Joe Biden may have picked the wrong moment to make his third run at the presidency.
In late 2015, when the then-vice president demurred on a challenge for the Democratic nomination, the #MeToo movement was still two years away from its breakout over numerous accusations against Harvey Weinstein. Now, 18 months after that exposé, Biden's public handsiness has become a major scandal as he contemplates whether to enter the 2020 presidential sweepstakes. But this scandal won't bring Biden down. Why? Because he is utterly shameless, and America will eat it up.
Conservatives have long noted Biden's penchant for physical contact with women during events, even before #MeToo became a cultural phenomenon. The news media noticed Biden's behavior at the January 2015 Senate swearing-in ceremony, although they tended to dismiss it as "bizarrely charming," "schmoozing," and "a political meteor shower." However, NBC's Kelly O'Donnell raised an eyebrow at Biden's "multitasking oath/hug combo," and then-Yahoo News reporter Chris Moody's observation about "Joe 'Handsy' Biden" matched up to other commentary at the time, including from now-CNN analyst Mary Katharine Ham.
So the emergence of actual complaints over this behavior now hardly come as a surprise. It started with Lucy Flores, a Democratic Party activist who worked for Bernie Sanders in 2016, but has expanded to include several other women. A college sexual assault survivor has come forward to talk about her discomfort from three years ago when Biden put a hand on her thigh and gave her an unwelcome hug. A middle-aged woman and her husband have described how Biden's hand roamed from her shoulder down her back during a 2012 event, causing her spouse to distract the then-VP to rescue his wife. Given the very public nature of Biden's behavior, he can expect more complaints to emerge if he actually commits to running in 2020.
At the moment, Biden leads most polls for the nomination, but that's likely deceptive. Biden has the most name recognition, but his fit within the party is in serious question. In one sense, Biden's current situation mirrors his status among Democrats. Even under the most sympathetic treatment, the myriad of pictures and video depicting Biden's physical contact with women make him look like a relic of the past, perhaps even more so than his 76 years. Media outlets have tried to cast his handsy habit as normal for men of his generation; The New York Times called it "his tactile style of retail politicking," as though it related to handshakes on the campaign trail. But even with the adroit use of a euphemism, the Times' reporters note that it feeds the impression that Biden is out of step with the "vibrant, youthful, and multicultural field of candidates on the Democratic stage."
That may be true. But there's at least one trend within American politics that could rescue Biden from this scandal and practically every other demerit he faces In 2020: shamelessness. In fact, despite the late entry into this field by President Trump, Biden could very well be the poster boy for shamelessness in political life.
More than 30 years ago, Biden made his first run for the presidency, which derailed spectacularly after instances of plagiarism in his campaign speeches emerged. Biden had lifted sections of speeches made by British Labourite Neil Kinnock, including parts that described the Kinnock family's working-class origins. In 2003, when Biden first made noises about a presidential-campaign comeback, National Review's Jim Geraghty reminded readers that the 1987 allegations included other instances of plagiarism in law school as well as "boastful exaggerations of his academic record."
Political analyst Larry Sabato told Geraghty at that time that he doubted Biden's ability to overcome those scandals. "Now, he's a little older and more experienced," Sabato said, "but do people really change all that much after they reach adulthood? I've rarely seen anybody change that much, and I've taught thousands of college students over the years."
Biden didn't change. But the rest of us did.
He declined to run in 2003, but Biden returned in 2007 to vie for the Democratic nomination. He did well enough for Barack Obama to pick him as his running mate, and Biden helped Obama win two elections by appealing to working-class voters that might have otherwise felt concerned over Obama's policies and track record. And now, despite his scandals and the #MeToo implications of his, ahem, "tactile politics," Biden is at least contending to win the top job in American politics.
The lesson that Biden learned since 1987 was that scandals don't derail politicians unless their conscience does. Former President Bill Clinton proved that definitively by surviving the scandal surrounding his perjury over Monica Lewinsky, transforming his own scandal into a narrative of puritanical Republicans obsessed by prurient interest into his private life. Clinton succeeded so well at that his wife nearly won the office herself despite her own scandal at the State Department in using a secret e-mail system to circumvent congressional oversight. Trump learned the lesson well enough to refuse to even apologize for most of his behavior, and to only offer an apology and not a withdrawal after the Access Hollywood tape emerged in the last days of the 2016 campaign.
Biden understands that the path to electoral success in the midst of scandal is to brazen it out. After an obligatory apology, candidates can ignore further criticism by claiming to have already addressed the issue and have grown from it. Biden did both this week, pledging to be "more mindful about respecting personal space" while half-excusing his prior behavior by claiming that "social norms are changing." Even if more women come forward with worse stories, Biden knows that he's inoculated himself from the worst damage.
Biden helped blaze that path toward normalizing scandal, but let's put the blame where it belongs: Both sides of the political aisle normalized scandal, and voters endorsed it by excusing the bad behavior of their allies. Biden's only living in a post-scandal world; we're the ones who built it.