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The controversy over Joe Biden’s treatment of women, explained

An old-school politician in a #MeToo world.

Joe Biden and Lucy Flores in 2014 Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s presidential campaign has not yet launched, but it’s already rocked by a long-simmering controversy over the propriety of his interactions with women.

A former Nevada state legislator named Lucy Flores wrote a personal essay that New York magazine published on Friday, in which she describes an encounter with Biden at a 2014 campaign event. Flores says the then-vice president came up behind her, touched her shoulders, and kissed the back of her head. The behavior, she says, wasn’t criminal, but it made her feel uncomfortable. Amy Lappos, a former congressional aide who recalls Biden rubbing noses with her at a 2009 fundraiser, similarly says the incident “wasn’t sexual” but also that there’s “absolutely a line of decency” and “a line of respect” that Biden crossed. On Tuesday, two more women came forward to the New York Times with, similarly, stories they described as having “made them uncomfortable.”

Flores’s account has raised some of the usual questions about what exactly happened and whose memory is correct. But the real issue with Biden isn’t the facts. The issue is what standard of conduct is acceptable for men in power.

The Onion’s parody character “Diamond Joe” Biden, whose autobiography was titled The President of Vice, was, of course, a joke. But the joke was that Biden really was an old-school presence in the Obama White House.

That presence extended to a habit of quite publicly making remarks about women’s appearances and frequent physical contacts that any modern HR department would probably warn against. For years, it was played off primarily as a joke — “Joe being Joe” — paired with some complaints from progressive writers and a larger volume of complaints from conservative writers that progressives were being hypocritical in not complaining about Biden.

In the wake of the heightened mobilization of women in the Democratic Party and the #MeToo movement, it was inevitable that this would become an issue if Biden ran for president. And even though he’s not quite in the race yet, he and his camp keep very heavily hinting that he will be soon.

The allegation isn’t that he has dark secrets, but that the stuff we’ve seen on camera and laughed off should be taken seriously as making public life hostile to women. Critics fear this will bring to life their long-held nightmare of #MeToo overreach, in which the idea of long-public behavior by a well-known and well-liked Democrat is suddenly unfairly castigated.

Lucy Flores says Biden made her uncomfortable

Lucy Flores got elected to the Nevada House of Representatives at 31 years old and was quickly marked as a rising star in the state party, getting the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 2014. She wound up losing fairly badly in an overall disastrous election year for Democrats, and then went on in the 2016 cycle to endorse Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign while waging a primary campaign of her own for a congressional seat. (She wound up losing to Ruben Kihuen, who in turn later ended up forced out of Congress by a sexual harassment scandal.) She was then a founding board member of Sanders’s national political organization, Our Revolution, but wound up resigning early.

All of which is to say that while she’s now a somewhat marginalized figure in Democratic politics, in 2014 she was very much in the middle of things — backed by Harry Reid for a big role in the future of the Nevada Democratic Party and getting campaign visits from Biden, an extremely popular surrogate.

But Flores recounts that Biden’s campaign rally on her behalf wound up taking an unsettling turn:

I found my way to the holding room for the speakers, where everyone was chatting, taking photos, and getting ready to speak to the hundreds of voters in the audience. Just before the speeches, we were ushered to the side of the stage where we were lined up by order of introduction. As I was taking deep breaths and preparing myself to make my case to the crowd, I felt two hands on my shoulders. I froze. “Why is the vice-president of the United States touching me?”

I felt him get closer to me from behind. He leaned further in and inhaled my hair. I was mortified. I thought to myself, “I didn’t wash my hair today and the vice-president of the United States is smelling it. And also, what in the actual fuck? Why is the vice-president of the United States smelling my hair?” He proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of my head. My brain couldn’t process what was happening. I was embarrassed. I was shocked. I was confused. There is a Spanish saying, “tragame tierra,” it means, “earth, swallow me whole.” I couldn’t move and I couldn’t say anything. I wanted nothing more than to get Biden away from me. My name was called and I was never happier to get on stage in front of an audience.

That’s all there is to it. Flores doesn’t allege that Biden did anything illegal, followed up in any way, threatened or derailed her career in any way, or anything else. She’s just saying that there she was, a young female professional doing her job alongside an older male colleague. He was supposed to be there to help her out, and instead, he made her uncomfortable by sniffing her hair and kissing the back of her head.

And while the specific incident is new, the basic idea that Biden sometimes says and does things that make some of the women in his presence uncomfortable is really not much of a secret.

Joe Biden does slightly inappropriate stuff all the time

After Biden oversaw the swearing-in of new senators in the wake of the 2016 election, Politico posted a video compilation of “13 awkward moments” from the ceremony.

