping one monster for another? I suppose what we saw there was the very mindset that allowed millions of other women to vote for Trump, one that keeps approval ratings high for Biden and Clinton, despite their sleazy reputations: You go with the creep you know.
In practice, this often amounts to faith in your party. What Clinton, Biden and Al Franken allegedly did was wrong, but hey, they’re on your team. They’re the good guys! We have to brush off their “indiscretions” as minor, irrelevant, harmless — otherwise, it plays to their opponents’ advantage. But as we make these excuses, we familiarize and normalize the problem. We get comfortable with it. We’ve seen Biden give so many unsolicited shoulder rubs in public, with the cameras rolling, that we’ve learned to visually tune it out. That’s just Joe being Joe, and he’s never going to change. Weirdly, these images double as confirmations that nothing worse is going on. Biden is doing it all in full view, not in some hotel room or behind a locked office door — so how bad could he really be?
Our acquaintance with Biden’s physicality likewise contributes to the sense that it shouldn’t be questioned, even on a very basic level. The hugging, clutching and squeezing are inseparable from his political schtick; they are his vigor, authenticity and charisma run amok, translated into a bodily overenthusiasm. Biden is, quite plainly, a charmer, and in order to let ourselves be charmed, we reconcile that handsy stuff through the persona we want to see.
When all else fails, there is additional “context” to muddy the waters. My colleague Alana Levinson had this maneuver pinned down when she wrote of Biden’s casual lechery back in 2015: “He doesn’t get it,” goes the line. “He’s of a different generation.” But why should we accept that he’s unable or unwilling to learn and change, while plenty of men his age are maintaining proper boundaries? And why on earth should we want such a man as president? He’s perfectly capable of not forcibly rubbing noses with men, but with a woman he can’t help himself? Okay then!
Biden, like Trump and Clinton, is largely impervious to attacks on this front because there is no surprise to the scandal. It’s what we know and expect of him, and he’s always gotten a pass for it. That he could still be regarded as the “safe” choice for the Democratic nomination is a testament to how fear guides electoral calculus. Liberals are too afraid of losing to Trump to hold their guy accountable for his hair-sniffing habit. They’re too afraid to pick another woman after Hillary. And they’re too afraid of finding out that the blank-canvas male candidates — hello, Beto — have darker secrets in store. If Biden’s biggest flaw is an avuncular horniness, it’s still not enough to take him down, they figure. Turn it into a joke and move on. America’s soul is at stake, after all.
Except it won’t go away, no matter what panicked Democrats do to convince themselves that these are benign displays of affection. Trump surrogates have begun to hammer the “Creepy Uncle Joe” trope. The next woman will come forward at any moment. We may find ourselves locked into a profoundly inane referendum on which old dingbat is a grosser pervert. It’s a pointless exercise: Our answers will correspond exactly to our partisan identity.
Everyone prefers the creep they feel they can understand, the one who represents a permissible mode of icky masculinity, be it Biden pulling a biker onto his lap or Trump spying on teen beauty queens. Not only is there an alarming relief in the ordinariness of these violations (“boys being boys,” “locker-room talk”), there is nostalgia for a time when nobody made a stink about them, and this includes the Obama years as surely as the fictive 1950s that right-wingers yearn for.
I think a coalition is bound to form around Biden regardless: a base of Democrats who decide it’s too risky to send anyone else after Trump. They will frame it as the “pragmatic” choice. One cannot let the imperfect become the enemy of the good, etc. But the mistake is visible from months and miles away: By trying to pick Trump’s opposite number, they’ll go for a man who has a little too much in common.