We have reached an instructive moment in 2016’s presidential race, and we have Joe Biden to thank for it. Reactions to the imaginatively ascendant campaign of our vice-president offer a view of the very different ways the American media evaluates very similar candidates, especially when one of them is, well, not a woman.
Gender is nothing new in this race, of course. An August Fox poll showed Clinton ahead of her surging Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, by only six points with men but 44 points with women. But because the ideological and stylistic gulfs between Clinton and Sanders are real, it’s been hard to ascertain how much a preference for Sanders might be tangled with conscious or unconscious sexism. That’s not the case with Biden, a man whose policy positions and political record — and especially whose flaws — strikingly mirror Clinton’s. In fact, it would be hard to find two contemporary Democrats whose weaknesses reflect each other so precisely, yet who currently enjoy such vastly different reputations.
Consider for a moment everything that we know to be problematic with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy:
She is regarded as a centrist Democrat. She is old. She is compromised on the right by her attachment to the Obama administration, compromised on the left by her relentless 2008 campaign against Obama, in which she deployed egregious rhetoric about “hardworking white people.” Clinton has been way too cozy with the financial industry, both in the Senate, wherein 2001 she voted for a bill that made it harder for consumers to declare bankruptcy (similar to one she’d urged her husband to veto back when she was First Lady) and more recently, when she, Bill, and Chelsea have accepted ginormous speaking fees from institutions to which no lawmaker — let alone president — should be beholden.
Hillary is an uncomfortable reminder of the compromised Democratic politics of the 1990s. She lugs the baggage of her husband’s legacies on trade, welfare reform, and crime, perhaps especially her support as First Lady of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which became the cornerstone of this country’s prison industrial complex. As senator, Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq War.
She is an imperfect feminist icon who has sometimes been lukewarm on reproductive rights, calling abortion a “sad, even tragic choice.” Questions about emails sent over a nongovernment server as secretary of State have thickened the fog of suspicion that has always hung over her. A political contortionist and wonky public speaker who is suspicious of the press, she prefers small-scale listening tours to big rallies.
Just compare her to Joe Biden. Who is a centrist Democrat, older than Hillary by five years, and wholly enmeshed in the Obama administration. Biden also made appalling remarks during the 2008 race, calling Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean.” As a senator from Delaware, home of the credit-card industry, he voted for several versions of the bankruptcy bill, in a period that overlapped with the years that his son Hunter was drawing a hefty consulting fee from financial-services behemoth MBNA, a company that was regularly among the biggest donors to Biden’s political races. Hunter Biden also works on the board of a Ukrainian gas company that has lobbied Congress in its efforts to help Ukraine become energy independent.
Biden carries plenty of baggage from the 1990s, when he oversaw the Senate Judiciary Committee that treated Anita Hill as hysterical for her accusations that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her, and did not allow other women willing to corroborate Hill, including Angela Wright, to testify. Joe Biden wrote the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and sponsored legislation creating the disparities between crack and cocaine sentencing that disproportionately hurt poor Americans. He voted for NAFTA, for welfare reform, and to invade Iraq.
He is admired by feminists for his great achievement, the Violence Against Women Act, but his votes for the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban and for the Hyde Amendment — including versions with no exceptions for rape or incest — earn him wretched marks on reproductive rights and economic equality. Also, he is a documented creepy toucher. His first presidential campaign, in 1988, ended early, amidst allegations that he plagiarized speeches and fabricated parts of his life story; in 2008, he finished fifth in Iowa, garnering under one percent of the state’s delegates.* Like Clinton, he prefers small-scale campaigning to the soaring rhetoric he’s not great at (though the male description of this is being a savvy retail politician). In the past, he has been regarded as a bit of an undisciplined gaffe-machine.
Still, held up against Hillary Clinton, Biden looks like the big, trustworthy, avuncular, loyal answer to the left’s alleged presidential quagmire. A beloved figure among Democrats, we’re told, he could be a more credible voice on economic inequality than Clinton. Sure, in part everyone loves Biden right now because he’s not yet in the race; he remains an idealized alternative to the dinged-up front-runner we’ve got and would look a lot less reassuring once he got loose-lipped in a debate or had to answer to activists for his record on drug laws. But this brief love affair reminds us that the press has never managed to love, let alone idealize, Hillary Clinton, despite her comparable flaws and far greater strengths.
