On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that progressive groups have been pressuring Joe Biden’s campaign for weeks to address the allegation that he sexually assaulted his former aide, Tara Reade, in 1993. In response, the Times wrote, Biden aides are “telling allies that they do not see the allegation resonating with voters in a measurable way.”
They’re probably right. It’s been more than two weeks since the Times published a long examination of Reade’s allegation (which the Biden camp has firmly denied). The article—which received a storm of criticism for the way it framed the alleged assault—contained corroboration of Reade’s story from two of her friends, along with strong denials from people like Biden’s former deputy chief of staff, Dennis Toner. (Toner not only called the allegation “preposterous” but denied ever knowing Reade at all, something that’s much more far-fetched than anything Reade has said.) In recent days, we’ve seen even more corroboration of Reade’s story. But the Biden camp’s basic response seems to be that it doesn’t matter because voters don’t seem to care.
It’s true that Biden’s polls against Trump are stronger than ever. This probably shouldn’t be too shocking—Trump is fumbling his way through the biggest global crisis in decades, and his very presence in the White House despite dozens of sexual misconduct allegations against him (ranging from harassment to rape, all of which he has forcefully denied) seems like depressing proof that being accused of assault isn’t necessarily electoral poison.
Turning a story about an alleged abuse of power by one of the most powerful men in the country into fodder for bullshit horserace coverage says a lot about the Biden campaign and the man himself, and nothing good. But this sleazy response also makes a brutal kind of sense. After all, much of the media has either leaned on the same horserace framing or covered the story in a way that suggests partisan politics prevails against basic morality.
Take, for instance, this original headline on a Washington Post story this week, and the not-much-better replacement it got.
I absolutely hate it when developments in allegations against me amplify efforts to question my behavior.
This, from Politico, just full-on frames the Reade story as one of political intrigue and how it could damage Biden’s (and the Democrats’) presidential ambitions:
Even worse are the liberal writers who are actively helping to downplay the allegation.
Joan Walsh, at The Nation, retroactively claimed that the #MeToo slogan “Believe women” never meant “Believe every woman, no matter how incredible or undocumented her claim.” Any claim from a staff assistant making $20,000 a year against a veteran United States senator might look “incredible” on its face. As it stands, it’s likely that a good deal of sexual assaults committed by powerful people are never made public for these reasons! If “incredible” and “undocumented” are now criteria to invalidate sexual assault claims, what was #MeToo even for?
Perhaps worst of all, though, was Kevin Drum, whose blog about this at Mother Jones was ultimately pulled for some unidentified reason (it was bad):
Yes, Reade’s crime here is that she’s been “vague” about the details of the alleged assault. As if the response from the party that purportedly cares about this shit — which has been to form a protective cocoon around its presumptive presidential nominee, paint Reade as a Putin-loving nutcase, and point to the outlets which first gave the allegations space as left-wing wreckers — doesn’t completely validate not being entirely willing to divulge all of the details of this horrible thing that happened to her.
I’d be willing to bet that most liberal writers defending Biden would have no problem believing Reade if these allegations were made against some other similarly long-serving Republican elected official. (Well, maybe not Drum, whose instinctual contrarianism pairs perfectly with his fetish for getting yelled at on the internet.) But it feels like the Biden defense from the likes of even Kirsten Gillibrand is the culmination of something horrible: That the lesson Democrats learned from examples like the resignation of Al Franken and Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court wasn’t that sexual misconduct shouldn’t be tolerated, but rather that it’s not worth getting frustrated about if the other side doesn’t care. (Or worse, that #MeToo just straight up went too far.)
There are undoubtedly political ramifications to Tara Reade’s story. It will come up, repeatedly, during the general election, no matter how well Biden’s campaign trains its surrogates to stay on message. But letting Reade’s story become one where the politics of those involved dictated the response before the allegations ever got a full public hearing is much worse than a strategic misstep. It’s a full-blown moral failure.