Biden’s stumbles ― his refusal to apologize or, at the very least, offer some genuine introspection ― are somewhat baffling.
No issue had been hanging over Biden’s presidential run as much as the Hill episode. He’s consistently refused to admit he had any role in Hill’s shabby treatment before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chaired at the time. Yet the issue has continued to come up, showing that many people feel like his answer is inadequate.
This issue is not going to go away. And Biden risks letting it define his campaign in the same way that the Iraq War was a problem for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who flamed out after being the front-runner at the start of the GOP presidential primary in 2016.
Biden Haunted By Anita Hill Hearing
On Thursday, the day of Biden’s launch, his campaign revealed that the former vice president had called Hill and expressed “his regret for what she endured” when she publicly testified about the sexual harassment she faced from Thomas, who was then under consideration for the Supreme Court.
But any positive press Biden may have been hoping to get from this gesture was quickly extinguished when Hill publicly said it was insufficient. The New York Times said Hill “declined to characterize Mr. Biden’s words to her as an apology and said she was not convinced that he has taken full responsibility for his conduct at the hearings — or for the harm he caused other victims of sexual harassment and gender violence.”
On Friday, Biden went on ABC’s “The View,” a show with a predominantly female audience, where he was once again asked about Hill. It was his first interview since launching his campaign. Biden again insisted that he bore no responsibility for what happened to her.
“I’m sorry she was treated the way she was treated,” Biden said. “I wish we could have figured out a better way to get this thing done. I did everything in my power to do what I thought was within the rules.”
Hill, and many others, believe differently. Sure, he wasn’t like the GOP senators who went after her and attacked her credibility. But Hill has made clear that Biden abandoned her, structuring the hearing before the all-white, all-male committee in a way that put her at a disadvantage and left her without an ally.
“Joe bent over too far to accommodate the Republicans, who were going to get Thomas on the court come hell or high water,” the late Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) told Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson for their 1994 book Strange Justice, the most in-depth look at the Thomas proceedings.
Biden allowed Thomas to testify both before and after Hill, giving him the first and last words. He also refused to call three other women as witnesses who could have strengthened Hill’s allegations against Thomas. And then there were smaller moments, like allowing Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to bring up unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about Hill in an effort to smear her.
Biden, however, maintains that he did nothing wrong.
“I don’t think I treated her badly,” he said on “The View.”
Jeb Bush Struggled On Iraq War
Voters also wanted to hear some remorse from Bush over the Iraq War, almost exactly four years ago.
By that time, the war was widely considered to be a foreign policy blunder, even by many Republicans. It wasn’t Bush’s war, but it was his brother’s. And an obvious question was what then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly asked him in May 2015: “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?”
Bush essentially had 12 years to come up with an answer to this question. Yet he messed it up.
“I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”
Kelly gave him another chance to respond, asking him whether he thought it was a mistake.
“In retrospect the intelligence that everybody saw, that the world saw, not just the United States, was faulty. ... Yes, I mean, so just for the news flash to the world, if they’re trying to find places where there’s big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those,” he replied.
Bush’s answer was widely panned, with conservative writer Byron York calling it “disastrous.” Bush later said he “interpreted the question wrong.”
“I don’t know what that decision would have been — that’s a hypothetical,” he said. “Simple fact is, mistakes were made.”
Like Biden, Bush resorted to the passive voice: Things went badly. Let’s not blame anyone for it.
A day later, the issue came up again for Bush. This time, he told a voter that getting into hypotheticals “does a disservice for a lot of people that sacrificed a lot.”
Eventually, after struggling five times in one painful week to come up with an answer on the war, Bush finally said, “Knowing what we now know, what would you have done? I would have not engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.”
The Iraq War issue alone didn’t take down Bush’s candidacy. He struggled to connect with voters in a field with more charismatic figures, and he flailed against the attacks by Donald Trump in the debates.
But the Iraq episode raised questions for many voters and pundits, who expected Bush to be better prepared for, at the very least, this very obvious question. Right at the beginning, the strength of this front-runner showed some cracks.
Likewise, it’s surprising that Biden didn’t have a more solid answer for an issue that he and his team no doubt knew would emerge. Even aside from the Hill issue, Biden’s first day was rough: He faced questions surrounding his decision to hold a fundraiser at the home of a top Comcast executive and criticism from activists in Charlottesville, Virginia, who didn’t want their city used as a “prop.”