Opinion

What should Democrats do about the sexual assault allegation against Joe Biden?

Suddenly the party of #BelieveWomen isn't sure who to believe

After the brief but intense drama of the early primaries, things have settled down quite quickly in the contest for the Democratic nomination for president. With former Vice President Joe Biden already the presumptive nominee, it should be a moment of well-earned healing and consolidation for the party. Yet instead it's one marked by anxiety about a sexual assault allegation that threatens to weaken Biden's general election prospects even before the campaign gets started.

Biden's bid for the presidency wouldn't have been threatened by the kind of allegations originally brought forth by Tara Reade, a former staff assistant to Biden's Senate office in the early 1990s. Interviewed by The Associated Press last April about Biden's handsiness problem with numerous women down through the decades, she indicated only that Biden had rubbed her shoulders, neck, and hair. That's inappropriate and more than a little creepy by today's standards of professionalism but hardly unusual for a male politician of Biden's age.

But then, during an interview on a podcast last month, Reade alleged far more: that back in 1993, Biden shoved her against a wall and penetrated her with his fingers. That's sexual assault. An allegation of that seriousness would have rocked a presidential campaign at any point in the past. But it's especially awkward and highly charged now — several years into the #MeToo movement that has inspired countless women to speak up forthrightly against sexual abuse in the workplace. At least one predator has been sent to jail, while the careers and reputations of hundreds of men — from powerful politicians to prominent figures in media, entertainment, journalism, finance, sports, and other fields — have been adversely effected by #MeToo allegations.

Will Democrats now apply the same exacting and often unforgiving standards to the man who's locked down the party's presidential nomination?

The problem is real. But it's not quite as bad as some appear to think.

That certainly includes Republicans. They insist Democrats accepted the activist slogan and hashtag #BelieveWomen and used it as a bludgeon against Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings when psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford accused him of a drunken sexual assault at a high school party three decades in the past. Republicans claim that for Democrats to be consistent, they need to apply precisely the same standard to Reade and Biden: They must believe her without question, drag Biden through the mud, and presumably keep him off the Democratic ticket for his alleged behavior 27 years ago. Anything less would be a blatant double standard.

It's pretty rich for Republicans to accuse Democrats of hypocrisy for failing to live up to standards that Republicans themselves show no sign of caring about when it comes to their own party and president. The term bad faith is far too mild to capture the chutzpah of people who carry water for the Trump White House 24/7 feigning outrage at others struggling to live up to moral principles and apply consistent standards. Yet the charge would nonetheless sting if it were true that leading Democrats cared less about accusations against a leading member of their own party than against a Republican Supreme Court nominee.

Thankfully, the core of the problem isn't the application of the principle but the principle itself: #BelieveWomen should never have been the standard for adjudicating such issues in the first place, in either a court of law or the court of public opinion.

Yes, women accusing men of bad behavior have too often and easily been ignored or dismissed. That was wrong, and the proper response is to take allegations more seriously, applying less doubt and suspicion to them, along with less deference to the accused. But that's very different than denying the possibility of doubt altogether. To the extent that some activists, writers, and officeholders favored doing this at the time of Kavanaugh's confirmation battle, they were wrong and should admit it. Female accusers need to be heard, but to treat them as infallible and incapable of lying about or misremembering details decades in the past is to do the opposite. It is to pretend that women are inhumanly perfect and incorruptible.

As I wrote at the time of the Kavanaugh hearings, we knew nothing for certain about what, if anything, happened between the nominee and Blasey Ford when they were in high school. I found the latter to be a credible witness. When paired with Kavanaugh's bizarre, unhinged, wildly defensive, and dishonest response to her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I concluded that, on balance, the best option was for his nomination to be withdrawn and for the president to nominate an alternative conservative jurist to the high court in his place. But I never for a moment supposed that I knew for certain that Kavanaugh had done what Blasey Ford accused him of doing.

Based on what we know at the moment, Reade's accusation against Biden is flimsier than Blasey Ford's. Democrats would be foolish to #BelieveReade over the Biden campaign's blanket denial when her account of events from nearly three decades ago has changed so dramatically in just the past few weeks. As Michelle Goldberg recently pointed out in The New York Times, Reade also has a history of saying … peculiar things about Russia and Vladimir Putin that raise questions about her judgment. That doesn't mean that the events she now describes didn't happen. But in deciding whether to accept her account, we must make our own judgment about her credibility and trustworthiness — and as Cathy Young at Arc Digital has shown with care and skill, there is a lot of reason for doubt, and so ample reason for Democrats to treat her claims with skepticism.

If another accuser emerges with more credible claims, or Reade presents additional compelling evidence of her own accusation, that could certainly change my view, just as it likely would that of many rank-and-file Democrats. In that case, Biden would be in serious trouble. (If it's going to happen, let's hope it does before he becomes the official nominee at the party's convention, which is now slated for August.)

But short of such developments, the matter should be considered closed — and without too much agonizing about double standards. The standards that some Democrats have latched onto over the past three years have overcompensated for past errors. There's nothing shameful in recognizing a mistake and making a course correction. Now would be an excellent time to do precisely that.

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