What Should Be Bad Enough to Make Politically Savvy People Abandon Joe Biden?

by Neil H. Buchanan

If a verifiable and undoctored video emerged this morning showing Joe Biden using the n-word repeatedly, his remaining time as the Democrats' presumptive presidential nominee would be measured in days if not hours.  And that is true even though Donald Trump is an unabashed racist, and even though a racist-enough-to-use-that-word-privately Biden would still be a much better president in every way.

If a verifiable and undoctored video emerged this morning showing Biden calling Jared Kushner "proof that the rich are stupid and hate Americans," that would generate a great deal of consternation across the political spectrum.  It would surely become a meme of the campaign, with Republicans repeatedly hammering on it even as Biden and every Democrat explained that Biden's comment was expressed in frustration, in a moment of exhaustion, as a joke, or whatever.  But it would almost surely not -- and should not -- result in Biden's being forced to withdraw, even though it would be politically damaging to some degree.

It is clear, then, that some politically difficult revelations require unsentimental people to cut and run, while others are manageable distractions.  How can we know the difference?

There is a lot of space between the two examples above.  Somewhere along that spectrum is an accusation -- with some evidence supporting it, but not definitively -- that Biden sexually assaulted his former Senate staffer Tara Reade in 1992.  On Tuesday of this week, I argued here that the Reade situation is going to be enough of a problem politically that Biden should withdraw now or be forced out by his party.

I reached that conclusion even as I acknowledged that none of us know the truth about what happened.  Even so, because of "the Republicans' cynical games combined with the media's mindless habits," I concluded that -- "fair or not" (the first three words of the title of the column) -- the rape allegation was going to end up being a huge problem for Democrats, with every Biden supporter being accused of abandoning sexual assault victims for political expediency.

To be as clear now as I was on Tuesday, I will continue to support Biden if he is the nominee: "If Biden stays in, I will of course support him against Trump, even though I believe women.  And I will end up writing a bunch of defenses of Biden and his supporters that should be unnecessary."

Why will I do that?  Obviously because Trump is an existential danger to America, but also because the Republicans' attacks on Biden -- and the media's breathless "but her emails" approach to the accusations -- will be demonstrably dishonest and cynical.  If (when) the time comes, then, it will be quite easy to pick apart the press's sanctimonious "Biden hasn't been transparent enough" nonsense and to ridicule Republicans' dishonest and hypocritical attempts to charge Democrats with dishonesty and hypocrisy.

On a fairly regular basis, Professor Dorf and I note the wonderfully civilized tone of the comments board on this blog.  Tuesday's column was the exception that proves the rule.  As of this writing, there are 15 comments on that column, and it is sad to say that the last two -- for "Powerful love spell caster dr unity" -- are among the better of those comments.  Not only did the column bring out the trolls who occasionally appear on the board (who have long since gone into the "do not bother reading" bin), but it somehow also inspired rants from those unburdened by reading comprehension or the ability to follow an argument.

I thus was accused of having "delicate sensibilities" and having "fully swallowed the Putin disinformation hook, line, and sinker."  I was even told to STFU.  Unless that stands for "Subtle Truth-telling Fosters Understanding" or "Sincere Tributes For U," presumably I made someone angry.  But that is all a matter of amusement more than anything else.  It is disappointing when the internet's sewer backs up into this blog's basement, but it happens every now and then, after which we hold our noses and move on.

My working title for this column was "What I Really Said About Biden's Political Problem with Sexual Assault," but responding to readers who deliberately distort the argument is not the point and was surely not even worth the two paragraphs that I have devoted to it here.  Instead, I want to think about an interesting issue that bubbled up in one form or another in a few of the other comments on Tuesday's column.

I should note first that Professor Dorf contributed a comment that provided a useful additional consideration, which is that there is a cost-benefit analysis in play.  Because the chaos of not just removing Biden but finding a replacement will surely result in a highly contestable claim by Bernie Sanders and his backers that the first runner-up should be the nominee, anything other than Biden choosing to remove himself (and maybe even that) could lead to a political bloodbath that might be worse for Democrats than keeping Biden on the ticket to face the unfair media environment that I described in my column.

Although I will not address that cost-benefit question directly, one answer is implicit in the two hypotheticals that I sketched out at the beginning of this column: Something like Biden using the n-word would be bad enough to pay the price of chaos, while something like "stupid rich people hate Americans" is not.

As Professor Colb noted in the second of two excellent Verdict columns on the Biden-Reade controversy, "if the only choices for President are Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the sexual assault allegation against the latter will take second fiddle to the need to defeat the former."  I agree, but six months before the election, we might not have to limit ourselves to running Biden.

Where, then, do we draw the line?  I think that the reason the n-word hypothetical is so obviously on the "he must go" end of the spectrum is not only that such language is awful but because it would go to the heart of something that Democrats claim -- credibly -- to care deeply about.  If Trump were on tape using that word, that would feed the narrative of Republicans as racists, but they would probably try to manage the crisis.  Democrats cannot run a racist -- even a less-racist-than-the-other-guy racist -- without damaging themselves politically among both their base and any remaining swing voters.

