power

The Biden Trap

As the candidate faces credible assault allegations, his progressive female colleagues are being offered a poisoned chalice.

Photo: Tom Brenner/Getty Images
Photo: Tom Brenner/Getty Images

In the world of political reporting on the presidential race, two seemingly divergent stories are taking shape and blowing up, respectively. And it’s the stuff of feminist nightmares.

The first is about the “veepstakes”: Because the world is topsy-turvy and former vice-president Joe Biden cleared the Democratic field in March, we’re in an earlier-than-usual frenzy of speculation about who his running mate will be. Biden, who has long been dogged by criticism on feminist grounds (stemming from his history of bad stances on abortion, his having permitted the ill treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings, and allegations that he has spent a career touching women in ways that have made them feel uncomfortable), has promised that his running mate will be a woman. (Will she be short or tall, big or small, black or white, left or center? Who is to say, really. She will be A Woman™.)

Meanwhile, Biden’s shaky past behavior around women and their bodies isn’t staying in his past, despite his having worked to overcome it via passage of the Violence Against Woman Act, improving his views on abortion and the Hyde Amendment, sort of apologizing to Hill, and promising to pick A Woman vice-president and appoint A Black Woman to the Supreme Court.

Last year, A Woman named Tara Reade, who worked in Biden’s office in 1992 and 1993, was one of several to allege that Biden had touched her neck and shoulders in ways that were unwelcome; in Reade’s case, while she was in his employ. This March, Reade went further and claimed that Biden in fact digitally penetrated her against her will and that when she complained to his staff, she was retaliated against professionally — claims that Biden and his former staffers have denied but that investigative reporters have been working to shed new light on. Over this weekend, audio emerged of Reade’s late mother, whom she says she told about the assault, calling in to Larry King’s television show in 1993 to complain about how her daughter had a problem with a prominent politician’s staff but was rebuffed when she complained, strongly corroborating the claim that Reade expressed dissatisfaction and suffered professional consequences, an allegation supported by the New York Times, which reported that two former interns recalled Reade abruptly ceasing to supervise them. On Monday, Lynda LaCasse, Reade’s former neighbor and a Biden supporter, told Rich McHugh, Ronan Farrow’s former producer, that Reade had confided to her in detail about having been assaulted by Biden, while another former colleague confirmed to McHugh that Reade had told her she’d complained of harassment and been fired by a prominent politician. Such strong pieces of corroboration should surely imperil Biden’s position at the top of the ticket, though it remains to be seen whether — in the midst of the COVID crisis and with all the other candidates out of contention — there is any chance that they will.

And part of what’s sickeningly clear is that if Biden remains the Democratic nominee, whichever woman gets the nod to be his running mate will wind up drinking from a poisoned chalice. Because the promise to choose a woman ensures that whoever she is, she will be forced to answer — over and over again — for Biden’s treatment of other women, including the serious allegations of assault leveled by Tara Reade.

This double bind was already apparent this weekend, in advance of McHugh’s reporting, when New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez confirmed once again that she would vote for Biden despite their sharp political differences. Ocasio-Cortez, who is progressive on many issues, has a long history of righteous fury at the ubiquity and impact of sexual harassment and assault. Back in 2018, she said that assault is “one of the most serious allegations anyone who cares to be a public servant can be accused of. Sexual assault is about the abuse of power. It is always women who are marginalized. It is the interns. It is the immigrants. It is the trans. They are always most at risk, because society listens to them the least.”

Ocasio-Cortez was also among the first politicians to suggest that Reade’s claims were “legitimate to talk about” and deserved further investigation, for which Reade thanked her on Twitter. But since Ocasio-Cortez has indicated that she intends to vote for Biden, Reade has told the conservative website the Daily Caller how disappointed she is that AOC has chosen to “toe the line,” and on Sunday she tweeted, “Those who remain silent are complicit to rape” and tagged Stacey Abrams, Kamala Harris, Tulsi Gabbard, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, and Ocasio-Cortez; it was retweeted 6,000 times.

One of the grim ironies here is that it’s some of these people who have worked most fiercely to keep Biden from becoming the nominee. But now that he is the presumptive choice, he may in fact be the only presidential bulwark against Donald Trump, who is both murderous and incompetent and whose reelection would lead to further cataclysmic collapse of our environment, health-care system, courts, and democracy, with fatal results that will redound more negatively to women than to men and most negatively of all to women with the fewest resources. In the fight to prevent this, Biden and his campaign will be calling on women — especially the women who have challenged him in the past, including on feminist grounds — to help him build support by rallying other women around him. That rallying will now have to entail somehow papering over the disgust and dismay provoked by multiple allegations of inappropriate touching and alleged assault made against yet another would-be president.

What a grievous mess. Biden’s critics on the left should be hoping for the selection of a powerful progressive to run alongside him, and perhaps succeed him, whenever that might be. But any politician who might fulfill those requirements — whether your fantasies run toward Warren or Abrams or Barbara Lee or Ayanna Pressley (AOC is too young) — will also, tautologically, be a politician who has taken an aggressive stand against sexual harassment and assault. So on the one hand, these are women who left-leaning feminists should hope Biden picks. They are women who themselves might for extremely good ideological reasons want to lead the country and see Biden’s vice-presidency as an opportunity to make his administration, and thus the country, better. Some, especially Abrams, have been very vocal about their desire for this job, which is itself a radical approach to voicing ambition.

