It doesn’t matter if the sexual assault allegations against Joe Biden are true — at least not in the context of the presidential election. Of course, that’s not to say that the truth is irrelevant or that it’s only important insofar as it relates to Biden’s chances at beating Donald Trump. It’s a question of justice and accountability. Even if Biden weren’t the presumptive nominee in what could be the most consequential election of our lifetime, the claims of former senate staffer Tara Reade would still need to be taken seriously and investigated as a matter of principle.
That said, the allegations aren’t likely to be definitively proven or disproven to anyone’s satisfaction. Family and acquaintances have confirmed that Reade told them of the alleged assault at the time, but there were no eye witnesses. Reade says she filed a complaint at the time but she was “too scared” to speak up about the sexual assault and she is unsure what exact wording she used.
If the complaint is found, it will further corroborate her account, but it still falls short of proof that he committed the specific heinous act of which he is accused: fondling Reade and penetrating her with his finger.
And if it doesn’t turn up, Biden isn’t completely vindicated either. His supporters might be satisfied, but those who want to believe will just assume a cover-up occurred.
There’s the rub: It doesn’t matter what the truth actually is. In terms of the impact on the election, the main issue is what the majority of people believe to be the truth.
In the absence of clear, unambiguous evidence, it’s her word against his, so it all comes down to character and who the public finds more credible.
Biden’s allies have been digging through Reade’s past for information that could discredit her. The main thing that keeps getting brought up again and again is a Medium post in which she wrote positively about Russian President Vladimir Putin. But paranoia about Russia is an insular Democratic obsession, so liberals might be overrating the degree to which that hurts Reade’s credibility among the electorate as a whole.
While questions regarding Reade’s character mostly involve insinuations about her motive, Biden has real issues with honesty. He was a serious contender in his first presidential bid in the late 1980s, but his candidacy was derailed by a plagiarism scandal. He has often lied about his record and his participation in the civil rights movement. Most recently, he told a whopper about getting arrested visiting Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
But the perception that he’s dishonest isn’t the main factor that will predispose voters to believing the allegations. There are two competing narratives about Joe Biden. One is the gaffe-able but affable “Uncle Joe” — the goofy, old-fashioned grandpa figure who is problematic, yet good-hearted and ultimately benign. The second, which has been cultivated by his political enemies (and late-night comedy shows), is “Creepy Joe.”
Reade’s allegations have the potential to tip the balance in favor of the latter. So long as “Uncle Joe” is the dominant persona in the public mind, Biden’s inappropriate touching of women and young girls can be written off as relatively harmless: He’s an old man from another era who’s just trying to be affectionate but doesn’t understand boundaries.
But Reade’s allegations recontextualize all those familiar images. They color the public’s interpretation of these incidents, making them seem more sinister. For those who always perceived his inappropriate touching as sexual, the allegations will reinforce those views. And those who gave “Uncle Joe” the benefit of the doubt might find it harder to maintain that position with the thought of him cornering a staffer in the back of their minds.
Pundits trying to downplay the effect of the allegations on Biden’s candidacy point out that similar — and more numerous — accusations didn’t stop Trump. Everyone assumed Trump’s leaked “grab them by the pussy” remarks would cost him the election, but they didn’t.
But many are ignoring the peculiarities of Biden’s situation that might cause the allegations to play out differently for him at the ballot box. More than 20 women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, but how many of them are known to the public by name? How many are having their stories repeated on the news every night?
More importantly: How many of those incidents are recorded in a form that translates well into an attack ad? Unproven allegations have power to the extent that they can be transmuted into a reality in the public imagination. The vulgar, misogynistic clips of Trump bragging to Billy Bush about moving on a woman “like a bitch” were played off by his allies in the conservative media as “locker room talk.” And it worked well enough to get him elected.
It would be foolish to underestimate how convincing Tara Reade’s verbal account of the incident is. In her interview with Katie Halper, she breaks down in tears as she recalls how Biden allegedly pointed to her angrily and said “You’re nothing to me!”
And if she is really some Russian asset, then she’s a damn good actor because it feels real. She sounds like someone who has experienced an actual trauma.
The campaign ad writes itself. Tara Reade speaks over dark, sad music while a montage of “Creepy Joe” sniffing women’s hair and sliding his hand around their waists runs in the background.
