When Christine Blasey Ford accused Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, of sexual assault, Joe Biden told reporters: “For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real — whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time.”
He was right then, and the same standard should apply now to accusations made against Biden by a former staffer. Tara Reade claims he pushed her up against a wall 27 years ago and penetrated her with his fingers. Any Democrat who dismisses Reade because she “forgets facts” and has told inconsistent versions is being wildly hypocritical.
But hypocrisy works both ways. Many Republicans who defended Kavanaugh argued that in the American system, people are innocent until proven guilty, and should be protected by the principles of due process. Biden is now entitled to that same presumption of innocence.
As The Wall Street Journal put it in a recent editorial, “The right way to proceed is to decline to make a judgment and examine the claims and supporting evidence.” To put it another way: Women who allege a sexual assault must be taken seriously. But that doesn’t mean their claims are always accurate or fair. Republicans who rush to criticize Biden for partisan motives are guilty of the same deceit and dishonesty they accuse Democrats of embracing in the Kavanaugh case.
So what do the claims tell us? How will Reade’s accusations affect the election?
November is a long way off, but Team Biden has to be worried. A self-described “third-generation Democrat,” Reade has no obvious political motive to damage Biden and help Trump. Moreover, Biden has not handled the issue well, waiting weeks to deny the story and allowing rumor and speculation to gather speed. And he remains stuck in his basement in Delaware, unable to command public attention or change the subject.
Biden can only win by running up large margins with moderate female voters, and his appeal to them is based largely on an image of decency and civility. Anything that damages his reputation with those woman and spawns doubts about his morals could be fatal.
But there’s another side. Major news organizations have investigated Reade’s charges and failed to confirm them. As The New York Times reported: “No other allegation about sexual assault surfaced in the course of reporting, nor did any former Biden staff members corroborate any details of Ms. Reade’s allegations. The Times found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden.”
Former Obama staffers emphasize that Biden was subjected to detailed scrutiny when he was chosen to run for vice president in 2008. Ten lawyers spent two months examining his record. Bill Jeffress, who led that investigation, told ABC. “We were particularly looking for any complaints that had been made about him. We found none.”
Biden has often been accused of touching women in uncomfortable ways, but even Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an ardent Trump acolyte, say sexual assault is not in his nature.
“I’ve known Joe Biden for years,” Graham said on Fox News. “I’ve traveled the world with him. I’ve never seen him do anything untoward toward a woman, I’ve never heard anything about him being inappropriate.”
While some Trump supporters are already trying to use the Reade story to cripple Biden, they have to be careful. Do they really want to make sexual misconduct a prominent election issue, when the president himself has boasted on tape about his predatory conquests, paid off mistresses with hush money and been plausibly accused of assaulting numerous women?
We don’t know yet whether Reade’s story will turn out to be a pivotal chapter or a forgotten footnote in the 2020 election. We do know that Biden and Trump are both deeply flawed candidates. But politics is not about perfection. It’s about making a comparative choice between real-world alternatives.
The Democrats’ chances could well depend on enough women following the reasoning of Lucy Flores, a former Nevada lawmaker who accused Biden of kissing and touching her at a 2014 campaign event. “That’s what makes this so difficult,” she told the Times. “We acknowledge that this is a position of impossibility for so many women, and yet so many of us are willing to do the right thing — as in, we’ll vote for him despite this.”