The #MeToo movement has brought to light a quiet epidemic of sexual harassment and assault going back generations. Movie moguls, famous celebrities, and politicians have seen their careers go up in flames after credible accusations of sexual misconduct. It has been a painful, long-overdue reckoning, and perhaps the dawning of a more just age.
Now Democrats are set to blow a hole in the movement with their probable nomination of former Vice President Joe Biden for president. Biden faces a credible accusation of serious sexual assault, but Democrats are plowing ahead regardless. If he actually is nominated, a tremendous amount of the work of #MeToo will be undone.
Let's review the allegation. Alexandra Tara Reade was a Biden staffer in his office back in the 1990s, and as she detailed on the Katie Halper podcast, in 1993 she says Biden pushed her against a wall, kissed her, and penetrated her with his fingers against her will — that is, the crime of rape. No one else witnessed the incident, and she says she was forced out of Biden's office some months later.
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In 2019, Reade told the California newspaper The Union that Biden had sexually harassed her on several different occasions others had witnessed, but did not mention the rape. She later told The Intercept's Ryan Grim that she left this part out because of the lack of corroboration. However, Reade did go to the legal aid nonprofit Time's Up in January this year and told them the story, only for them to turn her down, supposedly because Biden was a presidential candidate. She also told Grim that she had told her mother, her brother, and a friend the whole story at the time. Grim spoke with the friend and brother, who confirmed that Reade told them back in 1993, and while her mother has since died, Reade told Grim that her mother had called into Larry King's CNN show to ask for advice about the incident. Sure enough, multiple people later dug up an August 1993 episode of the show in which a woman from San Luis Obispo (a small city where Reade's mother lived) called in. "I'm wondering what a staffer would do besides go to the press in Washington?" she asked. "My daughter has just left there, after working for a prominent senator, and could not get through with her problems at all, and the only thing she could have done was go to the press, and she chose not to do it out of respect for him." Reade confirmed it was her mother's voice on the call.
Then on Monday, two more women went on the record to support Reade's account. Lorraine Sanchez, who worked with Reade in the California state Senate, told Business Insider's Rich McHugh that Reade told her in the mid-1990s that she had been sexually harassed by her former D.C. boss and had been fired when she complained. Reade's former neighbor Lynda LaCasse (a Biden supporter, by the way) says Reade told her about the alleged rape in detail at about the same time. "I remember her saying, here was this person that she was working for and she idolized him," LaCasse told McHugh. "And he kind of put her up against a wall. And he put his hand up her skirt and he put his fingers inside her."
All this makes for a strong case that Reade did not make up the story simply to sink Biden's campaign — and why would she make it up? (One study found that false sexual assault allegations are quite rare, at about 2-10 percent of claims.) While her accounts to the press have changed, that is very common among #MeToo stories. Victims often struggle to come forward at all out of shame, or fear of backlash or that they won't be believed. Often victims continue relationships with their assailants, or even begin new ones, due to emotional manipulation or economic desperation. Indeed, one woman who says Donald Trump groped her in the 1990s later dated him for a few months, hoping he could land her a good job. Reade herself has said she didn't come forward earlier partly because the ordeal would have been terrible for her young daughter.
Furthermore, Biden was already known to have a history of being creepy around women — touching their hair and shoulders, leaning in too close to visibly-uncomfortable women and girls, and so on, often in public with cameras rolling. Politician Lucy Flores wrote in 2014 that when she was the Democratic candidate for Nevada lieutenant governor at an event, Biden smelled her hair and planted "a big slow kiss on the back of my head." She was mortified: "I couldn't move and I couldn't say anything. I wanted nothing more than to get Biden away from me."
Now, one could make an argument that Reade is likely telling the truth, but Biden is still worth nominating. One could say, for instance, that his platform is so good that Democrats will simply have to look the other way this time. But to quote George Orwell, that kind of argument is "too brutal for most people to face" — and it would make Democrats look like staggering hypocrites, given how they have wrapped themselves in the mantle of #MeToo.
Instead, Democratic partisans have thus far tried to relieve their cognitive dissonance by casting doubt on the story or attacking Reade. In The New York Times, Michelle Goldberg argued that, while the accusation can't be dismissed out of hand, Reade's praise of Vladimir Putin and changing story also cast doubt on her story. Joan Walsh came to the same conclusion in The Nation: "Her allegation against Biden doesn't stand up to close scrutiny." Ben Cohen of The Daily Banter went further along the same lines, saying the allegation was "falling apart" and she was almost certainly lying. (To be fair, all these articles were written before the latest corroborating stories came out, and at time of writing Goldberg at least has expressed dismay over the news.)
The posture is quite similar to the one Republicans assumed in response to the accusations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh back in 2018. They attacked the integrity of accuser Christine Blasey Ford, nitpicked the story, and denied it had happened. It was a shameful episode. However, it's worth noting that what Biden is accused of is, if anything, even worse than the Kavanaugh story. Kavanaugh was 17 years old when he allegedly drunkenly pinned down Ford and tried to take her clothes off. While awful, minors are generally not liable for normal prosecution because they are not fully responsible adults. Biden, by contrast, was a sober, extremely powerful, 50-year-old United States senator when he allegedly committed his crime — and unlike Kavanaugh, he is accused of actually raping Reade.
The effective strategy of #MeToo is to create a new social norm around sexual misconduct. Since the criminal justice system has so obviously failed to stem the abuse, social sanction can take up the slack. Exposing and punishing powerful people who exploit their position to harass and assault others might make other elites think twice.
This progress will be grossly undermined if Democrats choose to look past Biden's allegations for political reasons. Republicans already basically dismiss sexual assault allegations against their co-partisans out of hand; if Democrats do the same for the leader of their party it will do a great deal to move us back to the pre-#MeToo past, when far too many people looked the other way at abuses committed by powerful politicians. One cannot create a broad political norm against sexual misconduct if the issue becomes a partisan football for both parties.
What's more, this story gives Donald Trump a huge weapon in the general election — either to dismiss the even more numerous accusations against himself, or to attack Biden as the real predator, or both. It was criminally irresponsible of Biden's primary opponents not to attack him vigorously on this issue.
However, it is not too late. Though all his opponents have dropped out, Biden has still not been officially nominated. He could still drop out for the good of the party, and arrange for someone else to take up his delegates. Or the Democratic establishment could bull ahead with a damaged, unfit nominee, whose opponent will gleefully exploit their shameless hypocrisy, and dramatically set back the feminist causes they claim to believe in. It's up to them.
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