Opinion

Joe Biden has a #MeToo problem

How will Democrats handle a sexual assault allegation against their presumptive 2020 candidate?

Democrats have a big #MeToo problem on their hands, and how they handle it could — and should — go a long way towards determining the outcome of the presidential election.

The problem allegedly involves former Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden, the Dems' presumptive presidential nominee, was accused last week of sexual assault by a former staffer, Tara Reade. She told a podcast host that in 1993, Biden pushed her against a wall and penetrated her with his fingers. "I thought this was my future, and so when that happened I felt, it's like someone pulling the rug out," Reade said.

A spokesperson for Biden denied the claims. "Women have a right to tell their story, and reporters have an obligation to rigorously vet those claims," the campaign said in a statement. "We encourage them to do so, because these accusations are false."

Thanks in part to the coronavirus pandemic, the allegation so far seems to have had little effect on the political ecosphere. (My colleagues at The Week have noted Reade's accusation in their coverage of Biden's campaign.) But as the presidential election draws near, that seems certain to change. Already, the issue is a hot topic in conservative media, where Biden is seen as benefiting from a double standard — getting the benefit of the doubt that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh didn't receive when assault allegations surfaced during his nomination hearings in 2018.

"It seems unlikely the Reade accusation can sink Biden's candidacy," Robby Soave wrote at Reason, "but whether Democratic primary voters and the mainstream media are willing to air it out as they did Kavanaugh's will tell us a lot about what 'believe all women' actually means.

He is right.

At first glance, the situation facing Biden is not so different from that which faced Kavanaugh: Both involved decades-old allegations, making corroborating evidence difficult to obtain. Who you believe, in both cases, probably depends more on what you want to believe than on actual evidence. Full disclosure: I want Biden to be innocent — but I also think Reade's story deserves respectful consideration.

Democrats don't have a great history with this stuff. They accommodated and lauded former President Bill Clinton for decades despite an impeachment involving proven adultery and accusations of rape. They forced Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) out of office when allegations surfaced against him, but many Democrats have since expressed regret about that. In Virginia, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax remains ensconced in office despite being accused of sexual assault by two women. And even without the new accusation, Biden is problematic. He has a history of being handsy with women — and indeed, Reade had previously accused him of inappropriately putting his hand on her shoulder and running his finger up her neck. The party is good at offering lip service to the notion of protecting and believing women. Often, though, those ideals are nudged aside or ignored for the sake of preserving power.

As a practical matter, though, it behooves Democrats to make a rigorous investigation — inasmuch as it is possible — of Reade's accusation. Trump and his allies will almost certainly use the story against him. In 2016, when the notorious Access Hollywood tape surfaced, Trump responded by bringing Bill Clinton's accusers to his next debate with Hillary Clinton. The president won't hesitate to utilize similar tactics against Biden. If only for the sake of winning the election, Democrats have to make a real effort to resolve this allegation — and do it in a way that doesn't drag Reade's name through the mud.

If her story is found to have merit, Biden should be forced out of the race.

Truthfully, that seems unlikely to happen. Too much time has passed to arrive at a definitive answer. But the party of "believe women" will lose all credibility if it simply brushes off Reade and makes no effort at all to ascertain the truth. The GOP-controlled Senate confirmed Kavanaugh without a complete investigation. Democrats must do better.

Forget politics, though. Americans in recent years have lamented that women's stories are so often silenced and ignored. We shouldn't halt that progress for the sake of a presidential campaign.

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