Obamas deputy refuses to admit wrongdoing, which puts him in the same company as Trump
Joe Biden doesnt do apologies. The former US vice-president and leading (but still not formally announced) candidate for president sympathises and empathises. He understands and reaches out. He shares. But he doesnt say hes sorry.
This has never been a big deal, given his famous agreeableness, his easygoing manner, and his much-touted common touch. For a guy who sometimes comes across more like an overgrown puppy than a potential commander-in-chief, it might even have seemed an asset to stand his ground and show a little spine. But over the last week, after eight women have accused Biden of inappropriate touching, aka handsiness, his no-apology stance has turned into a very big deal.
How big? Not one of his accusers has called his behaviour clasping their hands, grabbing their shoulders, touching his forehead to theirs sexual harassment. Everything has been done in full public view there are no reports of elevator ambushes or furtive gropes and pales in comparison to what 20 women have accused Donald Trump of doing.
But its big enough that after the initial accusation, made by Lucy Flores, a candidate for Nevada lieutenant governor back in 2014, who said that during a campaign rally Biden put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her hair, he made a statement that he didnt believe hed acted inappropriately but would listen respectfully to any such suggestion. Two days later, he released a low-key video in which he takes two minutes to say the same thing. Wearing a suit, an American flag lapel pin, but no tie, and sitting in a living room rather than an office, he looks into the camera and says that although shaking hands and hugging and grabbing people by the shoulder is just who I am, social norms have changed and in the future hell be mindful of other peoples personal space.
What he doesnt say is that hes aware and sorry that he made these women feel uncomfortable and powerless. He focuses instead on how he felt and what he meant to do.
The reaction has been swift, loud and all over the map. The sobriquet Creepy Joe raced across the internet, and feminist author Rebecca Traister blasted Biden as paternalistic, entitled and out of touch. Others noted that Flores is a former Bernie Sanders staffer and that whatever her intentions, telling the world about her experience now instead of five years ago has the appearance of giving a boost to her former boss. The Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol scolded Bidens critics for overreaching and out-of-context piling on.
But the larger and perhaps more lasting impact of whats happened is a renewed attention to other moments in Bidens long political career in which he stood on what now seems the wrong side of history.
The most famous examples are his chairmanship of a Senate committee that subjected Anita Hill to brutal questioning during confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas in 1991 and his vote to authorise the use of force in Iraq in 2002. But he also backed laws that curtailed school integration in the 1970s; banned the use of federal funds for abortions in the US and abroad in the 1980s; promoted tough-on-crime measures in the 1980s and 1990s that contributed to mass incarceration; protected credit card companies from having to tell customers the cumulative cost of partial monthly payments; repealed the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, which fostered conditions that led to the financial meltdown of 2008; and in 2005 made it more difficult for people to reduce debt by filing for personal bankruptcy.
With such a long rap sheet, it may be hard for voters to appreciate Bidens more positive contributions, which include his sponsorship of the Violence Against Women Act and his support for gay marriage and for an extension of the Voting Rights Act.
A good way for Biden to start making a more favourable impression would be to reconsider that no-apology thing. Its not impossible, as can be seen in Bernie Sanderss recent apology for a hostile environment toward women in his 2016 campaign. All Biden has to say is that hes sorry for making women uncomfortable. This is not a guilty plea or even a reversal of what hes previously said; rather, its an acknowledgment that regardless of what he meant to do, women ended up feeling badly and he regrets that he caused this to happen. There may be other women smarting from his unwanted attention and they would probably welcome these words.
Of course, an apology wont guarantee his nomination. But failing to make a mea culpa, much less trying to laugh the matter off as he did on Friday during a speech at a labour union convention in Washington DC, when he hugged the president and then assured the audience hed asked his permission, will only make the problem worse.
Moreover, it puts him in the company of other men who refuse to apologise, notably the president of the United States. For Trump to do anything except insist hes right and everyone else is wrong is a sign of weakness. Biden has already been given the soubriquet Creepy Joe. Its a bad crowd and being part of it will leave a legacy that Biden should not want to share.
Gwenda Blair is the author of The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a President