Earlier this month, I wrote a column asking what Democrats should do about sexual assault allegations against Joe Biden, the party's presumptive nominee for president. My answer? Not much. The accusation made by Tara Reade, a former Biden staffer from his days in the Senate during the early 1990s, didn't strike me as especially convincing, so Democrats, I suggested, could move forward without much concern. Though toward the end of the column I included two caveats: If Reade offered further corroboration of her claims or if evidence emerged of a larger pattern of abusive actions toward women on Biden's part, that could well change my views of the matter.
Just two weeks later, both of my conditions have been met.
Last week we learned that Reade's mother called into the Larry King Show in 1993 to talk about how her daughter had quit working for a "prominent senator" after unspecified "problems" as a staffer. Then earlier this week Business Insider reported that a former neighbor of Reade's (a self-described "strong Democrat") recalls a conversation with her in 1995 or 1996 in which Reade tearfully described being sexually assaulted by Biden. Together, those two stories help to corroborate Reade's specific claim about herself.
Finally, on Tuesday, a 2008 essay by the late Alexander Cockburn surfaced in which the journalist reported that Biden had made "unwelcome and unwanted" sexual advances against a woman in 1972 or 1973. That establishes a possible longstanding pattern of Biden's behavior that further validates Reade's accusation (and potentially opens the door to others).
In light of these revelations, the time has come for a two new questions: Can Biden survive the gathering storm around Tara Reade's allegations? And if so, will that fact be good or bad for the Democratic Party in November?
The first question is the easier one to answer: Biden's presumptive nomination is quite likely to survive the corroboration of Reade's claims. That's because members of Biden's electoral base in the Democratic Party — older, culturally moderate white working-class voters in the Midwest and older, culturally moderate African Americans — are unlikely to be turned against him by one corroborated allegation of sexual assault from nearly three decades in the past. If anything, rank-and-file Democrats have expressed regret that some #MeToo allegations have taken down popular members of the party (former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken is the example cited most frequently) — and they're also irritated that Democrats are expected to adhere to standards their opponents openly flout.
The factions of the party most likely to turn on Biden because of a sexual-assault scandal are those who've been least wedded to his candidacy from the start — those firmly on the left, who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders; and white urban progressives, who tended to favor Sen. Elizabeth Warren's candidacy. Neither group possesses the numbers or influence in the party to get it to overrule the preferences of the other two electorally crucial factions — and obviously their opinions will also carry little weight with the candidate himself. This means that, so long as no additional corroborated accusations materialize, Biden will most likely get to hold onto the nomination if he wants to.
That might turn out to be a very bad thing for the party come November.
But how could this be? How could a sexual assault allegation place Biden at a disadvantage in the general election against President Trump, a man who has openly bragged on tape of sexual assault and has himself been accused of rape on multiple occasions?
On substance, Trump will have zero moral ground to stand on. But he won't be taking a stand in the name of treating women with respect. Neither will he be accusing Biden of being a sexual predator. Instead, he and the entire Republican noise machine will constantly, relentlessly hammer Biden, leading Democrats, and the media for flagrant hypocrisy and double standards. The moral content of the issue won't matter one bit. What will matter is that Biden has set himself up as a moral arbiter on issues of sexual harassment and violence, insisting we must "believe all women," and that in the fall of 2018 he and many other members of his party sought to destroy the reputation of Trump's Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh for allegations of sexual assault that were less convincingly corroborated than those Reade has lodged against Biden.
The Democratic nominee for president and his party are ruthless political operators who seek above all else to destroy their enemies and help themselves, all the while setting themselves up as impartial moral authorities. This will be the message, driven home over and over again: that claims of purity and impartiality are pretense, transparent fakes. Democrats might posture like they're better than Republicans, including the president, but they aren't. They're every bit as bad. They're just more dishonest about it.
The Biden campaign's effort to portray itself as a moral reset from the debasement of the Trump years will run into this counter-message like a power sander. The Trump campaign will strip it away with a barrage of paid ads, prime-time cable news diatribes, and a hailstorm of tweets — all of it repeating the message (illustrated with clips from and about the Kavanaugh hearings) that Biden and his fellow Democrats are every bit the BS artists that Trump is, only they won't admit it. They'll lie about it, right to your face.
To Democrats this prediction may sound implausible. There's no way that Trump, a man whose mendaciousness is well established and total, can possibly succeed in portraying Biden as more dishonest than he is. But he won't have to show that Biden is worse, just that he's no better.
That's Trump's (perhaps only) winning move — to bring the playing field down to his level, to lower Biden's favorability rating, to make him seem less admirable, less likable, less morally upstanding, less … superior than Trump. He did the same thing against Hillary Clinton in 2016, using the FBI investigation of her email practices while secretary of state as a cudgel. Last summer, the strategy was to impugn Biden's son, making them both look like corrupt wheeler dealers in Ukraine. That didn't work out, but now Reade's allegations have made it possible for Trump and his party to do what they love most of all, which is to accuse Democrats and the media of smarmy double standards instead.
Of course this won't work with most Democratic voters, but that won't be its aim. The aim will be to ensure maximal turnout and Trump loyalty among Republicans — and the destruction of Biden's reputation among independents in crucial swing states.
Will it succeed? Trump will be facing re-election while presiding over a deadly pandemic and the early stages of an economic depression, so who knows. What I do know is that the behavior Tara Reade has plausibly alleged about the presumptive Democratic nominee is going to be a major liability for him as we head toward Election Day.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article mischaracterized a quote by Alexander Cockburn. It has been corrected. We regret the error.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.