The Democrats’ Joe Biden Problem

Donald Trump will be shameless in exploiting the “Creepy Joe” accusations. Never mind the hypocrisy.
April 24, 2019
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This is fine (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Joe Biden is expected to announce his candidacy for the presidency later this week. His supporters see him as a likable centrist who’s capable of defeating Donald Trump in 2020, while many who oppose him say he’s too old, white, and male a relic of an outmoded Democratic establishment that’s rapidly losing its appeal to voters. At a time when the Democratic Party is increasingly captured by identity politics, one of the most important questions is how Trump will use accusations of sexual impropriety against him.

A recent article in the New York Times describes Biden as an “old-school backslapper” who has a “tendency to lavish his affections on women and girls.” Of course, in addition to backslapping, Biden has done a lot of thigh touching, back rubbing, and head kissing in his political career (according to several women who recently made public statements about his conduct)–behavior that, as the Times observes, is “no longer a laughing matter in the era of #MeToo.”

But compared to a president who calls women “dogs” and boasts about grabbing them “by the pussy” without consent, Biden isn’t so bad, right?

If Trump was a normal politician, that argument would make sense. But the last several years have taught us that he isn’t. No matter how screamingly obvious his transgressions are, he will never be held to the same standards as past presidents or his current political opponents. Trump can still make full use of the allegations against Biden because there’s no expectation of consistency or decency that he has to worry about.

Sure enough, as the Times reports, Trump recently “went after Mr. Biden at a fund-raiser in Washington … Cracking a joke about asking for a kiss, Mr. Trump said, ‘I felt like Joe Biden.’” After Biden posted a video in which he promises to be “more mindful and respectful of people’s personal space,” Trump tweeted a strange edited version that shows a cut-and-paste duplicate of Biden creeping up from behind, grabbing the real Biden’s shoulders, and apparently smelling his hair. The pro-Trump Great America PAC is already planning to release a “Creepy Joe” ad if he decides to run.

Cue the usual flurry of incredulous outrage at Trump’s arrogance and opportunism. A recent Vanity Fair headline decries his “shameless hypocrisy.” Al Sharpton made the same point on MSNBC, mocking Trump for describing himself as “a very good messenger to women voters, that pesky Access Hollywood tape be damned.” Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign manager (and former Biden adviser), Patti Solis Doyle, argues that Trump is making a mistake by calling out Biden when his record is so much uglier: “Hypocrisy doesn’t even begin to explain this tweet. He’s going to lose on women voters. Doing this is only making it worse.”

But Trump knows Biden has much more to lose in a debate about sexual impropriety, and he couldn’t care less about being labeled hypocritical or dishonest. Let us remember that he invited Bill Clinton’s accusers Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick and Paula Jones to be in the audience of one of his debates with Hillary Clinton in October 2016. Just days after the Access Hollywood video emerged, Trump announced onstage that there has “never been anyone in the history of politics, in this nation, that’s been so abusive to women. Bill Clinton was abusive to women.” Democrats should no longer be surprised by how much Trump can get away with, nor should they expect to be treated fairly. They can’t assume that Trump’s terrible record speaks for itself – what’s obvious to them isn’t obvious to millions of other Americans.

The ability to make awful behavior look benign (and vice versa) is one of Trump’s greatest advantages. In 2016, he got huge crowds to chant “lock her up” over Clinton’s improper use of a private email server–crowds that were evidently indifferent to the fact that he publicly asked a hostile foreign power to hack his political opponent. He recently claimed to be a defender of free speech and all forms of political expression a month after calling for Saturday Night Live to be investigated for expressing the wrong political opinions. Trump has relentlessly conditioned his base to view his defiance of ethical and political norms with indifference – even approbation. This is what he was boasting about when he said he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing supporters.

Democrats don’t have the luxury of such an immovable base of support. Trump has had years to desensitize voters and acclimate them to his brand of politics, and he has a massive platform to continue doing so every day until November 3, 2020. This is why Democrats have to be extremely careful about how and who they run against him.

