By the time former Vice President Joe Biden took the stage at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers conference on Friday, several women had spoken publicly about how his past behavior had made them uncomfortable.
Lucy Flores, a former Nevada assemblywoman, had been the first, recalling in an essay for the Cut how Biden had touched her shoulders, smelled her hair, and kissed the back of her head while she was working a campaign event in 2014. In the days that followed, seven more women recounted similar incidents that involved Biden touching them in a way they felt was inappropriate.
Three of Biden’s accusers came forward after he tweeted out a video, which acknowledged the ways “social norms” have changed and reset “boundaries of protecting personal space,” yet lacked an unequivocal apology. “Imagine all the time he could have saved by typing ‘I’m sorry. I will do better,’” Bitch Media cofounder Andi Zeisler wrote on Twitter of the two-minute video.
All of this was at play when Biden got up to deliver a speech at Friday’s IBEW conference, hugged IBEW President Lonnie Stephenson, took his place at the podium, and cracked a joke: “I had permission to hug Lonnie,” he told the crowd, which hooted with laughter and applauded.
As Biden approaches a potential announcement that he’s entering the 2020 presidential race—expected at the end of this month—a joke like this does little to relieve the feeling for some women that the former vice president isn’t fit for the job. The women who came forward with accounts of Biden’s behavior may not have termed it sexual harassment or assault, but nonetheless advocates for survivors say the incidents of unwanted touching, kissing, and grabbing call for a larger discussion about the full spectrum of bad male behavior.
Many of those same advocates once saw Biden as an ally, and were prepared to forgive him if he apologized and demonstrated an understanding of the nuances surrounding consent, interpersonal interaction, and physical touch that converge on the #MeToo movement. Instead, they saw Biden mocking the country’s reckoning with sexual misconduct and attempting to shut down any further reflection on the standards to which the public should hold those seeking political office. But advocates say it’s increasingly important to have these conversations in politics.
“I was really surprised to see him making light of these stories,” Ally Coll, one of the women who accused Biden of inappropriate touching, told Broadly. “There’s a responsibility on our leaders in this moment to try to understand the experiences of people who have been historically discriminated against, especially in the workplace. Joking about those experiences does not demonstrate that to me.”
So far, it appears Biden has suffered little for the allegations of inappropriate behavior and his joking attitude toward them. New Hill-HarrisX polling released on Monday showed Biden leading a crowded Democratic field with 28 percent support; Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the next leading candidate, trailed Biden by 8 percentage points.
A number of people have been vocal about their continued support for Biden, using stories of positive interactions with him as a means of exonerating the former vice president. Actress Alyssa Milano, who helped ignite the #MeToo movement in October 2017 with a viral tweet, called Biden a “warm, generous individual” who never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable. Atlantic contributor Eve Gerber argued it seemed “relevant that Biden is touchy-feely with everyone—not just women, but children and men, too.” Meanwhile, in news headlines, Biden’s unwanted physical contact has been described much the same: The Washington Post referred to his behavior as an “affectionate, physical style” of politicking, while the New York Times called it, simply, “tactile politics.”
In this rhetoric some advocates see a stubborn inability to talk about the full spectrum of inappropriate male behavior in light of a broader cultural shift that has only begun to take seriously its extremes.
“I think we’re still at the baseline understanding that sexual harassment and assault impacts women in their workplace and daily lives,” Sage Carson, who does advocacy work for victims of sexual assault, told Broadly. “Folks are being asked to do this extra step of understanding how certain behavior—even if it’s not criminal—can make people feel demeaned and infantilized.”
There have been other times, in other public spheres, that the #MeToo movement has been asked to accommodate male behavior that exists outside of, or contiguous with, accepted definitions of harassment and assault. A 2018 story about Aziz Ansari sparked similar discussion, as did a Jezebel investigation into a once-prominent reporter headlined: “The Next Step for #MeToo Is Into the Gray Areas.”
As hard as it’s been to have these conversations about media and celebrity, it’s been harder still to have them in relationship to politics.
At the height of the #MeToo movement, it became clear that the sexual harassment policies governing Congress itself lagged behind widely practiced workplace standards. And when allegations came out about two of the Democratic Party’s most respected lawmakers—former Michigan Representative John Conyers, the longest-serving congressman at the time, and former Minnesota Senator Al Franken, among the most beloved—some found it difficult to weigh their track records in Congress against their personal histories. Like Biden, Franken had been a vocal ally to women, pushing for legislation that aimed to improve their lives. After dozens of Democrats urged Franken to step down, some wondered whether they’d been too quick to act, and top donors continue to blame New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for leading calls for his resignation.
Some say the political stakes associated with defeating President Donald Trump in 2020 have made it even more difficult to talk about the gray areas of inappropriate behavior and misconduct when it comes to Biden. Many people still see the former vice president as the party’s best shot at regaining control of the White House, and have used that to foreclose larger discussions about the standards to which Americans should hold officials seeking office.
But “we shouldn’t be thinking about the accusations against Biden on a strategy level,” Nelini Stamp, the deputy director of the Working Families Party, told Broadly. “We should be thinking about them because we care about people.”
Still, Stamp says there is a way in which holding Biden accountable for his behavior can be a political strategy. If Democrats’ objective is to beat Trump, a man who has been accused of sexual assault by 19 women, it behooves the party to nominate a candidate who has a demonstrated understanding of gender and power. And though there are significant differences between the accusations against Biden and those against Trump, some argue the person most fit for the White House would understand that they fall along the same broad spectrum.
“It’s OK to make the separation between behavior that is and isn’t criminal,” Carson said. “But it’s important to recognize that the roots of those behaviors is still the same. It’s still about who holds power, how they assert it, and whom they have power over.”
As the 2020 presidential election gets closer, it’s possible there will be other times the public will be asked to metabolize the lessons of the last year and a half of the #MeToo movement and apply them at the ballot box. Stamp says it’s not too soon to apply those same lessons to the current landscape of Democratic contenders.
“It’s a crowded Democratic field,” Stamp said. “There are so many people who are putting out transformative policies, including multiple women who are running. I fundamentally believe we shouldn’t have a nominee who can’t acknowledge women’s pain and, worse, laughs at it.”