The Establishment's Obsession with Joe Biden

by Neil H. Buchanan

Amid the now-standard cacophony that defines the Trump era, arguably the story of the week has been the debate among Democrats and other Trump opposers about Joe Biden's "touching problem."  Even with the continuing realization that Trump's attorney general is trying to whitewash and bury the Mueller report, with House Democrats finally demanding that Treasury turn over Trump's tax returns, and with Trump embarrassingly backtracking on health care and on his absurd idea to immediately close the Mexican - US border (now having issued a "one-year warning" instead), it seems that most discussion was about Biden instead.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that this is a bad thing, in the style of people saying, "Gee, with all of the real and serious problems in the world, we're focused on this?!"  Quite the opposite, I think it is important to note that we now take the Biden issues seriously enough that the discussion can actually crowd out those other issues (and many more).  Attempts to quickly brush this away -- "He didn't mean anything by it, so get over it" -- are not working, which is a good sign.

Here, I want to look at the Biden story and what it says about the early stages of the 2020 Democratic presidential nominating race.  One could justify the focus on Biden by pointing out that he comfortably leads public opinion polls among Democrats by a large margin, but frankly that means nothing at this stage.  It is interesting instead to look at why the people who view themselves as the establishment (even though they would surely resist that loaded term) are trying to promote Biden (while, not at all unrelatedly, disparaging Bernie Sanders, although that discussion is for another day).

The obsessive defense of Biden is at least cynical and quite likely self-defeating for those who think that "we have to choose the one who can win."

As everyone knows by now, women have started to come forward with stories about Biden's not-at-all-hidden-or-subtle tendency to invade personal space and to touch people, sometimes for awkwardly long periods of time.  This is hardly a new story, except that it now has accusers rather than simply video evidence -- which is an interesting twist, considering that usually it is only when videos emerge that an accuser has a chance of being heard.  (See, e.g., police violence against unarmed people of color, as well as the infamous Ray Rice video in which the now-former football player punched his then-fiancee in the face and knocked her out, which everyone knew had happened but which only became a scandal when the video was released.)

Here, not only is there video evidence, but it has even made it onto "The Daily Show."  In late 2017, I wrote a Verdict column explaining why I was among those who thought that Al Franken needed to resign his seat in the Senate, even though his actions were undeniably less serious than anything that Donald Trump has been accused of (or bragged about) in his treatment of women.

Toward the end of the piece, I compared Franken's situation to Biden's, noting that "Biden has always been troubling," focusing first on his disastrous mishandling of the Clarence Thomas nomination to the Supreme Court and especially his mistreatment of Anita Hill.

Turning to the problem of physical touching, I then offered this:
"Biden would have had trouble running for president in 2016, which of course was before the recent change in attitudes about sexual harassment, even without the Hill issue. Back in February of 2015, when Jon Stewart was still its host, 'The Daily Show' ran a piece on Biden called 'The Audacity of Grope.'

"The piece shows Biden 'getting handsy' with various womenand at least one young girlduring photo ops. What is especially odd about Biden’s actions is that he somehow managed to be far too physical with those women yet somehow not come across as a sexual predator. I hasten to add that what I just wrote is not a defense. He was extremely creepy and inappropriate, and I remember thinking at the end of the piece, 'Wow, Jon Stewart just ended Joe Biden’s presidential chances.' Imagine the Trump campaign in possession of that kind of raw material.

"The point is that no one is irreplaceable, and even “good guys” are not always worth defending. Again, if conservatives want to score points by saying, 'Hey, you liberals should take a look at yourselves,' my answer is, 'Yes, and Biden is not someone I feel the need to defend.'"
Everyone should take a look at Stewart's video, because it is fascinating to see how easy it was to collect clip after clip of Biden obliviously making people feel uncomfortable.  He clearly did not think he was doing anything wrong (which, as many people point out, is itself an indication of the problem of white male entitlement and the abuse of power differentials), even with clear evidence that people were creeped out by his physical aggressiveness.

This is not even a situation in which one can say (a la some of Franken's defenders), "Hey, that's just the way everybody used to be.  Men used to slap a woman on the rump playfully, or pretend to be honking breasts, but now we're making a big deal about it."  This is not relitigating Biden's actions under new norms, because he was never normal.  It is different that his abnormality might not be readily dismissed anymore, which is a good development, but this guy has always been different.

