Former vice president Joe Biden is widely believed to be a candidate for president in 2020. And judging from polls, he’s likely to be a serious contender if he jumps into the race and wins his party’s nomination. Many analysts, including many Republicans, think he’s far and away Trump’s strongest potential challenger in 2020. His strongest critics may well be fellow Democrats, who say he is out of step with the boisterous left-wing mood in the party. They cite his lackluster performances as a presidential candidate in the past. There are also some major chinks in his policy armor: he supported the Iraq War, has a mixed record on criminal justice, and was criticized for his handling of the Anita Hill controversy in 1981.
There’s another aspect of Biden’s public image that supporters and critics alike have long extolled: his character. The former vice-president is sometimes criticized for being “gaffe-prone,” but overall, few have questioned Biden’s personal values, or found much to quibble about in his public demeanor. He’s considered a stand-up guy, a staunch public moralist, and a loyal family man. Stories about his wife Jill, and of course, his son, Beau, whose death from cancer may have driven Biden out of the race in 2016, are legendary.
But there’s one area of personal and political vulnerability that may well get more attention should the former vice-president end up running against Trump. His reputation for being publicly and overtly “handsy” with members of the opposite sex, including children. Running against a president also widely criticized for his sexual antics and suggestiveness, documented inappropriateness on Biden’s part could chip away at his reputation for supporting women politically and render him a less effective opponent of Trump in 2020
Let’s be clear: There is no evidence that Biden has ever committed adultery or engaged in blatant sexual assault. However, there is ample and painful evidence – documented in a spate of photographs and videos at swearing-in ceremonies and other public events – that Biden has crossed an unspoken line by touching women as well as children without their permission in ways that by modern feminist standards – especially post #MeToo – are considered inappropriate if not downright offensive.
One of the most egregious “incidents” occurred at White House Xmas party in 2013. Biden is posing for a group photo standing behind White House correspondent Amie Parnes with his hands clinging to her upper abdomen. He’s smiling broadly, and somewhat mischievously. Biden clearly didn’t ask permission to touch her in this way. Parnes expresses shock but seems intent on laughing the matter off. However, she’s also firmly grabbing Biden’s hands as if to protect herself from being groped even higher.
There are also a number of disturbing photographs involving children (the daughters of several of Biden’s Senate colleagues), in which they visibly “freeze up,” displaying contorted facial expressions that should horrify their parents – but apparently never did. One of the most painful shows the daughter of Democratic Senator Chris Coons (DE) recoiling from Biden’s grasp as he appears to whisper something in her ear. There are others with Sen. Mitch McConnell’s daughter in which Biden appears to kiss and gently fondle her – and her stiff reaction to the attention says it all.
In fact, these images are just the tip of the iceberg. Biden’s been known to make sexually suggestive remarks to these same minors, some of which are caught on microphone or in videos or recounted by witnesses. In all of these incidents, Biden seems blithely unaware that his behavior is perceived as offensive. In some cases, it appears that the mothers of the children sought to take pre-emptive action, cutting photo ops short to try to shield their children from Biden and themselves from further embarrassment.
It could be that Biden has since gotten ahead of the matter, and that past public criticism has helped rein him in. In 2015, Time magazine published an article by a pro-GOP columnist, Karol Marcowicz, who criticized the political establishment and the media for giving Biden a “pass.” This isn’t just “Biden being Biden,” the kind of behavior one might tolerate from an avuncular elder (“Uncle Joe”), she insisted. Maybe it could be excused in the 1970s in the pre-feminist era but no longer The fact that Biden seemed to choose highly public – and easily documented — moments, seemed to make his behavior all the more inexcusable. And yet somehow it also made its more explicable – after all, in such brief moments of fanfare, few are likely to raise a fuss.
Will any of this matter in 2020? It could. After all, it took far less photographic evidence to have Democrats gang up on Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who was seen in a single photograph pretending to grope the breasts of a sleeping associate. Democratic senator Kirsten Gillibrand, now a presidential candidate, called on Franken to resign, and he did, though in fairness to Biden, Franken was also accused of actually groping and forcibly kissing Democratic supporters during campaign stops. Those details remain murky, and Franken’s female staff has staunchly defended him, as many would in the case of Biden. But in the current climate of near-hysteria, it takes very little to discredit and defame a politician for transgressions, real and imagined, serious and relatively slight.
In the end, the question comes down to what Biden’s Democratic primary opponents or Trump’s campaign might make of these incidents – and the photographs. It may not seem important now but in the throes of a hotly contested prtesidential race – and with Biden, it likely will be one – any and all “dirt” on a candidate begins to loom unusually large. Simply showing some of these photographs over and over in campaign ads may well leave an indelible image with swing voters that Biden isn’t all that he’s cracked up to be, enough to shave a critical point or two off his support among key demographics, especially independents, possibly tilting the race.
Should Biden make a pre-emptive apology, much as he has in the case of his handling of the Anita Hill controversy, where he appeared to discount her claims of workplace harassment, or should he let the matter rest, hoping that it fades in significance as weightier matters of policy take precedence?
It’s a judgment call. Biden’s likely leading rival, Bernie Sanders, has also faced charges of sexual inappropriateness, not by the candidate but by his 2016 campaign. Sanders has said he instituted strict hiring protocols and also put in place procedures that allows his campaign workers to report incidents of harassment to a third party, outside of regular channels. In numerous interviews, Sanders has made clear that his 2020 campaign has adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy toward any and all incidents of unwanted and unsolicited touching, however “well-meaning” such gestures might seem.
I suspect that the longer Biden and his party remain in denial about his deep and recurring behavioral pattern, the greater the possibility that the legend of “Creepy Joe” – already heard in back room conversations, chiefly among Republicans — will grow in measure — and perhaps beyond reasonable proportion. If Biden’s half the man he so often claims, he should address this issue forthrightly. At this point, with so much incontrovertible evidence already available, behind-the-scenes admonishments and a change in his public behavior are unlikely to suffice. Does Biden understand that the “good old days” when men could display cavalier public ownership over a woman’s body – even in the spirit of provocative “hijinks” — is gone for good? If not, the former vice-president may find himself gone for good, too.
Past media coverage of “Creepy Joe”