When it comes to #MeToo sexual misconduct issues, former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party's presumptive 2020 presidential nominee, has made it no secret where he stands: automatically believe women.
"For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you've got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she's talking about is real," said Biden during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who faced accusations that as a teenager he had assaulted a woman at a party.
As vice president, Biden played an important role in the Obama administration's efforts to compel colleges and universities to take sexual violence more seriously—and to adopt policies that limited the due process rights and presumption of innocence for the accused. In recent years, his rhetoric on these issues has been in lockstep with #MeToo activists.
Despite his public pronunciations on the subject of never touching women without their explicit verbal consent, Biden has previously faced accusations that he was too handsy with people. But now the former vice president is facing a much more serious accusation of sexual assault, from an alleged former staffer named Tara Reade.
It remains to be seen whether the mainstream media will assign Reade's story as much credibility and importance as that of Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Kavanaugh; they certainly have not done so yet. In any case, supporters of Biden—as well as the candidate himself—should take this opportunity to reflect on whether automatic belief is a useful or practical approach for handling decades' old claims of misconduct.
Reade describes herself as a "California-based victim rights advocate and activist" in her interview with the journalist Katie Halper, who has helped bring this accusation to light. Reade says she worked for Biden in the early 1990s and asserts that she was unambiguously assaulted by him in 1993. According to Reade, he began kissing her without her permission, pushed her against a wall, reached under her skirt, and penetrated her with his fingers.
"He said 'come on man, I heard you liked me,'" Reade recalled to Halper in the interview. "For me, it was like, everything shattered. I looked up to him, he was like my father's age, he was this champion of women's rights, in my eyes. I couldn't believe it was happening. It was surreal."
Reade had already complained to her bosses about sexual harassment in Biden's office—she said a supervisor had once asked her to serve drinks at an event because she had attractive legs—but had shared the more serious accusation against Biden with a few close confidants. She said she once tried to talk to a supervisor about what had happened, but this person shut her down before she could tell the whole story. She also said she filled out an official form detailing her assault, but does not know what became of it.
A year ago, Reade—who supported the campaigns of Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.)—attempted to come forward with stories of sexual harassment in Biden's offices. As detailed in an Intercept piece, she reached out to Time's Up, a project of the National Women's Law Center that provides support to alleged #MeToo victims. Time's Up declined to assist Reade; the organization's official excuse was that a feud with a national political candidate could jeopardize their status as a 501(c)(3) non-partisan group. But as The Intercept also notes:
The public relations firm that works on behalf of the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund is SKDKnickerbocker, whose managing director, Anita Dunn, is the top adviser to Biden's presidential campaign. A spokesperson for Biden declined to comment. The SKDK spokesperson assigned to Time's Up referred questions back to the NWLC.
The mainstream media has given Reade little attention. She was interviewed on Hill.TV by Krystall Ball and Saagar Enjeti (whose populist impulses often put them at odds with the establishments of both parties), but The New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN have all declined to cover the story thus far.
The anti-Biden left, however, has seized the opportunity. #IBelieveTaraReade was trending on Twitter on Thursday. Nathan Robinson, editor of the leftist publication Current Affairs, has criticized MSNBC and CNN for failing to cover the story.
It's a really shocking interview and I'm not sure how people can support Biden after hearing it. https://t.co/BkzjVG9gq3
— Nathan J Robinson (@NathanJRobinson) March 26, 2020
Sanders supporters, of course, have every incentive to weaponize this last-minute accusation against Biden in an attempt to deny him the nomination. And Biden fans have every reason to roll their eyes at these attempts; they can write off Reade as someone who, at the very least, waited too long to tell her story, and was a supporter of rival campaigns.
Both sides have a point. Barring the emergence of some really credible documentation, it's going to be nearly impossible to informally adjudicate—formal adjudication being absolutely impossible—the accusation. Too much time has passed.
On the other hand, the very recent precedent set by the mainstream media and mainstream liberals during the Kavanaugh episode is that all accusations should be revisited, no matter how old. Indeed, one could make a better argument for considering Reade's accusation than Blasey Ford's: the latter concerns behavior that occurred during the accused person's teenage years in the early 1980s, whereas Biden allegedly committed his transgression while a sitting U.S. senator. And again, Biden himself has taken the position that we should believe women even if it takes them a very, very long time to come forward.
It seems unlikely the Reade accusation can sink Biden's candidacy, but whether Democratic primary voters and the mainstream media are willing to air it out as they did Kavanaugh's will tell us a lot about what "believe all women" actually means.