The first such moment is Biden saying that when he was young, he had a beautiful sister and his dad told him his “number one job” was “to keep the guys away from your sister”; he then turns to a brother-sister pair and addresses the young man by saying, “You’re in trouble.” In the next, he asks a newly elected senator’s daughter how old she is. She says she’s 16 and Biden jokes, “I hope you’ve got big dogs around the house,” to keep the boys away from her.

These are obviously jokes. Biden is being friendly and not trying to hurt anyone, and we’re all familiar with this general style of joke.

At the same time, these jokes have gone out of style because their major premise is that women’s sexuality should be controlled by their male relatives rather than by themselves. They also seem at times to suggest that young men cannot be taught to behave themselves appropriately around attractive women. In his official role, Biden is part of the It’s On Us campaign, whose idea is that men need to be leaders in checking other men’s sexual misconduct. But in the jokes, rather than men working with other men to build a culture of consent and respect for women, the thing to do is to get big dogs to safeguard the women you happen to care about personally while otherwise accepting that boys will be boys.

In February 2015, New York magazine did a slideshow of “nine times Joe Biden creepily whispered in people’s ears” and Byron York observed that there’s a huge public track record of “handsy” Biden photos that liberals would likely regard as problematic were the perpetrator not a popular Democratic vice president.

Around this time, controversy was raging mostly in conservative circles. GOP operative Karol Morkowicz wrote in a February 2015 Time article that “America Shouldn’t Tolerate ‘Biden Being Biden.’”

But Alana Levinson wrote for TPM at around this time that the conservative critics were basically right and progressives shouldn’t give Biden a pass just because they agreed with his stances on policy.

“Being a public figure who supports women means more than just supporting political causes,” she wrote. “It also means treating them with respect, especially in public. If progressives are really committed to combating sexism, they have to be indiscriminate about calling it out — even if it means indicting one of their own.”

Biden’s allies say he’s getting a bad rap

One of the most infamous Biden photos is a still taken from larger video of him grabbing the shoulders of Stephanie Carter, the wife of Ashton Carter, during Carter’s swearing-in ceremony to become secretary of defense.

In the wake of Flores’s story, Carter addressed the images in a Medium post, which said both that she had no problem with what Biden did and that in her view, the viral image was an out-of-context frame from a moment that looks more innocuous on video (emphasis in original):

We had started the cold, snowy day at Arlington Cemetery in Section 60 visiting the graves of our fallen. It was somber and quiet and the weight of Ash’s new responsibility was palpable. Upon our arrival at the Pentagon, I had slipped and fell on some ice  —  which a few journalists were nice enough to tweet about. Later, we went to the White House for the swearing in and I was feeling self-conscious and tentative (not a normal state for those who know me) about the fall  —  and perhaps about how much our life might change. As we walked in the room, reporters were staged and a young woman from Huffington Post shouted to me to ask if I was doing all right  —  I was somewhat thrown (did I not look all right?) but quickly remembered news of my fall on the ice had traveled. By the time then-Vice President Biden had arrived, he could sense I was uncharacteristically nervous and quickly gave me a hug. After the swearing in, as Ash was giving remarks, he leaned in to tell me “thank you for letting him do this” and kept his hands on my shoulders as a means of offering his support. But a still shot taken from a video  —  misleadingly extracted from what was a longer moment between close friends —   sent out in a snarky tweet  —  came to be the lasting image of that day.

Some people I’ve spoken to agree with Carter about the video versus still question, and others don’t. The bottom line, however, is that Carter says she didn’t have a problem with it — which is of course fine — but Flores says she did have a problem with what Biden did.

Henry Muñoz of the Latino Victory Project, meanwhile, put out a statement saying he “thoroughly reviewed photographic documentation from the event” and spoke to others who were there, and “to the best of our recollection, at no time were Lucy Flores and Vice President Biden alone.”

The implication of this is that Flores is lying (or perhaps misremembering) her story, but if you read her account, she clearly says that she wasn’t alone with Biden. And of course the larger narrative about Biden isn’t that he does these things secretly behind closed doors — he does them with the C-SPAN cameras rolling at public events. The question is whether it’s bad.

Biden issued a statement that was more equivocal — trying to neither apologize to Flores nor call her a liar, while also addressing the larger question without really saying anything about it:

In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort. And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.

I may not recall these moments the same way, and I may be surprised at what I hear. But we have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention. And I will.

I will also remain the strongest advocate I can be for the rights of women. I will fight to build on the work I’ve done in my career to end violence against women and ensure women are treated with the equality they deserve. I will continue to surround myself with trusted women advisors who challenge me to see different perspectives than my own. And I will continue to speak out on these vitally important issues where there is much more progress to be made and crucial fights that must be waged and won.

