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The Joe Biden culture war

There’s a split among Democrats on #MeToo and more. Biden might have picked the losing side.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to the media at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction and Maintenance conference on April 05, 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.

Joe Biden is betting on the past.

The former vice president, who formally announced his candidacy on Thursday but has been a frontrunner in the polls for months, recently called himself an “Obama-Biden Democrat,” evoking a repeat of 2008. His supporters have long held that he can connect with the white working-class voters who switched from Barack Obama to Donald Trump in 2016.

And when he responded, earlier this month, to allegations that he touched women inappropriately, he cast himself as a man innocently following the mores of an earlier era.

“Social norms have begun to change, they’ve shifted,” he said. “The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset.”

To some, statements like that — along with his lack of an actual apology — signal a man out of touch with the #MeToo movement and America today. But Biden is betting that there’s another, bigger group out there — a group that thinks #MeToo goes a little too far, and maybe norms have changed a little too fast.

Where he once strived to embrace positions taken by his more progressive rivals, Biden now seems to be playing to divisions in the Democratic Party over #MeToo and other social issues. Those divisions are real — as of 2017, a significant percentage of Democrats were closer to Republicans on issues like racial discrimination, LGBTQ rights, and sexism.

But in 2020, playing to those Democrats may not be a winning strategy. Recent polling shows that Democrats are becoming more supportive of #MeToo, not less. And a growing number of voters want to see more women and people of color running for office.

“It’s not a good time for an older, white establishment man to be running, especially one for whom #MeToo boundaries may be unclear,” said Tresa Undem, a cofounder of the research firm PerryUndem, which has conducted recent polling on elections and #MeToo.

Put another way, there may be a culture war going on within the Democratic Party. But Biden may not have chosen the winning side.

Lately, Biden seems to be appealing to Democrats’ nostalgia

To some degree, Joe Biden’s political career has been about evolution. He went from an opponent of school integration in the 1970s to a critic of systemic racism in 2019, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias pointed out. In 1982, he voted for a constitutional amendment to let states overturn Roe v. Wade, but his spokesperson now casts him as a defender of the landmark abortion decision. During the 2008 primary contest, he sparked criticism when he called Barack Obama “the first sort of mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”; he later apologized and became Obama’s running mate.

Biden also presided over the 1991 hearings at which Anita Hill testified that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, but he has tried to distance himself from the outcome of those hearings, most recently saying, “I wish I could have done something” to give Hill “the hearing she deserved.”

It can seem like Biden is forever playing catch-up, eventually arriving at positions more socially progressive politicians staked out long before him. But in recent comments, there’s been another dynamic at work.

“I’m an Obama-Biden Democrat, man, and I’m proud of it,” he told reporters earlier this month. He argued that Democrats don’t need to be socialists to be progressive and seemed to voice skepticism about candidates to the left of him: “Show me the really, left, left, left winger who beat a Republican” in 2018, he said.

Also in early April, he tweeted a video statement in response to allegations that he had touched multiple women in ways that made them uncomfortable.

It was structured like an apology, but Biden didn’t actually apologize. Instead, he described himself as an old-school hugger in a new, post-#MeToo world.

“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,” he said.

Biden said he would change, becoming more “mindful” of people’s personal space. But he also promised not to change too much. “I’ll always believe governing — quite frankly, life, for that matter — is about connecting with people,” he said.

The statement, and his “Obama-Biden Democrat” comments, felt pitched at voters who were nostalgic for an earlier time — before Trump, yes, but also before #MeToo and the rise of socialism. A time when things felt — to some people, at least — less complicated.

BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith recently called Biden “the stand-in for a generation of Americans disoriented by changing mores,” and it feels like as good an encapsulation as any of Biden’s recent non-campaign campaign. Biden seems to be betting that there are people who will vote for him not in spite of the fact that he seems like a candidate from an earlier time, but because of it.

A significant number of Democrats are conservative on cultural issues. But that number might be shrinking.

He might be right.

In a 2018 paper, Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartels analyzed how Americans stacked up on a scale of “cultural conservatism,” as measured by agreement with statements like “discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities” and “women who complain about harassment often cause more problems than they solve.”

Beliefs like this are more often associated with Republicans, but Bartels found that many Democrats agreed with them too — in fact, he wrote, more than a quarter of Democrats were closer to the average Republican on cultural issues than to the average member of their own party.