Which brings us back to Biden. If there was any question about the moral and political chasm between the parties on the issue of sexual harassment and assault, it was dispelled in late 2017 when Democratic senators almost unanimously called for the resignation of Al Franken after he was accused of kissing and groping several women without their consent. At the same time, Trump was campaigning for Roy Moore, who had been plausibly accused of sexually assaulting teenagers. You don’t have to be a defender of Franken to see that his party subjected him to far more scrutiny for a far lesser offense.

There are conspicuous similarities between the allegations against Biden and Franken, and this should be disturbing for Democrats. Nominating Biden could have doubly negative consequences: It would allow Trump to counter one of the Democrats’ best lines of attack against him, letting him push the “Creepy Joe” narrative. And it could simultaneously deflate enthusiasm among Democratic voters, particularly those who are sensitive to identity politics.

The Trump campaign knew exactly how to exploit the lack of enthusiasm for Clinton in 2016. A few weeks before the election, a senior campaign official told Bloomberg BusinessWeek that the campaign had “three major voter suppression operations under way.” For example, by emphasizing the WikiLeaks disclosures and Clinton’s vacillation on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the campaign wanted to convince Sanders supporters to stay home on Election Day. Trump’s digital team also ran targeted ads on Facebook that were designed to discourage black voters, such as a video that presents Clinton’s infamous “super predators” comment as some kind of racist slip (it wasn’t). And of course, there were ads that focused on Bill Clinton’s accusers to make his wife less attractive to female voters.

Brad Parscale led the campaign’s digital operation in 2016, and he’s now Trump’s campaign manager. This is why Democrats should be prepared for another attempt to depress voter turnout, which will highlight issues like the allegations against Biden.

In three of the states that flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016–Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin–the election was decided by less than a percentage point (in Michigan, Clinton came within 10,704 votes of Trump, or just 0.3 points). One of the reasons for Clinton’s poor performance in these states was reduced turnout among traditional Democratic constituencies–a nationwide phenomenon. For example, turnout among black voters collapsed from 66 percent in 2012 to 59 percent in 2016. While we can’t know exactly what accounts for this drop in turnout–Obama’s unique appeal was certainly a factor, particularly to black voters–what happened to Clinton in 2016 should be a reminder to Democrats that a lack of voter enthusiasm can easily lose an election.

According to a recent Morning Consult poll, Biden holds a commanding lead among Democratic primary voters – including women. However, we don’t know what long-term effects the allegations against him will have, nor do we know if more accusers will emerge. Morning Consult found that the number of Democratic primary voters who have a “very favorable” opinion of Biden fell from 46 percent in early February to 35 percent in early April.

Biden might be facing enthusiasm problems for other reasons, too. After 2016, many Democrats became convinced that it’s time for a progressive revitalization of the party, which is why figures like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have become so popular. The primary battle between Clinton and Sanders fractured the party in 2016, and if anything, we should expect an even starker division between progressives and moderates in 2020. While Sanders and Warren both trail Biden in the polls, their combined proportion of support is just two points behind him.

If Biden wins the primary, he’ll have to convince millions of disillusioned progressives that defeating Trump outweighs the importance of sending a message to their own party. Meanwhile, Trump will be reminding them that “Creepy Joe” has also been accused of sexual misconduct. It’s true that this will be an opportunistic smear coming from a man who’s notorious for his unrestrained misogyny, infidelity, and all-around creepiness, but that doesn’t matter. All Trump has to do is convince a small subset of Democratic voters that Biden doesn’t deserve their vote, and he’ll get four more years in the Oval Office.

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson has written for Stanford Social Innovation Review, Quillette, Editor & Publisher, Areo Magazine, Arc Digital, Forbes, Splice Today, and The Kansas City Star. He was formerly the opinion page editor at The Topeka Capital-Journal.