Now, of course, he has promised that he understands and that he will listen and change his ways.  But even if he is capable of doing that, it merely means that his every interaction with people is forevermore going to be picked over and debated.  I can imagine people sincerely telling him that they would like to hug him, with Biden then smiling and shaking his head after catching himself leaning in for a hug or a kiss, self-deprecatingly trying to make light of his predicament.  He even would probably seem likable in doing so.

But he is now defined by this (as he should have been decades ago, when he might still have had time to change his behavior).  For better or worse, just as Elizabeth Warren is burdened by her fateful decision to confront Trump's Pocahontas taunts, the default thought when Biden is involved will not be, "Effective vice president, long-serving senator, voice for working people," but "I wonder if he's going to invade someone's personal space today,  Let's watch!"

In my Verdict column discussing Biden, I proved my inability to predict the future by saying that a Biden 2020 run was "a non-starter" and thus that condemning his behavior was an "especially easy call[]," because Biden is merely "part of history."  What caused this story to dominate this week's discussion is, of course, that Biden wants to be the future.

I have to say that there has been quite a lot of intelligent commentary about Biden this week, not all of it reaching the same conclusions.  Karen Tumulty, in The Washington Postargued that failing to keep Biden's actions in the proper perspective is to "dishonor the victims of the worst kinds of sexual abuse, and to abandon any hope that there can be a path to redemption for those who commit lesser ones and grow to understand the hurt they have caused," which is true and important but not really the point.  New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg ("The Wrong Time for Joe Biden") and The Post's Elizabeth Bruenig ("Is Joe Biden Worth It?") make the case that Biden is too problematic, too damaged, and frankly too exhausting for Democrats to bother defending.

I have to say that I agree with Goldberg and Bruenig, but the reason is ultimately not only that the "touching thing" will become a political meme and a ready attack line for Trump and Republicans.  All of that might be worth it if Biden truly brought something unique and necessary to the presidential race.  That case, however, is very difficult to make.

Those who believe in Biden try to say that he alone can reach out to the mythic Obama-Trump swing voters, because Biden is the Scranton-born blue collar guy who speaks their language.  Leaving aside the condescension inherent in that argument (which is now standard for those who want to mythologize white working class voters), I find myself wondering, "Are they looking at a different Joe Biden than the one we've seen for decades?"  He is not at all an electrifying speaker, and it is difficult to find anyone who says anything about Biden other than, "He seems like a decent guy."  To be clear, in Trump's America, decency is desperately to be cherished, but there is simply no evidence that Biden's image of decency is a big vote-getter.

Biden was a completely ineffective candidate in his two previous runs for president, losing badly and dropping out early despite name recognition and ties to the party's power brokers and money.  He was a good running mate for Obama, but he was blessed with opponents in Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan who were transparent frauds (in different ways, but still frauds).

The only thing his supporters can say about his tendency to commit gaffes is that he can "own it" with a smile and thus get away with it.  Maybe, but that seems a pretty risky bet: "We know he's going to say weird stuff fairly frequently, but we're willing to bet that it will never be too bad, so people will continue to laugh it off."  That is the defense of a person who is supposedly essential to his party, the man who alone stands the best chance of beating Trump?  His other virtues must be pretty strong for Biden to be at most risk of saying something problematic yet somehow also the best bet to win.

And those other virtues are what, exactly?  He actually does not have much of a policy agenda associated with him, unlike Warren and Sanders, or actually anyone other than maybe Beto O'Rourke.  The O'Rourke comparison gets us to the essence of the matter, in fact, because both he and Biden are being touted as strong candidates by the party leaders and opinion makers who prefer their Democrats in the Bill Clinton-Barack Obama Third Way mode -- always in a defensive crouch, not confronting Republicans but instead offering to move just a little bit more to the right in a futile search for compromise that is never coming.

It is no accident that the people most enamored of Biden's supposed charms as a candidate include NeverTrump conservatives like Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, who are pulling like mad for Biden.  Why?  He is not a conservative, but he is one of them in the sense that they know he will fold immediately if ever confronted by the business establishment.

Seriously, it is difficult to say what Biden believes in.  That is not to say that I think he has no commitments, but his entire career is based on just being one of the guys who does not worry the establishment, so that he now embodies them.  Of course they want his touching problem to go away.  Otherwise, the Democrats might nominate someone who is not reliably going to tell people not to rock the boat.