Joe Biden was already talking about the past. “April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month,” the former vice president and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee wrote on Friday, May 1. That was how he opened his first direct public statement about his former staffer Tara Reade’s claim that he had sexually assaulted her in 1993. It took him nearly 400 words to get to the allegation itself, and to deny that it ever happened—nearly 400 words in which he framed himself as an ally, as a crusader even, for women, based on his work on the Violence Against Women Act as a senator, on the “It’s On Us” campaign as vice president, and on his diligence, apparently, each April, to think about victims of sexual assault.
He went on Morning Joe that same day, to have a conversation with Mika Brzezinski where he offered his first spoken remarks on the now-month-old allegation. Brzezinski started with the obvious question—did this happen? Biden denied it unequivocally. His most repeated phrase during the interview was “it never happened,” but they also spent a good amount of time talking about access to files that seem extraordinarily unlikely to prove anything about whether Joe Biden put his fingers up Tara Reade’s skirt and penetrated her in a Senate hallway in 1993.
This, apparently, was enough for leaders of the Democratic Party. Elizabeth Warren, who is widely thought to be under consideration for the VP spot and who spent the most memorable parts of her own campaign for president knocking down men accused of sexual harassment, found Biden’s words “credible and convincing.” Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan and another possible VP, similarly spoke in favor of Biden following his rebuttal, saying that “not every claim is equal.” Tom Perez, the head of the Democratic National Committee, said that Biden has been “very clear that this did not happen.” Perez called Biden’s rebuttal “forceful” while also noting that the former vice president managed to be clear that women’s complaints of this nature ought to be taken seriously.
Perez is right that Biden was forceful in refuting the allegations. But there’s a difference between forceful and convincing. When it comes to the nominee for president, you want someone who can go beyond saying “I didn’t do this” multiple times, to face the most unfavorable of the evidence and give a believable account of what it means. Ideally, you might even want someone who could speak cogently and intelligently about the complications and difficulties of where we currently are in #MeToo, even someone who could provide a path forward for where we ought to go next.
That, obviously, is not Joe Biden. It’s worthwhile to dig into the talking points he was using to form the argument for his innocence, because it shows just how far Joe Biden is from being that person.
The bulk of his argument is a matter of misdirection, or category error: Joe Biden couldn’t have done this, because he is an advocate of women. The proof is found in how he’s behaved in public during a particular stretch of time, whose dates were established by Joe Biden. He started doing this kind of pro-women work “over 25 years ago,” the statement notes repeatedly—an oddly chosen time frame for a 77-year-old whose political career began nearly 50 years ago. But starting in 1994, when the Violence Against Women Act was passed, is much easier for Biden than starting in, say, 1991, when he bungled the Anita Hill hearings.
And, more relevantly, the 25-year window does not reach back to 1993, when Biden’s then-interns recall Tara Reade being abruptly removed from her duties as their supervisor, and when Reade’s mother phoned in to Larry King Live to say her daughter had been mistreated by a prominent senator. People may have strong reasons to want to believe Biden’s flat declaration that “it didn’t happen,” but if Biden didn’t reach his fingers up her skirt, what did happen then?
This nonengagement is what feels patently bizarre about Biden’s response: It creates the sense that he is about 10 feet away from everything that is actually happening. My colleague Lili Loofbourow has been writing about this peculiar quality of Biden’s, the way in which he just kind of seems above it all, by virtue of not really being all there, maybe, or possibly because his entire political project is aimed at reassuring us that there is some good version of America that it is possible to go back to. It becomes extraordinarily depressing, in this context, that Biden cannot seem to muster a response to these allegations that feels connected, at all, to the record of 1993 or to a path forward in 2020. He seems squarely focused on his history in between those dates—not on what there is still to do on creating a better world when it comes to sexual harassment or assault, or on how he has possibly failed us in the past in this regard, and what his reckoning with it has meant to him.