It’s possible to imagine Biden’s recent statements appealing to those Democrats who subscribe to culturally conservative beliefs — about harassment in particular — but still want an alternative to the Republican Party and Trump.

However, it’s not entirely clear that Biden has those voters locked down — culturally conservative Democrats actually favored Bernie Sanders over Biden slightly more than their more culturally liberal counterparts, according to Bartels.

Moreover, Bartels’s analysis is based on data collected in November 2017 — after the #MeToo movement entered its most public phase, but before the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh made the movement part of national politics in a new way. Things may have changed since then.

Bartels told Vox he would speculate that the continued #MeToo movement would cause Democrats to move away from the idea that women who complain about harassment cause problems, and that the allegations against Biden might come to hurt him.

There is evidence that the Kavanaugh hearings have changed Democrats’ attitudes on gender issues. The hearings made people think about power in America, according to an analysis by PerryUndem — who has it, who doesn’t, and what effects those power disparities have.

In the firm’s polling, 78 percent of registered Democrats said the hearings made them think about men having more power than women in government. Four in 10 Democratic men said they felt less tolerant of sexism in their own lives as a result of the hearings. Democratic men and women were more likely in 2018 than in 2016 to say that women make better political leaders than men. And in 2018, 83 percent of Democrats said the country would be better off with more women in office.

The poll did not ask about specific 2020 candidates, but it may have implications for them.

“Although Biden has the name recognition and leads in polls, I think he faces an uphill battle,” Tresa Undem, the PerryUndem co-founder, said.

Some say Biden can win back the white working class. What about other voters?

There’s also a question of who Biden’s candidacy is supposed to appeal to. He’s long been seen as someone who can win back the white working-class Americans who voted for Trump in 2016. But the notion that Trump won on the strength of white, working-class voters — and that Clinton lost by ignoring them — has been called into question since 2016, in large part because many polls show most Trump voters were affluent, not working class.

The 2018 midterm elections, meanwhile, drove home the electoral power of women voters of color. Ninety-two percent of black women voted for Democrats nationwide, compared with only 49 percent of white women. Black women in particular helped make the difference for Clinton in the 2016 primary as well as more recent congressional races, as Vox’s Li Zhou notes, and women and voters of color in general have been increasing their share of Democratic primary participation since 2008.

Biden’s poll numbers among women of color are mixed — he leads the field among black and Native American women, according to recent Morning Consult polling data provided to Vox, but comes in second behind Bernie Sanders among Asian American women and women who identified their race as “other.”

And according to Marcela Howell, president and CEO of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, Biden has built some credibility with female voters of color with his time as vice president and his role as the architect of the Violence Against Women Act. “He walks into this race with at least the benefit of the doubt from women of color,” Howell told Vox.

Howell does not see the allegations of inappropriate touching as an insurmountable problem for Biden. “Hugging is not sexual assault,” she said. Nor does she see Biden’s handling of the Thomas confirmation hearings as a major issue for black female voters, at least so far.

But, Howell cautioned, the Democratic field is still “wide open.” And in a recent poll conducted by Intersections of Our Lives, a collaborative of reproductive justice groups including In Our Own Voice, 88 percent of female voters of color said they wanted to see more women candidates running for office, and 85 percent said they wanted more candidates of color. The poll did not ask about specific 2020 candidates.

The media “seems to act as if this race is between all the white men,” Howell said. “I think they’re going to be in for a shock by the time you get to South Carolina and Super Tuesday.”

Seventy-eight percent of women of color in the Intersections of Our Lives poll said that politicians fail to acknowledge the issues that matter most to them.

Many of the women of color in the poll said their elected officials “don’t really understand them,” said Choimorrow of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, which was also part of Intersections of Our Lives.

The allegations against Biden, coupled with his comment that Obama was “articulate,” might make female voters of color feel he doesn’t understand their concerns, Choimorrow said.

“Those are the kinds of things that get people to say, my elected person doesn’t really know me,” Choimorrow said. “As a person of color, having a white person say to you, you’re so articulate — we know what that means.”

And as a voter, “I’m looking for someone who is authentic and really understands that our country is not what it was even 10, 15, 20 years ago,” Choimorrow said.

Joe Biden has always changed with the times, and perhaps his 2020 candidacy will see him evolve again. But to do it successfully, he may need to look forward, not back.

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