Joe Biden is a man looking for his moment. Behind those famous aviators, he’s surveying the landscape to see if 2020 might just be his year to fulfill his presidential dreams.
Biden has already run for president twice. Although he didn’t run in 2016, he thinks he could have won that race. When Hillary Clinton lost, she was heavily criticized for not having a populist economic message that could have reached the working-class white voters who swung over to Donald Trump.
Those voters are the speciality of the former vice president, who was born in the Rust Belt city of Scranton, Pennsylvania. When he represented Delaware in the U.S. Senate, Biden was known for taking Amtrak to and from Washington, just like the regular people.
Biden is now wondering if 2020 may be his time.
“I’m not closing the door. I’ve been around too long and I’m a great respecter of fate, but who knows what the situation is going to be a year and a half from now,” he said Tuesday.
According to Politico, Biden has also privately been telling people that as of now, he doesn’t see anyone besides himself who could stop Trump from winning a second term.
But 2020 may not be Biden’s year. While he is better than many other Democrats at offering up economic populism, there are other rising movements for which he isn’t well positioned to be the face of the party.
Clinton lost. And with her defeat went many people’s hope that the nation would finally have its first female president. Afterward, women ― some of whom had supported Clinton and some who did not ― launched a resistance movement to push back on Trump’s policies and get more politically engaged. Record numbers of women are now running for office.
The movement has extended beyond politics. Men in entertainment, media, business and other areas are finally being held accountable for sexist behavior. From former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly to producer Harvey Weinstein to comedian Louis C.K., men are losing their jobs after years of having sexually harassed or assaulted women with impunity.
Biden is the wrong guy to bear the standard of any party purporting to speak for the victims of unaccountable power.
In many ways, Anita Hill launched the movement against sexual harassment in 1991. Then a 35-year-old law professor, she publicly accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of having sexually harassed her when she worked for him. She faced a Senate Judiciary Committee composed entirely of white men. Although the Senate went on to confirm Thomas anyway, women around the country were captivated by her testimony. For the first time on national television, a woman was describing what so many of them faced every day in their jobs.
“I’ve seen movements come and go. And some are quite powerful. I’ve not seen something like this. And I’m hoping that [it will] bring lasting change,” Hill told CNN last week on the progress that has been made since her testimony.
Hill has previously said she doesn’t believe her allegations against Thomas received the consideration they deserved. There were other women who were ready to support her allegations, but they were never allowed to testify before the Judiciary Committee.
The man who could have changed that was Biden, who served as chair of the committee in 1991. In the years since, he has publicly presented himself as Hill’s ally, but she made clear in an interview with HuffPost in 2014 that she believes the senator let her down.
“There were three women who were ready and waiting and subpoenaed to be giving testimony about similar behavior that they had experienced or witnessed. He failed to call them,” Hill said. “There also were experts who could have given real information as opposed to the misinformation that the Senate was giving ... and helped the public understand sexual harassment. He failed to call them.”
Biden told The New York Times two days before Hill was set to testify that he began by assuming that Thomas was innocent ― and, as it follows, by assuming that Hill was lying.
“I must start off with a presumption of giving the person accused the benefit of the doubt,” Biden said. “I must seek the truth and I must ask straightforward and tough questions, and in my heart I know if that woman is telling the truth it will be almost unfair to her. On the other hand, if I don’t ask legitimate questions, then I am doing a great injustice to someone who might be totally innocent. It’s a horrible dilemma because you have two lives at stake here.”
Since that time, Biden has built a long record of championing women’s rights. As vice president, he sought to address the scourge of sexual assault on college campuses and fought to make the matter a priority in the Obama administration.
But part of his record remains the way he treated Hill. And for that, he has never fully apologized. Instead, on Monday, he said he felt bad that Hill felt she had been mistreated ― but he still insisted he was her champion.
“I feel really badly that she didn’t feel like the process worked, but I tell you what, I said something at the time that proved to be right,” Biden said. “I said this is going to be the start of a fundamental change of what constitutes harassment in the workplace and people are going to begin to change.”
Biden was correct. But it was in large part because of the way Hill was treated and the way he handled the hearing that people started talking. Women saw Hill go up against the white men on the Senate Judiciary Committee ― who were either unsympathetic to what she had gone through or simply didn’t come to her assistance ― and decided that they needed to change the face of Congress.
In response, a record number of women ran for Congress in 1992. And two new female senators finally took seats on the Judiciary Committee ― but not without a misstep by Biden. After then-Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) won her party’s Senate primary, the chairman hand-delivered to her a dozen red roses with the note, “Welcome to the Senate Judiciary Committee.” News reports at the time described the moment in highly gendered language ― that Biden had tried to “woo” Boxer but was “scorned” and that Biden had gone “courting” while the new female senators played “hard to get.”
Boxer ultimately chose not to join the committee.
Biden also continues to maintain ― as he did in his remarks Monday ― that he wanted the other women to testify on behalf of Hill. He claimed that they didn’t want to do so and that they would have undercut Hill’s testimony.
That is not, however, the version of events that Hill and her legal team remember, as HuffPost has reported. They believe that Biden, like the other senators at the time, simply wanted to finish up Thomas’ confirmation hearing and move on ― even if it meant Hill would get the short end of the stick.
Today, part of Biden’s schtick is that he’s Uncle Joe. He’s the jovial guy who can go into a bar and connect with anyone there.
During the Obama administration, his ability to glad-hand and connect with people in an entertaining way was on full display every two years when he greeted the new senators and their families as they were sworn in. He’d schmooze and make jokes with little kids and elderly relatives alike.
His behavior also had more patronizing undercurrents. A big part of his act was remarking on the attractiveness of women, young and old. He would comment on how pretty young women were and warn their fathers to keep the guys away.
Many people found this behavior charming. He wasn’t stiff like some politicians. He grabbed people’s hands, put his arm around them and even kissed people on the cheek.
But it’s clear some people were uncomfortable. The teenage daughter of Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), for example, visibly cringed and pulled away when Biden whispered in her ear and kissed her on the head.
In 2015, when Biden put his arms on the wife of Defense Secretary Ash Carter at Carter’s swearing-in ceremony, people noticed how uncomfortable the moment looked.
There are plenty of other examples. New York Magazine even had a slideshow of them called “9 Times Joe Biden Creepily Whispered in Women’s Ears.”
In 2015, conservative columnist Byron York wrote about Biden’s handsy ways, questioning whether his gestures were appropriate.
“Do the incidents add up to anything? Assume that all of Biden’s gestures were entirely innocent, just Joe being Joe,” York wrote. “Still, in today’s society, sexual harassment complaints have been lodged for less. Biden’s behavior gives critics plenty of ammunition and puts supporters in a difficult position. Why is that kind of stuff OK when the vice president does it and cringe-making when it’s the overly-friendly guy in the office?”
Biden has clearly been a champion for women’s rights in his policies. Even advocates who criticized his conduct during the Hill testimony say he is today one of their strongest allies. He has evolved ― but so have his party and the country.
And the newly energized women under the Democratic tent may not want a relic from the pre-woke era to be their standard-bearer.