The first controversy of Joe Biden’s prospective 2020 campaign is just a slice of the multiple challenges the former vice president will face if he jumps into the race.
Allegations by former Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores that she was unnerved by Biden smelling her hair and kissing the back of her head at an event five years ago have been followed by a second accusation, made by a Connecticut woman, of inappropriate contact.
That’s forcing some Democrats to confront head-on the question of whether Biden is the right person to be the party’s 2020 standard-bearer in the “Me Too” era.
Biden, 76, has been expected to announce his entry into the race for the Democratic nomination this month and would do so as an instant frontrunner, based on early polling. But instead of a careful buildup to an announcement, Biden’s allies, including women who have worked with him, have been put on the defense.
Biden released a statement Sunday saying it was “never my intention” to make anyone feel uncomfortable — neither of the women said Biden’s actions had sexual overtones. His spokesman, Bill Russo, on Monday also addressed various photographs that have been circulating on the Internet for months and promoted by some Republicans and their allies depicting Biden touching or leaning in to talk with women.
“One now-fabled photo was, in fact, ‘misleadingly extracted’ from a consoling ‘moment between close friends,’ and the other captured a grandfatherly word of praise and offer of support for the daughter of long-time friends of the Biden family,” Russo said in a statement.
The controversy is a glimpse of what Biden will confront if he does get into the campaign. Over 36 years, from 1973 to 2009, as a senator from Delaware and eight years as vice president, he made countless decisions that might have seemed appropriate at the time but could look different to younger, diverse and more liberal voters who are ascendant in the Democratic Party. Much as the “Me Too” movement has forced a reckoning about sexual harassment by powerful men, heightened attention to income inequality and racial injustice have cast some of Biden’s decisions in a harsher light.
Biden’s potential challenges include the contentious Anita Hill hearings he oversaw as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which cleared the way for the Supreme Court confirmation of Clarence Thomas despite sexual harassment allegations against him. They include policy decisions like supporting the 1994 crime bill, which the party’s progressives criticize today as escalating mass incarceration and dealing disproportionate harm to blacks and Latinos. He’ll also likely have to explain his vote in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war, and his support in 2005 for a bill that made it harder for financially strapped Americans to declare bankruptcy.
Democrats have taken on the mantle as a champion of women. Female voters helped Democrats elect a record number of women to the House and there are six women competing for the party’s presidential nomination. Some of that energy arises from anger about President Donald Trump’s record of statements and actions around women.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several other Democrats said Biden’s intent isn’t the issue, rather it is how the actions are received. Still, she said at a Politico Playbook event Tuesday in Washington, his actions shouldn’t prevent Biden from running for president.
“I don’t think it’s disqualifying,” she said.
Intentions and Actions
A recurring theme among Democrats was that Biden’s expressions of his intent aren’t enough.
“The focus isn’t on what his intentions were, it is how his behavior is experienced, and one should not invade personal space,” said Hawaii Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono. “He needs to be a lot more aware of that.”
“We all know Joe and the caring guy that he is, but he needs to be sensitive to his actions and it’s important that he be hearing from the women,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who’s on the Democratic leadership team.
Stabenow, like others, alluded to the fact that Trump has faced allegations of groping or sexual harassment from more than a dozen women, all of which he has denied.
“It’s an important issue in the context of running against this president and all that he has done to women. It would be interesting to compare,” she said. “We have a president of the United States who has a lot to account for as well.”
Flores said Sunday on MSNBC said she didn’t believe Biden had bad intentions. “I’m not in any way suggesting that I felt sexually assaulted or sexually harassed. I felt invaded. I felt there was a violation of my personal space.”
A Connecticut woman told the Hartford Courant that Biden touched her and rubbed noses with her at a fundraiser in 2009. “It wasn’t sexual, but he did grab me by the head,” Amy Lappos said, according to the Courant.
The president’s top aides and allies have used the controversy to open several lines of attack on Biden. White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, on the Fox News Sunday program, referred to “creepy Uncle Joe videos” on the internet.
Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican and Trump ally, said Biden will be weighed down by his record.
“Over 40 years in Washington will create things that he has to talk about, and they won’t be the kind of things you would want to be talking about,” he said. “Explaining what you’ve done is not nearly as important if you’re running for president than talking about what you’re going to do. The less career you have in the Democratic primary today, the more attractive you appear to be.”
A spokesman for Biden didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment Monday. In his Sunday statement, Biden pointed out that he fought for the Violence Against Women Act and has sought to “ensure women are treated with the equality they deserve.”
“I will also remain the strongest advocate I can be for the rights of women,” he said.
Tony Bisignano, a Democratic state senator in Iowa who has known Biden since 1987, said the Flores allegation could put pressure on the former vice president to get into the race sooner rather than later.
“A lot of people are going to step back and will have to re-evaluate,” he said. “I think he’s in damage control mode now.”
Bisignano, who said he backed Biden in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, hasn’t heard anything from him or anyone in his camp. “It isn’t a deal breaker for me,” he said of the allegation.
That the episode involved physical expression on the part of Biden wasn’t a surprise to Bisignano, who said the former vice president hugged him the first time they met and that his wife received a “hug and a kiss on the cheek.”
“It’s a natural instinct of his to do that,” Bisignano said. “He’s a touchy-feely guy.”
Darrin Lacy, 46, of Dallas said Monday he wants to hear more before deciding whether the allegations are disqualifying for Biden. He said the issue may hurt him with younger voters but questioned how heavily it’ll weigh with his older supporters.
“He may have a fine line to balance between the younger voters and his established base,” Lacy said at a summit in Washington featuring numerous Democratic White House candidates.