Trump or another Republican using the n-word -- or, for a documented example, a top House Republican implausibly claiming not to know that he gave a speech to a white supremacist meeting (where David Duke also spoke) -- would be a problem for Republicans in feeding the existing (accurate) narrative that Republicans at the very least tolerate bigots in their midst.  But it would be politically manageable precisely because we are so used to the press giving the Republicans a pass after a few news cycles of accusations and denials.  By contrast, it would be so obviously off-brand for Democrats that it would be fatal.

Similarly, my hypo with Biden deriding entitled brats like Jared Kushner would feed the narrative of "class warfare" that Republicans have dishonestly repeated, which would require Biden to manage the controversy.  This would be somewhat equivalent to Barack Obama's "you didn't build that" comment, which ignited indignant outrage from Republicans who tried to make it seem that Obama was saying that "risk-taking entrepreneurs" deserved to have their businesses confiscated by the government, or something like that.  But that was not enough to cause Obama a real problem, because it was not a particularly toxic issue in the first place and because his comments in context made clear that he had only said that the owner of a company did not build it single-handedly.

Two rigid responses to political controversies are wrong: (1) Stay the course no matter what, and (2) Abandon ship as soon as the slightest possible problem arises.  On the latter, it is true that any Democratic candidate will be slimed by the Republicans, and the press will sometimes go along with the game.  Again, however, that does not mean that (1) is true, because some things are bad enough to require a course correction, even a dramatic one like replacing the presumptive nominee.

If the Republicans were reduced to using only their weak Hunter Biden stuff, that would obviously not be a good reason to dump his dad.  Yes, the credulous mainstream press would run a bunch of chin-stroking "to be fair" analyses, and the Republicans would try to feed the controversy; but that is no different than if, say, Liz Warren were the nominee and Republicans tried to say that she was anti-woman or not really a Harvard professor.  (Hey, if John Kerry's purple hearts can be questioned, why not try another reality-bending narrative?)

After the debacle of 2016, even something equivalent to the Clinton email drip-drip-drip would not have the same impact (especially without another Comey intervention).  Yes, a lot of reporters and editors would overplay it again, but that would not be a reason to dump the nominee in an effort to run away from a Republican smear campaign.  It is smart not to abandon ship too soon, because the Republicans will run their basic playbook against any opponent.

So where does the Biden-Reade situation fit into this analysis?  On Tuesday, I made it clear where I come down.  To put it in the terms that I have laid out in this column, this situation is too close to the n-word hypo and not similar enough to the Jared-idiot-child hypo.  Why?

As I described on Tuesday, the Reade accusations -- which, again, none of us know to be true or false, and we almost certainly never will -- are damaging in two ways.  First, they are catnip for the false equivalence types in the mainstream press, such as The Washington Post's Erik Wemple, who absurdly claims that there is a "glaring vulnerability of top Democrats when it comes to sexual assault allegations: their over-the-top, believe-women statements during the confirmation fight over then-federal Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh."

Second, and just as important, there is a way in which Democrats need to be better about this issue than Republicans, because they in fact are better than Republicans.  Democrats should not be held to the cartoonish version of "believe women" that Republicans and people like Wemple are now pushing, but they care about violence against women and should be extremely uncomfortable about putting themselves in a position of defending someone who might or might not have committed rape.

As Professor Colb argued in her first column on this subject, there is a tendency to "devalue" the whole category of sexual violence and harassment, where people (usually implicitly) say that even if a bad thing happened, it was not really so bad or perhaps "she asked for it."  When Biden and his running mate (who he has said will be a woman) are asked about this -- repeatedly -- the fact that their party stands behind them will inevitably seem to devalue the offense, no matter what they say.

Indeed, Professor Colb's second Verdict column noted the various ways in which Democrats are trying to use discredited credibility and character arguments to defend Biden (noting, among other things, that a "remark that sexual assault 'seems out of character' for Biden struck me as ignorant.")  To their credit, Biden and his supporters have not tried to smear Reade or claim explicitly that this is no big deal.  But if he leads the ticket, it will clearly be because Democrats do not view it as a big enough deal.

And in some contexts, that is true.  With Trump as the alternative, even a confirmed account of rape by Biden would not be a big enough deal to make me vote against Biden.  As I noted above, however, that need not be our only option in early May.

I should state clearly that I am not speaking for Professor Colb when I conclude that Biden should step aside or be forced out by his party.  She and I have not discussed the matter, and she might well conclude that the costs of replacing Biden are too high to take the risk.  Or she might agree with me.  I honestly have no idea.  I am citing her writings simply to say that Democrats are already relying on some pretty shaky arguments.  Those arguments, I think, are damaging to women and ultimately to Democrats even on a purely strategic basis.

Reasonable people can differ.  But because the Reade allegation is of such a serious nature on a matter that should continue to be central to Democrats' core principles -- to say nothing of the fact that more evidence supporting the allegations could be on tap -- it seems to me that Democrats are doing themselves no favors by putting themselves in the position of saying, in essence: "Yes, he's accused of rape, but he might be innocent, and even if he's guilty, there are worse things (like Trump.)"  If and when we reach that point, I will be among those making some version of that argument.  But we should all hope that we will never have to.