Nearly two years after the #MeToo movement burst the dam of centuries of silence about inappropriate male behavior, some Democrats still don’t know how to properly respond to allegations of male misconduct. Or, worse, some have learned the wrong lessons from the worst perpetrators such as Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh.
The responses to the essay by Lucy Flores about Joe Biden’s unwelcome massaging and kissing have put this problem in stark relief. (In full disclosure, I consider Lucy a friend, and I supported her runs for lieutenant governor in 2014 and Congress in 2016. I also have established Dream United, a Super PAC to support Senator Cory Booker’s bid for president.)
The conservative playbook for responding to women who stand up and speak out about inappropriate male behavior is clear: Attack the accuser, and never apologize. Trump used such an approach to get past the Access Hollywood tape, where he was caught bragging about committing sexual assault. Kavanaugh deployed the same approach in fighting for his seat on the Supreme Court.
In responding to Flores, Biden’s allies have deployed a kinder, gentler form of attack. Call it Kavanaugh-lite. They haven’t aggressively tried to destroy her reputation, but they have tried to indirectly and implicitly cast doubt on the allegations.
Kavanaugh’s team secured letters of testimonial from women who said they knew the judge and attested that he was a great guy who had never acted inappropriately around them. Similarly, in recent days, numerous prominent women such as former UN Ambassador Susan Rice, actress Alyssa Milano, South Carolina political strategist Amanda Loveday, and others have vouched for Biden’s bona fides.
All of those testimonials are besides the point. Neither Flores nor Amy Lappos, who came forward on Monday to say she too had had an inappropriate physical interaction with Biden, have ever said Biden is a bad human being. They said they had specific interactions where his behavior made them feel uncomfortable and, in Flores’s words, “gross.” The flurry of testimonials are actually attacks on the accusers—there is no reason to say “he didn’t do that to me,” other than to cast doubt on those who say he did it to them.
Other attacks have been more direct. Henry Muñoz, finance chair of the Democratic National Committee, issued a statement saying he’d been unable to find any corroborating photographs, leading him to conclude, “I, and the organization I cofounded and those in attendance, do not believe that circumstances support allegations that such an event took place.”
Cristobal Alex, former head of Latino Victory Project and current Biden staffer, went full-on Kavanaugh, in that he appeared more outraged by how Biden was being treated than by the underlying treatment of the woman. Alex indignantly said he “felt sucker-punched” by Flores, whom he accused of misrepresenting his statements to her.
At its most extreme, former DNC Chairman Ed Rendell sounded positively Trumpian in declaring (on Fox News, of course) that, “We have to draw a line on this #MeToo.… The vast majority of the American people are sick of this stuff. They know what’s real and what isn’t real. This isn’t real.” Further adding fuel to the fire, published reports cite anonymous Biden allies as dismissing the allegations as simply “all coming out of Bernie world.”
While his aides and surrogates do the dirty work, Biden released a gentle video on Wednesday expressing his intention to be “more mindful” of personal space in the future and offering several excuses for his handsy nature—because he doesn’t believe politics are “sterile,” and he likes to comfort people. Notably, what Biden’s video did not include was an apology to any of the women who found his conduct problematic.
Progressives are supposed to be better than this. They are supposed to embody and model the values of empowerment and equality and justice. The starting point for a progressive response is to trust the women speaking up about their experiences. In a country where an estimated 64 percent of sexual assaults are never reported, and only 5 percent of claims are found to be false, believing those who come forward should be the default position. The whole point of women baring their souls about their own experiences was to educate the society in general, and men in particular, about the pervasiveness of the problem. “Trust Survivors” and “I believe” are not just slogans; they’re markers laid down to differentiate progressives in a country where the default posture of most institutions is to not believe the women who speak up.
A progressive response to allegations of misconduct should also include accepting responsibility and atoning for one’s actions. Biden’s non-apology did not achieve that. Emphasizing one’s intent over one’s impact, intended or not, is by definition self-centered. As Nancy Pelosi said on Tuesday, “What’s important is how they receive it, not necessarily how you intended it.”
This controversy could have quickly been put to rest had Biden been less defensive and more empathetic. An apology would have shown that he sees and respects those who were made uncomfortable by his conduct. Unfortunately, properly apologizing is difficult for Biden, as he still hasn’t apologized to Anita Hill and could only muster an anemic statement of ‘I wish I could’ve done something” to protect Hill during the 1991 hearings that he controlled as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The lack of learning is troubling enough in and of itself, but it is particularly dangerous heading into a titanic battle to oust the misogynist in the White House. It’s not about whether Biden runs or doesn’t. It’s about how the movement and party manifest an understanding of how to build a better society than the one championed by the sexual assaulter in chief. So far, the results and actions are less than impressive. We can and must do better.