Yet in putting themselves forward as subsidiaries to Biden, in accepting an invitation that he might extend, or even in voicing their support for his campaign, these women wind up imperiling themselves by getting tied to him and the mess of his historical shortcomings, often on exactly the issues that have driven them into politics. In fact, they are quite likely to have their own history of righteous advocacy held up against them, used to make them look like hypocrites for agreeing to be on a ticket with a man who has been credibly accused of behavior they have aggressively condemned, and as sops to a system that they are in fact working hard to change. (These kinds of turnarounds have been made by former male rivals all the time, and, in fact, Bernie Sanders has come in for some criticism for having endorsed Biden after Reade’s allegations were made public; but we have a higher tolerance for inconvenient hypocrisy when it comes from male politicians, likely because we have centuries of experience with it and, in this case, because the contested ground — the unequal distribution of power along gendered lines — isn’t at the very heart of the matter.)

But is the only alternative to hope that Biden picks a milquetoast woman who has never distinguished herself as a feminist or progressive advocate and who, therefore, dispiritingly, cannot be called out for hypocrisy? This is indeed one of my fears, as Reade’s story gets firmer corroboration and the Biden campaign and its supporters in the Democratic Party begin to grapple with its seriousness: Will it alter the calculus around his vice-presidential pick, leading him to pick A Woman whom he can count on to diminish Reade’s claims? Is the cost of a nominee who is a disappointment to many feminists on the left a running mate (and thus likely presidential successor) who is just as disappointing? Even those women will still be asked about Reade — Amy Klobuchar and Gretchen Whitmer, both reportedly on his shortlist, have already been asked about it — and any willingness to defend him or shield him from this story will leave them vulnerable to being held responsible for the misdeeds of the mediocre man to whom they will now be publicly bound.

This kind of chilling calculus, even before the Reade allegations, led many Biden critics (including me) to hope that he did not become the nominee from the start. The damage often inflicted by sexual power abuses extend far beyond those who have been abused to others who are reliant on those accused of abuse — whether as employees, dependent economically; family members, dependent emotionally and economically; or voters, dependent politically. One of the hallmarks of systemic gender inequity is that women wind up paying for the misdeeds of the more powerful men to whom they are subsidiary, a setup that reinforces men’s ability to perpetuate and profit from abuse.

Democratic women got a taste of this when Al Franken was accused of harassment. While he denied the allegations and asked for an investigation, his female colleagues were asked repeatedly by those on both sides of the aisle to condemn him or be understood as hypocrites — willing only to come out against those accused of harassment if they belong to the opposition party. Democratic women — including possible Biden VP picks Harris and, eventually, Franken’s close friend Warren — wound up asking that the Minnesota senator resign. New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a longtime advocate against sexual harassment and assault in the military and on college campuses, has not stopped paying the price for having been the first to call for Franken’s resignation. She was the first of the six women running to drop out of the Democratic presidential-primary contest this summer and is still widely cast as an opportunist, despite the fact that challenging widely beloved and powerful men has never been a golden goose for women in politics or public life in any era. Recently, when Gillibrand endorsed Biden and called him a “champion for women,” she was criticized for it. That criticism may have been fair, but it is also an illustration of the grim tax women are expected to pay, always in reaction to the more powerful men whose authority they don’t get to challenge without being pilloried for it, but that they always must carefully reflect and correctly comment on.

And make no mistake, if Biden loses, regardless of his running mate, even as feminists are being criticized for hypocrisy in not condemning him more swiftly, it will also be feminists and women who are blamed for his loss, for encouraging an environment in which claims of sexual harm are taken seriously enough to damage a politician.

Especially in light of McHugh’s recent persuasive reporting on Reade’s assault claim, Democrats and feminists are in a terrible bind, and that includes those of us who never thought Biden should be the nominee. Because as of now he is the nominee. And he needs a running mate, and I don’t think hoping he picks a dud is a great strategy for expanding progressive power within his administration, even if there are reasonable doubts about how much influence a progressive vice-president might have within his administration.

The fact should be that it is better to have the right voice at Biden’s side than no voice there at all. But if we get that progressive voice, she will immediately be damaged via her association with the nominee. Alas, we do not have a system or culture in the United States that would permit a running mate to say, “I am deeply troubled by the allegations persuasively leveled against my running mate, Joe Biden, and wish we didn’t live in a world in which we had to choose between an accused rapist and self-confessed pussy grabber versus an accused harasser who’s now been credibly accused of assault, but this is what white capitalist patriarchy does and I’m actually here to try to change that!”

We should have a way to say those things. If part of the work of this election is pushing for a politics that is more just, we should be insisting on freedom for women — including those who will be asked to support Joe Biden, within his party and as his running mate — to fully express themselves about the gendered and political realities in front of us. Reade’s former neighbor Lynda LaCasse offered a model of this herself, noting that she’s a strong Biden supporter and will vote for him, but that she “still [had] to come out and say this … I would want somebody to stand up for me. It takes a lot of guts to do what [Reade] is doing.”

But it’s near impossible to imagine prominent Democratic women being able to give voice to this and still wind up with any sway within a potential Biden administration. So as we move closer to the abyss, remember that plenty of Women never wanted to be here, and now that we are, have no good choices in front of us.

This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Pramila Jayapal is presumably not eligible to be Biden’s choice for veep as she is not a “natural-born citizen” as specified in Article II of the U.S. Constitution.