Right now, it’s hard to say just how this will affect the election. The latest poll by Monmouth University shows that nearly 90 percent of Americans have heard about the allegations, but belief in their veracity is split along party lines.
One-third of Americans still don’t have an opinion or aren’t familiar enough to form one. It’s hard to tell how this will play out over the coming months, but this does raise the possibility that sustained attack ads might shift public opinion on the issue.
On the other hand, of those who believe that the allegation is “probably true,” 32 percent say they’re still voting for Biden. Of course, that could reflect “blue no matter who” Democrats who acknowledge that the allegations are most likely true but remain committed to voting against Trump.
For instance, Reade’s neighbor who corroborated her story told reporters that she believes Reade but still plans to vote Biden. The issue has prompted a lot of soul-searching among liberal feminists, who are trying to thread the needle between supporting a survivor and defeating Donald Trump.
Podcast host Erin Gloria Ryan wrote an article titled “I Take Tara Reade’s Allegations Against Biden Seriously, and I’m Still Voting for Him. Here’s Why.” She closed it with the following:
Sexual-assault allegations should be disqualifying for a political candidate under normal circumstances. But nothing has been normal since Trump rode down that escalator and into the presidential race in 2015. And anybody who claims otherwise is, to paraphrase Tarana Burke, using sexual assault as “a political football.” Which is to say: If you claim, with a straight face, that Reade’s accusations (if they are true) should disqualify Biden in a race against Trump, you don’t actually care about sexual assault at all. You care about Joe Biden losing.
This logic is baffling. It presupposes that the only choice is between Biden and Trump, but Biden isn’t the nominee yet. If one agrees that sexual assault allegations should be disqualifying “under normal circumstances,” then they should disqualify Biden from being the nominee so that this awful choice isn’t foisted on people, particularly women and survivors of sexual assault.
Second, she adopts the standard position that beating Trump takes precedence over all else, without even entertaining the possibility that these allegations might be seriously undermine that goal. You can care about sexual assault and “care about Joe Biden losing,” which is to say you have concern that the sexual assault means Biden will lose. There’s no contradiction here.
There’s a case to be made that the Democratic leadership neither cares about sexual assault nor winning against Trump.
In late February, when Bernie Sanders was leading in the polls, Democratic superdelegates were speaking openly about just hand-picking a nominee at the convention if he came in with a plurality. They floated names of people who weren’t even in the race, like Sherrod Brown, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.
They were willing to take this drastic and unprecedented step because they thought Sanders would not only lose to Trump but also harm candidates in down-ballot races — or at least that’s the rationale they gave.
But Sanders is well liked and has consistently beaten Trump in head-to-head polls for half a decade. Moreover, he lacks the many liabilities Biden has. On top of the sexual assault allegations, there are questions about his cognitive decline as well as scandals involving his son and brother.
Emperor Joe’s New Clothes
With Biden now doing broadcasts daily, it’s going to get harder to keep up the illusion that he’s “presidential”
Biden is objectively more of a risk electorally than Sanders, yet the party leaders are circling the wagons around him. It’s hard to imagine the same happening if the shoe were on the other foot. If someone were to credibly accuse Sanders of doing what Biden allegedly did, the DNC wouldn’t waste any time in calling for his ouster.
A new poll by Morning Consult found one in four Democratic voters — including 40 percent of voters under 45 — support replacing Biden at the convention. Given low enthusiasm for Biden and a strong willingness among Democrats to “vote blue no matter who,” there’s really little chance that the decision will have much of a negative effect on the base in terms of turnout.
Keeping him as the nominee, however, could potentially depress turnout among women or cost a significant chunk of independent votes.
At this point, the election is essentially a coin flip, with steady blocs on each side, but a huge question mark in the middle. Biden’s lead over Trump has slipped in the past couple of weeks and the race is now too close for comfort. We’re once again at a point where a thin slice of the electorate could determine the outcome, so the wisest move is to not take chances.
We don’t know how the allegations are going to play out. It could cost the Democrats a lot, a little or just enough to make a difference. The coronavirus outbreak adds enough uncertainties to this election, why not remove one?
It’s better to play it safe and replace Biden while there’s still time.