The biggest political story of the past month has been the public reckoning with former Vice President Joe Biden’s incessant handsiness. Numerous women have supplied the media with anecdotes of meeting Biden and experiencing what he describes as his “tactile” side, which includes such acts as sniffing women’s hair, grabbing them from behind, pulling them close to rub noses, and running his hand up their thighs after presentations about sexual assault. This behavior, which should be more than enough to sink a candidate in an overcrowded primary, has proven more controversial than it should be in our supposedly enlightened post-MeToo era. But even before Biden’s half-assed public apology (“social norms have begun to change”), op-ed columnists, Democratic political operatives, #Resistance grifters, and stalwart NeverTrumpers were more than willing to throw their reputations on the line to defend the former vice president’s habit of making nearly every woman he encounters deeply uncomfortable.
Trump’s attack on Biden will strengthen Biden amongst Dems.— Neera Tanden (@neeratanden) April 4, 2019
“Biden belongs in this fight. He represents important components of the coalition that will have to come together to defeat the president,” wrote E.J. Dionne, the Washington Post’s dullest Beltway centrist, even after acknowledging that Biden’s behavior is out of touch with a Democratic electorate more focused than ever on the sexual improprieties of male politicians. Karen Tumulty, the Post’s second-dullest Beltway centrist, blamed the Biden backlash on “the mob,” a common construction beneficiaries of the status quo use to recast their being out-of-touch as a principled stand against an unthinking populist horde. David Brooks of the New York Times, taking a break from the publicity tour for his new book about “the quest for a moral life,” tweeted that “When I started covering politics I was struck by how often politicians made physical contact with voters and journalists. It wasn’t about sex. It was about connection. Joe Biden, who emerged in that era, is one of the finest people I’ve ever covered.”
For those attacking Joe Biden for allegedly kissing the back of a woman’s head, just remember that our current president has been accused of sexual assault, misconduct or rape by 23 women.— Brian Krassenstein (@krassenstein) March 30, 2019
Of course, Biden would still be an awful choice for the 2020 Democratic nominee even if he respected women’s personal space. You probably know this already. His political record is pretty much abominable, a fact that was temporarily obscured by his attachment to the younger and more reliably liberal Obama and the fact that he looks cool in aviator sunglasses. He began his career as a staunch opponent of desegregation busing — which, according to Lee Atwater’s infamous quote about the Southern Strategy, is one step removed from simply shouting the N-word at white voters. He has been a longtime ally of credit-card companies and an opponent of pro-consumer legislation. He was and still is anti-abortion, holding the most-conservative stance one can have while remaining a Democrat of national prominence. He voted to authorize the Iraq War, which is, so far, the worst political decision of the 21st century. And most relevant now is his behavior at the 1991 confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas, who had been accused of sexual harassment by his former employee, Anita Hill. Biden, who was then chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, made a deal with Republicans not to allow further witnesses to Thomas’ behavior on the stand, all but ensuring that the least-competent Supreme Court justice of the modern era would have decades to strike down progressive legislation.
It’s not surprising, or even worrying, really, that the discredited D.C. political class embodied by David Brooks is standing behind their guy in spite of all this. He is the exact sort of milquetoast they want and need to maintain the status quo. What is worrying is that Biden has barely moved at all in polls of the general population since these allegations broke. The latest Morning Consult poll of Democratic primary voters has Biden at 32.1 percent this week, down from 35.4 percent in mid-March. This still puts him well above Bernie Sanders, his closest competitor with 23.4 percent. The other candidates, even the much-hyped Mayor Pete Buttigieg, remain in the single digits. And remember, Biden isn’t even officially running yet.
Why is the base so attached to a 76-year-old groper with the legislative record of a moderate Republican? The answer, in my estimation, is that Democrats have a unique attachment to charismatic figures from the party’s history, however much baggage they may carry. This began with John F. Kennedy, who is remembered as something closer to American royalty than a real politician with concrete accomplishments. This archetype has never fully gone away. The last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were gifted orators of the Kennedy mold who capitalized on Republicans shooting themselves in the foot, sailed to electoral victory, and immediately began compromising with their enemies. Neither president played to his base when it came time to make policy, a sin that carries much less weight with the infinitely patient Democratic electorate than with Republicans. And for this, neither man faced significant backlash. Clinton in particular has such an appalling record — both in his personal life and in the anti-poor, anti-black and anti-gay legislation he signed as president — that he should not be allowed within 100 miles of a Democratic candidate for fear that his sleaze might rub off on them. Instead, Democrats wasted an easy election in 2016 trying to return him and his wretched family to the Oval Office.
Republicans, on the other hand, will drop past candidates, vice presidents, and even ex-Presidents of their own party in a heartbeat if they fail to keep up with what the base wants. We saw this play out with George H.W. Bush, who sparred semi-publicly with Trump prior to his death; George W. Bush, whose policies were skewered by Trump during the debates; Mitt Romney, who was humiliated in Trump Tower during the pre-inauguration transition; and particularly with John McCain. Shitting on McCain is now one of Trump’s favorite methods of garnering applause at his rallies, to the infinite horror of the Beltway media class the late Arizona senator spent his life courting. It is safe to assume that the middle-aged and elderly Trump boosters who comprise his crowds were not all first-time voters in 2016. They likely voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, McCain in 2008, and Romney in 2012. But they have since recognized that those candidates did not provide them with what they wanted, which was full-blown white nationalism, vague gestures toward economic protectionism, and nostalgia for a booming mid-century economy they have only heard about secondhand.
Democrats would be well-advised to adopt the new Republican ethos but in reverse — politically toxic Democrats from past election cycles should be cast aside without a second thought, no matter how charismatic they may be or how nostalgic older members of the electorate may be for a misremembered golden age before Donald Trump. But even then, the risk remains of the establishment elevating new candidates cut from the same cloth as Clinton, Obama and Biden — that is, big talkers with fundamentally conservative instincts — to prominence. The recent liberal media obsession with Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg, neither of whom offers much more than good looks and applause lines, indicates that the tendency of Democrats to privilege empty suits with qualities that appease the Ivy League set over policy-minded candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders continues. Even if we ever rid ourselves of the original Joe Biden, which seems increasingly unlikely now, the factory that created him will continue to create more. The base, unless something changes, will continue to devour it.