Joe Biden has had a bad couple of weeks, to put it mildly.
In the middle of March, political pundits believed that the former vice president was on the cusp of announcing his bid for the presidency – especially after he accidentally described himself as one of the candidates, sparking a huge cheer which prompted him to correct himself.
Rumours also swirled that Biden was seeking to persuade Stacey Abrams – the Georgian 2018 gubernatorial candidate and rising Democratic star – to join his run as vice-presidential candidate, a move which might temper criticism that Biden does not exactly fit the profile of diversity that many Democrats are looking for in an opponent to the white-nationalist gerontocracy that is the Trump regime.
However, a week later, public perception had begun to change.
First came another wave of scrutiny over Biden’s role in the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings, when Anita Hill – who has accused Thomas of sexual harassment when she worked with him – was treated disgracefully by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Biden chaired at the time.
Biden’s apology on March 26th made it sound like he was powerless to prevent Hill’s humiliation in front of the committee; critics soon pointed out that he had allowed Thomas to both preempt and respond to Hill’s testimony, effectively saying that his version of events was more legitimate.
Two days later, Stacey Abrams publicly dismissed the idea that she and Biden were in talks to run as a joint ticket. “I think you don’t run for second place,” she said on The View, “if I’m going to enter a primary, then I’m going to enter a primary.” Biden was subsequently accused of using Abrams as a political token.
Worse was to come.
The very next day a former candidate for lieutenant governor of Nevada, Lucy Flores, wrote an article about how Biden’s behavior at a 2014 campaign event made her feel deeply uncomfortable.
Biden’s apology for this only hurt him more; in claiming that he had not intended to act inappropriately, he only showed that he didn’t understand the crux of Flores’ complaint. Flores noted that that she didn’t suspect Biden’s intentions, but that his behavior itself was the problem.
Flores’ article opened the floodgates for years of Biden’s behavior around women to come under scrutiny. The Vice President has often been criticized (or simply laughed at) for being a little too comfortable with women – one video that has resurfaced is of Biden whispering into Stephanie Carter’s ear during her husband’s swearing-in as Secretary of Defense (Carter has publicly defended Biden, saying that the video represented, “a moment between close friends”).
On April 1st, a second woman, Amy Lappos, made allegations similar to Flores’.
Amidst the backdrop of this reexamination of Biden, many of his rivals are making huge strides in changing gender-relations in the culture of politics.
Mother Jones investigated the internal harassment policies of several 2020 presidential campaigns and found that big changes are afoot.
Gone are the days of the Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton campaigns, whose harassment training consisted only of basic “box-checking” exercises.
Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign has conducted a survey of its employees to gauge how they feel about their work environment. The campaign has also made it compulsory for employees to read the campaign’s guidelines and have mandatory harassment training for managers.
Cory Booker has implemented an “open-door” policy for employees to easily meet their manager’s boss to report misconduct. His campaign is also working on an employee handbook for dealing with these issues.
Kamala Harris’ campaign has instituted mandatory training, and introduced multiple reporting mechanisms to ensure that victimized employees do not feel discouraged by the process.
Bernie Sanders – whose campaign has already been rocked by complaints that his 2016 campaign mishandled harassment claims – has already made history for the unionization of his campaign workers.
In his campaign, harassment claims will be dealt with by both the campaign’s human resources department and union representatives; this means that victims will have investigators who work directly for them, rather than having the interests of the campaign at heart. Sanders has also arranged for the setup of a third-party complaint hotline for his employees.
These changes are especially important considering the inherent risks that come with political campaigning.
The essential business of a political campaign is to recruit motivated young people and scatter them across the country – in the process exposing them unsupervised to influential and powerful people, from local politicians to hardened political campaigners, in close quarters. Successful campaigns expand from a tiny team to a billion-dollar, fifty-state enterprise within a year, a situation which no team could possibly hope to manage effectively. It’s a recipe for all manner of abuse.
In recent years a number of organizations have sprung up to help politicians deal with the issue of harassment.
Groups like UltraViolet, Bright Compass and Works in Progress have received a boost from the emergence of the #MeToo movement.
These groups have not only consulted with Democratic candidates on public policy in advance of the 2020 primaries and caucuses, but have pushed them to introduce protections for workers within their campaigns.
Emma Boorboor, the deputy organizing director of UltraViolet, has introduced a three-page packet for campaigns which recommended many of the measures taken up by the campaigns mentioned above. As she puts it: “For 2020 Democratic candidates to believably advocate for policies to make workplaces safer, they need to create their own safe workplace cultures.”
It is to the Democrats’ credit that they are going to such lengths to protect their employees, but it is also smart strategy. Whoever wins the Democratic primaries will face Donald Trump, and having a strong position on worker protection and stopping abuse in the workplace will be critical to creating an effective contrast.
Trump’s 2016 campaign was memorably dogged by accusations of sexual harassment by Trump… that he himself made!
In October 2016, audio emerged of a conversation Trump had in 2005 on the show Access Hollywood, where he claimed that he regularly fondled women and pressured them to sleep with him. Over twenty women have come forward to accuse Donald Trump of various forms of sexual abuse and harassment.
The Democrats cannot simply point to Trump’s disgraceful record if they want to win in 2020. Hillary Clinton tried to make the 2016 election a referendum on Trump’s fitness for office; as we all know, that strategy did not work.
Trump is a skilled projectionist who projects his own faults onto his opponents. For instance, in October 2016 Trump hosted a panel of women who had accusations of sexual abuse to make against the Clintons. Not his opponent, Hillary Clinton, but her husband, former-president Bill Clinton.
To credibly denounce Trump’s vile and hypocritical history when it comes to sexual harassment, Democrats need to practice what they preach. Democrats will be well-served if they have strong anti-harassment policies in their own campaigns.