Clinton is a historic candidate who earned 18 million votes in 2008 and is by many measures the most popular figure in her party; her polling has remained close to where it has been forecast to be at this point and still shows her beating everyone. Yet many in the media are treating a 72-year-old white man who flamed out in two previous primaries (including one against her) and whose late entrance into this round would make things awkward for everyone, including his boss, as a great idea. If Clinton actually craters, Biden might make sense. But until then, it’s fairly safe to say that Clinton would be likely to crush him in competition, and the temporary blindness — to his faults and her strengths — shows us how strong the possibility of narrative redemption and persistent affection is for a guy like Biden, emphasis on “guy.”
There simply aren’t models for women (even women who are a lot like Joe Biden) to be treated like Joe Biden: as wacky characters with passions for public service, forgiven their slipups because we understand them to be garrulous good guys. And no, Hillary isn’t naturally garrulous or gaffe-prone anyway (in part because her ear-splitting misstatements, like about being “dead broke,” aren’t regarded as silly screwups so much as damning evidence of malevolent intent); she is guarded, overcareful, distrustful. But given the dearth of adorable female fuck-ups — or, for that matter, ambitious female policy wonks — who’ve found their way to the White House, how do you think she got that way?
Watching the press’s reactions to Clinton and Biden in real time makes for a surreal side-by-side comparison:
Take the casting of Elizabeth Warren, with whom Joe Biden met last week. Neither Biden nor Clinton has enjoyed an easy history with the Massachusetts senator and economic reformer, who has not yet bestowed her endorsement on any Democrat. Warren has often recalled Clinton’s perfidy with regard to the bankruptcy bill, writing that “as First Lady, [Clinton] was willing to fight for her beliefs … [But as senator,] it seems that [she] could not afford such a principled position.” Recently, though, Clinton has assiduously expressed admiration for Warren, writing an adoring squib about her for Time, and in 2013 Warren was among the 16 female senators to sign a letter of support for a future Clinton presidential bid.
But when Clinton met with Warren privately last December, reports depicted her as a beggar at Warren’s populist banquet, coming to the senator practically on bended knee. “Hillary Clinton, Privately, Seeks the Favor of Elizabeth Warren” was the web headline on the New York Times piece by Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin, who wrote that Clinton “solicited policy ideas and suggestions” from Warren. The meeting, according to the Times, offered no sign of two politicians’ affinity but rather “highlighted an early challenge for Mrs. Clinton,” that she is “seen by some on the left as insufficiently tough on Wall Street.”
Yet when Warren had lunch with Biden last week, in a meeting that sounded, in its contours, a lot like the one with Clinton months earlier, there was little about Biden currying Warren’s favor or advice. Rather, they were described as “huddling,” as if already-allied conspirators. The meeting was evidence, once again, of Clinton’s perceived vulnerability on economic issues and of Biden’s seriousness as a candidate, “signal[ing] that if he does run, he will be in it to win it.” It even provoked speculation that Biden might announce Warren as a running mate, so easy was the assumption that Warren — admired for her unyielding commitment to economic progressivism — might be so bowled over by affable Uncle Joe, that she’d sign up as his subsidiary, even as she has so far declined to become Clinton’s formidable challenger on her own.
The absurdity here is that Biden has perhaps traveled an even rockier road with Warren than Clinton has. Warren singled him out in a furious 2002 letter to the Times for voting with Republicans for the “unconscionable” bankruptcy bill, and argued that the message sent by “politicians like Mr. Biden” was that when so much money is at stake, “women have no real political importance.” In 2005, when Warren testified on consumer debt before the Senate Judiciary Committee he headed, Biden cut her off rudely and accused her of making a “mildly demagogic” argument.
No matter. The New York Times’ Haberman predicted that “if Mr. Biden does decide to run, the meeting will be remembered as a turning point. If he does not, it will be seen by some as a hostile act toward Mrs. Clinton as she hits choppy waters.” Either way, the story is Biden’s strength and Clinton’s fallibility.
None of this is an argument against the candidacy of Joe Biden, a sitting vice-president who has every right to run for the top spot. Robust primary competition is usually a good thing, more so when the current top contender is battling a coronation narrative. The point is not to tally up flaws, but to recognize how those flaws are absorbed, understood, and overlooked in one candidate but not in another
What is clear is that while most long-serving, high-level presidential contenders are compromised, are given the benefit of endless doubts, their errors and obfuscations easily forgotten in the face of their evident trustworthiness, their undeniable likability, the fact that they are easily recognized as leaders, that we can comfortably picture them as presidents.
So far, those people are not women.
*This post has been corrected to show that Biden first ran for president in 1988, not 1998.