The rollout of Joe Biden’s third presidential campaign went about as well as he could have hoped. Despite his lackluster performances in the campaign debut video and some of his first speeches since declaring his candidacy, Biden raised impressive amounts of money and saw his already strong poll numbers go up once he entered the ranks of the already swollen Democratic presidential field.
With the current RealClearPolitics average of polls showing him with a 39 to 15.5 percent lead over Bernie Sanders and with the rest of the field only in single digits, Biden deserves the title of early Democratic frontrunner. Unfortunately for him, Biden has a problem named Anita Hill.
Biden carries an enormous amount of political baggage after almost a half-century in Washington politics. His opposition to forced busing for desegregation in the 1970s is heresy in today’s intersectional Democratic Party, where identity politics is the coin of the realm. His championing of the 1994 crime bill that is credited with massively increasing the number of African-Americans who have been incarcerated is just as much of a problem for the same reason.
But unlike those issues, Biden’s Anita Hill problem is embodied in a person rather than a talking point. Since, as Hill recently told The New York Times, she has not been mollified by his recent expression of “regret” (but not an apology) for his conduct toward her in 1991 when he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, that could create the kind of obstacle that might be enough to outweigh electability in the eyes of a critical mass of Democratic primary voters.
The Biden lead is built on three elements. One is his near-universal name recognition after eight years as vice president and 36 years in the Senate. The other is his reputation as President Barack Obama’s loyal foot soldier, a real asset in a party where the 44th president is still political royalty. Last and perhaps most important is the belief that he is the most electable Democrat running, something members of the anti-Trump “resistance” value perhaps even more than ideology.
Can Biden Beat Trump?
To Democrats, including many who count themselves as staunch liberals, beating Trump and making the bad dream of 2016 finally go away is all they care about.
Seen in the light of their desperate desire to oust Trump, nominating a woman, a minority, or a gay man who better represents the beliefs of the party base doesn’t seem so important. If Biden can manage to spend the next year campaigning in a manner that will give Democrats the impression that he can stand up to Trump and avoid sounding like the “crazy old Joe” stereotype that the president will pound away at (such as his recent statement in which he said “Margaret Thatcher” rather than “Theresa May” when referring to the current British prime minister), then he might coast to the nomination despite the competition.
Many Democratic voters came of age long after the epic and divisive battles over busing and aren’t likely to judge Biden too harshly because of what he said during the Nixon, Ford, or Carter administrations. The same is largely true for the crime bill that was passed a quarter-century ago.
Those issues also have less power because Biden is not running as a moderate Democrat but as one who is very interested in portraying himself as just as much of a supporter of radical causes like the Green New Deal and a vast expansion of federal entitlements. Although it dates back to events that took place nearly 28 years ago, his Anita Hill problem poses a much greater danger to his prospects.
When Me Too and Anita Hill Join Forces
That is partly due to the enormous importance of the Me Too movement that began to dominate conversations about sexual harassment and assault in late 2017. It was lost on no one that the confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh last fall was something of a rerun of the circus surrounding the Thomas hearings Biden presided over. The treatment of Hill must now be viewed as a contemporary concern rather than one rooted primarily in history, as is the case with Biden’s other past stands.
Hill also looms as a threat to his candidacy because Biden is too afraid of the left to defend himself. Although the notion of his cruelty to Hill is now part of the liberal catechism, the truth is that Biden doesn’t owe her any regrets, let alone an apology.
Biden didn’t merely vote against Thomas. The justice and his defenders rightly held Biden responsible for the circus atmosphere in which Democrats brought forward a last-minute accusation to derail his confirmation.
Thomas was looking directly at Biden when he famously said that he was being subjected to “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks” in which unsubstantiated “sleaze” was being publicly hurled at him. Thomas’s impassioned defense of his character and reputation convinced the majority of Americans at the time, and that convinced the Senate to narrowly confirm him.
But over time, as Thomas maintained a dignified silence about his ordeal, his detractors in popular culture and the media seized control of the narrative. In that retelling, the judge’s guilt was assumed. That’s how Hill acquired the reputation as a secular saint who had been sacrificed by men like Biden on the altar of male privilege.
Although the collective memory of the hearings is now one in which Hill was scorned and disbelieved, the senators did not treat Hill discourteously. They did question her closely about her charges; they asked for details. They probed for inconsistencies and asked reasonable questions about her dealings with Thomas and how and why she had stepped forward to accuse him.
That was enough to raise doubts about her testimony in the minds of the public as well as the admittedly, all-male committee. Moreover, as the late senator Arlen Specter (who was Hill’s most persistent questioner on the committee) noted later in his memoirs, Biden admitted to him that he believed Hill was lying.
Is Biden to Blame for Hill’s Poor Showing?
The idea that Biden should have conducted the hearings differently only makes sense if those accused of sexual misconduct must be assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. Biden’s committee didn’t prevent Hill from making explicit and detailed accusations about what she said Thomas had said and done. And the accusation that he denied her right to bring in corroborating witnesses is another myth that collapses upon closer examination. But in the Me Too era, asking an accuser to substantiate or corroborate her allegations is considered to be a form of unconscionable abuse.
That’s why, when Christine Blasey Ford stepped forward to accuse Kavanaugh of teenage misbehavior that could neither be conclusively proved nor disproved, none of the Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee dared pose a single question to her. Even their designated counsel refrained from doing anything more than gently asking about details with nary a question about any inconsistencies or discrepancies in her story.
The reckoning for a culture in which sexual harassment and even assault was not treated as serious crimes was long overdue when the Me Too movement emerged. But the idea that those who make such accusations should not be challenged or that the accused has no right to defend themselves against what they allege to be false charges are parodies of American justice.
The problem for Biden is not just the way the public now views the Thomas hearings, but also the fact that Hill seems to be still burning with resentment at him. Hill is a living, breathing symbol of Me Too who could, if she chooses, act as a personal scourge of Biden that could be greatly destructive of his presidential hopes.
Should Hill be willing to keep speaking out about Biden’s alleged offenses, it will be a far more telling blow than any references to the Thomas hearings, either direct or oblique, from the other Democratic challengers. As her New York Times interview indicated, Hill intends to judge Biden’s performance in the upcoming campaign. That leaves open the possibility that she may choose to personally intervene to make further demands upon Biden, to claim that his responses are unsatisfactory or to give a boost to one of his competitors that could demolish his lead.
In a very real sense, Anita Hill holds Biden’s presidential future in her hands.