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Democratic Party activists are split on Biden accusations

“If you touch me, and I have not given you permission to touch me, that’s not a small thing.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden Addresses U.S. Conference Of Mayors Meeting
Former Vice President Joe Biden at an event on January 24, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

A debate over whether Joe Biden is a throwback in an acceptable way — or a disqualifying one — has erupted on the internet after two women said they were bothered by how he touched them at political events, a well-documented habit of the former vice president.

Now the same debate is playing out in real life. Liberal activists attending the “We the People” conference earlier this week, an event in Washington headlined by 2020 candidates, underscored the divides on the subject. Interviews with seven conference attendees seemed to hint at a generational split when it came to Biden’s conduct, a fault line that’s emerged in other #MeToo stories as well.

“I think a lot of actions that have been taken in the past have been brushed off,” said 31-year-old Ashleigh Strange, when asked about specific allegations former Nevada lawmaker Lucy Flores recently raised against Biden in an essay. “Us coming down real hard on people who are doing what are seemingly small infractions ... if you touch me, and I have not given you permission to touch me, that’s not a small thing. That’s not something we just brush off.”

Others downplayed his actions. “Some people are just touchy-feely. I get that with Joe Biden, perhaps,” said 71-year-old Lowell Faison. “I don’t see that as something that would be disparaging to a person’s character. I think a lot of this stuff is taken way too far.”

While activists didn’t see the complaints about Biden’s behavior as completely disqualifying for the Democratic nomination — a sentiment House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also expressed this week — those who said he wasn’t progressive enough on policy issues said it only added to their concerns. Most leaned toward calling on Biden to confront the subject directly to move forward, while a few felt like the accusations against him were being viewed too severely.

Though Biden has been caught on camera interacting inappropriately with women before, there is renewed attention on his actions, especially after Flores published a piece in New York magazine’s the Cut accusing him of touching her shoulders, smelling her hair, and kissing the back of her head during a campaign event. Former congressional staffer Amy Lappos relayed to the Hartford Courant that Biden had rubbed her nose with his nose at a fundraiser.

Biden responded to Flores’s account in a statement, saying he did not believe he had behaved “inappropriately,” but added that he’d be willing to “listen” to the experiences women were willing to share. Biden spokesperson Bill Russo went further, blaming “right wing trolls” for the focus on public images that show the former vice president touching women on the shoulders.

The Democratic Party is, once again, being forced to grapple with how it responds to inappropriate conduct toward women, which can get complicated when it involves one of their own. Some Democrats still feel Sen. Al Franken was unfairly called to resign over multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. And while Republicans have blatantly ignored the allegations faced by President Donald Trump, they show few compunctions about using accusations of sexual misconduct against Democrats.

Multiple activists argued that Biden needed to acknowledge how women felt instead of imposing his own interpretation of the events on their experiences

Strange was one of multiple women I spoke with who noted that Biden’s behavior, as described by Flores, was intrusive and uncomfortable. Several also said it was time to evaluate incidents like those tied to Biden as the serious matters that they are.

“If they’re going to legislate for me, if they’re going to legislate for my body, but they think that they own my body enough that they can just put their hands on it without asking, I’m not down with that,” Strange said. “Coming down hard on him right now is one of the ways that we’re going to get him to stop.”

Lindsay Messina, a 19-year-old college student who told Vox she was excited to be voting in her first election, said that she would be forced to weigh issues like this as she evaluated the Democratic candidates in the primary.

“You can’t just vote for someone because they are part of ‘X’ party. They’re not just supporting the party, they are presenting themselves in front of the entire world,” Messina said. “I supported the Obama administration, but just because I liked Obama and what they did together doesn’t mean I’m not going to take this into consideration.”

There’s been a stark age divide in the way members of the Democratic Party have responded to the complaints brought against Biden, according to a Politico report, with older Democrats more likely to treat his actions as an offshoot of his so-called “friendly” personality.

“I come from a different generation, people were really friendly and were not afraid to show it,” Democratic donor Susie Tompkins Buell, 76, told Politico. “He’s a hand-holder, he’s appreciative of people who’ve done good things. And if he appreciates you, he likes to show it. He’ll hold your hand, he’ll hug you. I hate to see that being chased off.”

Some, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), 69, have said they believed Flores’s account, however.

Younger Democrats at the conference also noted that Biden’s response left something to be desired. They argued that Biden was seemingly contradicting himself by saying he would “listen” while simultaneously noting that he disagreed with Flores’s interpretation of events.

“I was shocked because I have been conditioned to view Joe Biden as a ‘safe man,’ as someone I could trust, as someone who could be a champion for women,” said a 24-year-old woman named Rachel, who declined to give her last name. “We have to believe women and we have to truly understand where they’re coming from and that these allegations don’t come out of thin air.”

“If he does truly want to sit down and work through this, he’s going to have to sit down and talk with every woman that he’s made uncomfortable and how he can patch things up if she is even willing,” she said.

Strange added, “If he says, I ‘listen’ to women and he says ‘no it wasn’t a big [deal],’ you don’t get to decide that.”

But will something like the complaints against Biden prevent her from voting for him?

“It’s a factor, in that there are a lot of factors,” she said.

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