It’s been just a week since former Nevada state lawmaker Lucy Flores wrote an article in The Cut explaining that former Vice President Joe Biden made her feel disrespected, demeaned and disempowered when he inhaled the smell of her hair and kissed her on the head in the moments before she went on stage at a political rally in 2014. Six more women then came forward with similar stories.
Biden has not apologized to any of these women. Instead, in a speech on Friday, he cracked jokes about the situation.
“I just want you to know I had permission to hug Lonnie,” he said, after embracing Lonnie Stephenson, the president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, at the union’s conference in Washington. The crowd, made up mostly of men, laughed and cheered.
Afterward, he made clear to reporters that he didn’t believe he’d done anything wrong on the whole touching-people front ― ever.
“It wasn’t my intent to make light of anyone’s discomfort. I realize it’s my responsibility to not invade the space of anyone who is uncomfortable in this regard,” said Biden, who is widely expected to announce that he’s running for president soon. But he added, “I’m not sorry for any of my intentions. I’m not sorry for anything that I have ever done. I have never been disrespectful intentionally to a man or a woman.”
By refusing to apologize, Biden has lost an opportunity to show that he understands women’s issues in the current political climate ― something that’s crucial to succeeding in any bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Since the accusations against him clearly don’t rise to the level of assault and possibly not even harassment, the stakes would be low for him to take true responsibility for his actions, acknowledge that these women felt demeaned, say he’s sorry, and move on.
Biden could have chosen to model how a progressive man responds to complaints from women in the Me Too era, said Shaunna Thomas, the co-founder and executive director of the women’s group UltraViolet.
“And that’s not just about setting Joe Biden up for success as a nominee,” Thomas said. “It was also an opportunity to advance the Me Too conversation and it’s something people are looking for. They’re looking to get outside of the paradigm where you’re either all good or all bad.”
Biden is known for being a hugger and a lot of people like him for that. He’s repeatedly said that his intentions were innocent in these cases. And no one disputes that. But even someone with the best of intentions can cause hurt, and when that happens, one typically apologizes.
“Usually you apologize when you feel like you did something wrong,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist and founder of New Deal Strategies, and a former communications director for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “I don’t believe Biden thinks he did anything wrong. Biden is a good man, whose staff clearly adores him, who’s been a good boss to women and has good legislation,” she added. “That doesn’t mean he hasn’t made people feel uncomfortable. You could be both.”
Biden doesn’t seem as comfortable talking about women within America’s changing mindset, said Katz, noting how his male rivals for the nomination have been mindful of the rising power of women in the Democratic Party.
“There’s just another lens now,” she said.
Flores herself was offended by Biden’s remarks on Friday. “It’s clear @JoeBiden hasn’t reflected at all on how his inappropriate and unsolicited touching made women feel uncomfortable,” she tweeted after the speech. “To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have.”
American politicians, traditionally, aren’t that into apologies. It’s believed to be a sign of weakness and not seen as providing much tactical advantage. There’s a desire to move past a mistake, quickly sweeping it out of the news cycle, and a fear that a big apology would only add fuel to the fire.
“One thing almost all political figures have in common is the ability to put the past behind them and move on,” writes David Litt, a former White House speechwriter for President Barack Obama, in The Daily Beast. “The easiest way to move on from mistakes is to convince yourself you never made them.”
But in this case, an apology wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
“I agree with him not apologizing for his intentions,” said longtime Democratic political strategist Joe Trippi. However, he said he would have advised Biden to apologize for his actions.
No one disputes these women’s claims, Trippi said. “Biden could just say: ‘That was not my intention but now that you told me, now that you’ve said to me that it made you uncomfortable, it doesn’t matter how I intended it, I’m sorry I made you feel that way.’ And move on.”