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Why doesn’t Joe Biden just apologize?

It might be a strategy.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to the media at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction and Maintenance conference on April 5, 2019 in Washington, DC
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to the media at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction and Maintenance conference on April 5, 2019, in Washington, DC. 
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

A few weeks before he announced his presidential bid, Joe Biden called Anita Hill.

He wanted to talk about the 1991 hearings in which Hill testified that Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, had sexually harassed her. Biden, who was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, has been widely criticized for his handling of the hearings.

But according to Hill, Biden didn’t fully apologize during their phone call, the New York Times reports.

He also hasn’t apologized to the women who say he touched them in ways that made them feel uncomfortable, saying instead that “social norms have begun to change” around people’s personal space.

Biden has been a frontrunner for the 2020 nomination in the polls leading up to his announcement on Thursday, but he’s also faced widespread criticism. His opposition to busing to desegregate schools has received renewed attention, as has his 1982 vote in support of a constitutional amendment that would have let states overturn Roe v. Wade. When Biden featured footage of the 2017 Charlottesville white supremacist rally in his campaign announcement, the mother of murder victim Heather Heyer said on Friday that he neglected to notify her that he’d be centering his announcement video on the day her daughter died.

She told CNN that while she wasn’t personally disturbed by seeing the footage, “I think it was traumatizing for some other people in Charlottesville.”

So why hasn’t Biden attempted to neutralize some of the criticisms against him by simply saying he’s sorry?

It’s possible that he doesn’t feel remorse, or that the famously gaffe-prone candidate just hasn’t found the right words. But there’s also another possible explanation: Biden is running as an old-school Democrat who rejects contemporary leftism. If he apologizes to Hill or the women who say he touched them inappropriately, he could risk losing his credibility with the voters he increasingly seems to see as his base — liberals who miss the old days of the Democratic Party and are suspicious of newer movements like #MeToo.

Biden has expressed regret over the Hill-Thomas hearings. He still hasn’t really apologized.

In 1991, after Hill’s allegations against Thomas came to light, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings (Thomas denied the allegations). As the chair, Biden presided over the process. He’s been criticized for failing to call additional witnesses who could have supported Hill’s accounts, and for failing to step in when Republicans on the committee attacked Hill, Vox’s Li Zhou writes.

The hearings got renewed scrutiny last year when the Senate held similar hearings to address Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation against Brett Kavanaugh, then a Supreme Court nominee. Recently, Biden has addressed the Hill-Thomas hearings publicly, saying he wishes he “could have done something” to give Hill “the hearing she deserved.”

And on Thursday, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Carl Hulse of the New York Times reported on the conversation between Hill and Biden, which Hill says took place several weeks ago. Hill “declined to characterize Mr. Biden’s words to her as an apology and said she was not convinced that he has taken full responsibility for his conduct at the hearings,” Stolberg and Hulse write.

Hill said she did not think Biden’s history disqualified him from being president. But, she said, “I cannot be satisfied by simply saying, ‘I’m sorry for what happened to you.’”

“I will be satisfied when I know there is real change and real accountability and real purpose,” she added.

Biden’s deputy campaign manager told the Times that he and Hill “had a private discussion where he shared with her directly his regret for what she endured and his admiration for everything she has done to change the culture around sexual harassment in this country.”

He also hasn’t apologized to women who say he touched them inappropriately

In his responses to allegations of inappropriate touching, Biden has been similarly unwilling to offer a direct apology. His tendency to touch and stand close to women has been a subject of comment for years. But the issue came to the fore in March when Lucy Flores wrote in an essay at the Cut that in 2014, when she was running for lieutenant governor of Nevada, Biden had kissed her on the head and smelled her hair. Since then, several other women have said that Biden touched them in ways that made them uncomfortable.

In a video response to the allegations earlier this month, Biden said, “I shake hands, I hug people, I grab men and women by the shoulders and say, ‘You can do this.’ Whether they are women, men, young, old, it’s the way I’ve always been.”

“The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset,” he added, pledging to “be much more mindful” in the future.

He did not, however, say he was sorry.

“I’m not sorry for anything that I have ever done,” he said in a speech a few days later. “I’ve never been disrespectful intentionally to a man or a woman.”

Biden’s failure to apologize might be a strategy

On the surface, Biden’s failure to apologize is puzzling. Twenty-eight percent of Democratic women and 29 percent of black voters disapprove of his handling of the Hill-Thomas hearings, according to a Morning Consult poll conducted earlier this year. Why not try to bring these voters on board by offering a full-throated apology?

Maybe because it would damage Biden’s reputation with another group: Democrats who are more conservative on sexual harassment, and on culture and politics more generally.

Biden’s whole pitch to Americans is about nostalgia. He’s an “Obama-Biden Democrat” who believes you don’t have to be a socialist to be progressive. He’s essentially promising a return to an era before Trump was president (he calls Trump’s presidency “an aberrant moment in time” in a video announcing his candidacy). Of course, that would also be before the #MeToo movement entered its most public phase, and before a wave of progressive legislators, many of them women of color, entered Congress and started challenging party orthodoxy on a variety of issues.

With his messaging so far, Biden seems to be appealing to Democrats who are uncomfortable with their party’s left wing and just want to go back to business as usual. If he apologizes to Hill or Flores, he risks alienating them. If, on the other hand, he continues to withhold an apology, he can position himself as someone who’s resisting the excesses of #MeToo and his party’s larger leftward tilt, someone who can bring back the 2008 liberalism his supporters know and love.

Biden is betting that there’s a significant slice of American voters who don’t want him to apologize. Only time will tell if he’s right.