Perhaps this should not surprise us. This is a man who, earlier in this presidential campaign, was accused of touching women in ways that made them feel uncomfortable, made them even question their own political careers. In response, he delivered a nonapology and later joked about it. This is a man who called Anita Hill to apologize to her only when it would matter to his career, and then didn’t even manage to make the apology, according to Hill. There is no real reason to think he’d be more up to the challenge now, even though the stakes are much higher.
His response simply reinforces that Biden is exactly who you thought he was—a man who has run for president and failed multiple times, yet couldn’t help but try to seize this current moment when the party is looking, above all, for the embodiment of a standard Democrat. A man who cares about diversity just enough to insist that his vice presidential running mate will be a woman, and that he will name a black woman to the Supreme Court should he get to name anyone, but who will not step aside to let anyone else have the chance to fill the top job. It’s his turn.
The frustrating thing about propping up legislation like the Violence Against Women Act as proof that one couldn’t have mistreated individual women is that we’ve seen this story go extremely poorly before. Remember Eric Schneiderman? How one treats women in the collective or the abstract doesn’t have much bearing on how one treats women personally—and even, how one treats some women personally doesn’t have much bearing on how one treats some other women. Brett Kavanaugh coaching a girls’ basketball team and having women serve as his law clerks doesn’t materially matter to the question of whether he assaulted Christine Blasey Ford. Joe Biden writing the Violence Against Women Act similarly has no bearing on whether he assaulted Tara Reade.
These arguments have no relationship to the claims they are meant to disprove—claims that are notoriously resistant to proof either way. We are stuck, once again, in a battle between what he said and what she said (never mind that she has reliable corroborating witnesses and he continues to prop up witnesses who weren’t there). We are now engaged in a hunt for documents that will not confirm whether Joe Biden put his fingers inside of Tara Reade. They might confirm that Tara Reade filed a complaint of sexual harassment against Joe Biden. Somehow the outcome of finding even that seems like it will make her less credible rather than more—if she was complaining about harassment, why didn’t she complain about the assault, we will ask. In America, victims need to present perfectly coherent story lines, complaining in the right ways and at the right times. Any understanding of why this might be difficult still seems lost on us.
There is simply no good way to vet this claim. A presidential candidate is voted on by the people, not confirmed by a body of senators with the powers to compel testimony on matters of fact. Still, the Democratic National Committee could convene to figure out some way to investigate this allegation—as the New York Times’ editorial board suggested they do, an indication that even the paper of record recognizes that journalism faces severe limitations when asked to serve as an investigative body in this sense. It seems unlikely this will happen, though. Nancy Pelosi thinks the case is closed, and no one else seems to be taking charge, save one heartfelt statement from Rep. Ayanna Pressley. Kirsten Gillibrand has decided to sit this one out, because she trusts Joe Biden.
It is only May. There is time to figure this out, were there any will to do so. But there is not, not by most of the Democratic leadership, and certainly not by Biden, who could do the right thing and step out of the race—not even because this absolutely happened, but because it is extraordinarily complicated and not everyone gets to run for president. But there is no way Joe Biden will do that. He was already willing to run for president in a very less-than-ideal state. He has surrounded himself with a team that is willing to enable him to do so. One in 4 Democrats may see this as a reason to replace him instead of letting him lead the top of the ticket, but the majority of voters don’t want to. The imperative for Democrats has long been beating Trump, and somehow they’ve decided Joe Biden is the guy to do it.
Something that was frequently said in the aftermath of the Kavanaugh hearings was that regardless of whether Brett Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Blasey Ford when they were in high school, the performance of rage he gave ought to have disqualified him for the role of Supreme Court justice. Joe Biden did not demonstrate rage when it was his turn. What he demonstrated was something much more benign, something that has allowed his party to continue to line up behind him. What he has demonstrated is incompetence. He cannot speak cogently or convincingly about a very important issue, an issue that is extremely relevant to his past and critical to our country’s future. That should worry his party, not reassure them.
For more on the allegation against Biden, listen to What Next.
May 6, 2020: This story has been updated to clarify that Brett Kavanaugh coached girls’ basketball, not women’s basketball.
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