Days after he told a 10-year-old girl that she was “good-looking,” Joe Biden made another stop on his national comedy tour. “I want the press to know — she pulled me close!” he joked on Tuesday, as he brought out a chair for a woman at a New Hampshire event. Biden’s statement is true enough; video shows the woman whispering something into his ear. Maybe the joke didn’t bother her. Maybe she really was just that excited to see Joe Biden.
But even if the woman didn’t mind it, Biden’s joke matters. Since Nevada politician Lucy Flores first wrote here, in the Cut, that Biden had kissed the top of her head in a way that made her feel uncomfortable, the leading Democratic candidate for president has routinely made light of sexual harassment. “I just want you to know I had permission,” he said in April, after hugging the president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He made the same joke moments later, at the same event, when he went to hug a child. After Flores published her account, Biden said he’d have to change the way he campaigned. Instead, he’s turned her story into a punch line.
Though Biden isn’t the only Democratic candidate haunted by an account of inappropriate touching, he is the only one who seems to think he can laugh his problems away. And so far, his strategy seems to be working: He currently has a significant lead over his competitors, although that may change as voters interact with him more often.
Compare his early success to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s lack thereof; she still hadn’t yet broken 2 percent in national polling as of May — a surprising result for a sitting U.S. senator with a significant public profile. And unlike Biden, who has had no trouble raising money from wealthy sources, major donors seem somewhat less keen on Gillibrand. Their antipathy for her originated well before the senator announced her presidential campaign: She initially sparked their ire in December of 2017, when Gillibrand called on then-senator Al Franken to resign after eight women came forward to accuse him of groping or trying to kiss them. She was the first Democratic senator to do so, if only by a few minutes.
Franken did eventually step down, after multiple members of his own party called on him to do so. Since then, the ghost of his career has haunted Gillibrand — in her town halls on MSNBC and Fox News; in reports on her comparatively poor fundraising hauls; in pointed comments from high-profile Democratic donors, who’ve accused her in the press of being “self-serving and opportunistic” and “shooting herself in the foot”; and in remarks by fellow primary candidates. Pete Buttigieg, on Monday, said that he personally would not have pressured Franken to resign, arguing that the former senator was held to a higher standard than Republicans, in a way that “has been used against us.”
For her part, Gillibrand appears undaunted on the subject of Franken. “If some Democratic donors are angry because I stood by the women, including a young woman who worked in Congress, that’s on them,” she told Fox News on Sunday evening, when she was asked yet again if she regretted how she handled the allegations.
Biden and Franken present the party with the same dilemma. Either it’s wrong to touch people without their consent full stop, or it’s a debatable breach of etiquette whose significance depends on a host of factors. If it’s the former, there can hardly be any question that Gillibrand and her peers were right to call on Franken to resign, or that Biden’s behavior should cost him support. If it’s the latter, Democrats don’t look much more progressive than their opponents across the aisle. (Gillibrand’s record doesn’t look entirely consistent, either. In March, she faced a #MeToo scandal in her own Senate office. Politico reported at the time that she had continued to employ a male staffer after he’d been accused of harassment by a female colleague. Gillibrand fired the aide after Politico informed her office of additional complaints about the same man.)
To voters who genuinely believe that the Trump administration is a brief storm in the relatively calm waters of American political history, Biden makes a tantalizing offer. Vote for him, and we can go back to the way things used to be. Gillibrand’s history, though, reminds us all that the good old days were never that great, not for the Democratic Party and certainly not for women. Biden, when he issued his first non-apology for kissing Flores’s head, said he realized that social norms have begun to change. If that’s really true, it’s difficult to tell.