These are all nice sentiments, and they underscore one of the reasons nobody in progressive politics has been particularly eager to bring this up. Biden is a personally very well-liked member of the Democratic Party establishment, nobody really thinks he meant any harm, and were he quietly fading into an elder statesman role, everyone might leave well enough alone. But Biden is putting himself forward as a political leader for the present-day, and his conduct does not really fit cutting-edge progressive values. You can clearly see that even in this statement, which centers his subjective intentions rather than women’s experiences.

Meanwhile, Biden’s team is pushing back more forcefully, with spokesperson Bill Russo emailing a “note on recent coverage” to many Washington journalists noting Carter’s Medium piece and statements from Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) arguing that another widely snarked-about photo of Biden with Coons’s daughter has been misrepresented. Russo says “the familiar characterizations of these two photos that have been uncritically perpetuated, turn out to be very false” and points journalists to a Washington Post interview with Coons in which he says “all three of my kids have known Joe their whole lives” and view him like a grandfather.

Can women really “relate their experiences”?

One important question raised by Biden’s statement, however, is whether it’s true that we have now entered an era where “women feel they can and should relate their experiences.”

It’s clearly true that some women are relating their experiences. But Brett Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court while Christine Blasey Ford faced months of threats. Justin Fairfax is still lieutenant governor of Virginia. Donald Trump is the president of the United States. A key mover and shaker in US Latino politics is calling Flores a liar based on a pretty blatant misreading of what she said happened. Flores herself has landed in an odd position politically, alienating the establishment over the course of the 2016 cycle and then breaking with Sanders and moving to California, where she’s now out of electoral politics. She has relatively little to lose in this by speaking out.

But would a random midlevel Obama administration staffer, teenage senator’s daughter, or former candidate who was once made uncomfortable by a Biden joke or lean really feel that the moral of the story is she should feel free to speak her mind? Or would she understand that to get ahead in life it’s good to be seen as a helpful team player and bad to be seen as a thin-skinned troublemaker and the best thing to do is either shrug it off or speak up in Biden’s defense? Does anyone trying to make a career in Democratic Party politics really want to put themselves in the position of being a “Joe Biden accuser” who gets to have their conduct picked over by a Morning Joe panel?

The skeptical reaction to Flores from many who are not disputing the factual contents of her story underscores how central it is to some of the ideological fault lines in American life. Nobody disagrees that men shouldn’t rape women or that women who haven’t been raped shouldn’t falsely accuse men of raping them. But there is a really big disagreement over whether American culture ought to change in a major way or whether the real problem is “millennial snowflakes,” out-of-control political correctness, and a zealous neo-Puritanism that can’t even take a joke or see an affectionate gesture for what it is.

Biden’s problem is also his appeal

A lot of how Biden got to be vice president in the first place had to do with the idea that he would help Obama appeal to the kind of voters — older, less educated white Northerners who aren’t evangelical Christians — who we know eventually ended up defecting to Trump.

These voters didn’t identify with the GOP of the George W. Bush era and certainly didn’t love Republicans’ regressive economic policies. But they also don’t particularly identify with the self-consciously woke brand of liberalism practiced in big cosmopolitan metro areas. For the purposes of winning votes from this cohort, the fact that Biden’s 2008 primary campaign was continually derailed by racist gaffes probably made him a strong running mate. To voters confused — and at times angered — by shifting cultural norms, the fact that Obama would elevate an old white guy who clearly wasn’t up to speed on all the latest PC thinking was a powerful demonstration that he was one of the good ones.

In 2016, of course, many voters inclined to this way of thinking did defect to Trump. In 2018, Democrats in turn did well in large part by gaining more votes from people whose thinking is not necessarily in line with contemporary progressive politics on key identity issues.

John Ray of Data for Progress shows, for example, that the swing voters Democrats won in 2018 are closer to Republicans’ views on the Confederate flag.

Biden is probably not going to run around explicitly pitching himself as the Democrat who is best suited to appeal to Lost Cause mythos (though he did once brag that Delaware was a slave state), but the idea that he’s better suited than the rest of the field to win back Trump voters in the Midwest is an integral element of his proto-candidacy.

And the idea that Biden is less of an uptight, scoldy asshole than your average Democrat — the kind of guy who’s not afraid to crack a joke about using dogs to guard a 16-year-old’s virtue or get a little grabby at a happy occasion — is an integral part of that argument.

Totally separately from this controversy, Biden is not very popular among the group of younger, highly educated, more ideological Democrats who dominate online discourse, and the “Creepy Uncle Joe” persona only ads to that disdain. But his base in the party is older, more working-class, and more moderate Democrats, for whom the inclination to give a guy a hard time for just being good-natured and affectionate is everything that’s gone wrong with the younger generation. To Biden’s mostly younger critics, the extent to which this kind of behavior is normalized and people are just supposed to accept it without complaint is exactly what needs to change.