Sloppy Joe

If a sexual assault allegation against Joe Biden falls in the New York Times and no one reads it, will it stop Biden from being elected president in November?

On April 12, while America was understandably preoccupied with other matters, the Times printed the account of a woman named Tara Reade, who claims that in 1993, while working as a staffer in Biden’s Senate office, the future vice president—and now-presumptive Democratic presidential nominee—“pinned [Reade] to a wall in a Senate building, reached under her clothing and penetrated her with his fingers.”

Reade first publicly accused Biden of untoward behavior last year, when more than a half—dozen women recounted a panoply of inappropriate touching, hugging and kissing Biden had engaged in over the course of his career—some of it right out in the open—in anticipation of Biden’s entry into the 2020 Democratic primary. Reade’s own accusation at the time entailed unwelcome physical contact such as neck-stroking and hair-grabbing, but not sexual assault. When asked why she waited until now to lay her most serious charge, Reade said she was afraid following “a wave of criticism and death threats” in response to her initial disclosures.

The Times reporting found that Reade mentioned the alleged assault to several people shortly after it occurred, but also that neither the Senate nor Biden’s office has any record of a formal complaint Reade claims to have filed at the time. Biden himself, through a spokesperson, has denied the incident ever took place.

And so here we are, forced to regard Joe Biden as we have previously regarded the likes of Brett Kavanaugh, Woody Allen, Donald Trump and every other public man whose alleged past sins (i.e., crimes) have been brought to light at a moment when the truth about what happened in the past has a singular power over what happens in the future.

As with Christine Blasey Ford during the Kavanaugh hearings, one of three things must be true. One, Reade is a liar. Two, she has a severely distorted memory. Or three, Joe Biden is a sex offender. And as with so many other chapters of the #MeToo story, with no definitive proof on either side, it’s up to each of us individually to decide which party to believe—him or her—and to act accordingly.

What makes the Biden case different—and arguably the most high-stakes iteration of the #MeToo era to date—is that how Americans judge Reade’s claim may well determine the outcome of the 2020 election—and, by extension, every action by the federal government through at least January 20, 2025. At this point, it would be political malpractice for the Democratic Party to blithely assume otherwise.

The potential trajectory of this electoral powder keg is not difficult to game out: Reade sticks to her story. Trump and/or his backers believe her loudly and unconditionally, seizing on the allegation as a 10,000-ton albatross to sling around Biden’s neck 24 hours a day. A not-insignificant number of left-leaning independents—and maybe even a few Democrats—decide they cannot in good conscience vote for someone credibly accused of sexual assault, and ultimately leave their ballots blank, bequeathing a second term to one Donald J. Trump.

Don’t tell me this can’t happen. Don’t tell me a presidential election cannot be swung by the 27-year-old recollections of a heretofore anonymous former Senate aide. Don’t tell me there isn’t a sizeable chunk of the electorate who might otherwise vote for Biden—despite his known flaws—but will think twice when presented with as explosive an accusation as Reade has now presented. Don’t tell me that, when faced with the ultimate hypothetical—If you knew, for a fact, that Biden had once committed sexual assault, would you vote for him anyway?—even the most loyal Democrats would not give themselves at least a moment or two of pause.

And whatever you do, don’t tell me that because Donald Trump has been accused—indeed, has admitted to—behavior that is demonstrably worse than anything ever said about Biden, there is no moral compromise to be made in choosing the latter over the former.

Sorry, folks. It turns out that, in 2020, life is not going to be that simple.

Barring a sudden confession from Reade that she made the whole thing up, every Biden supporter in America—most of whom, one presumes, have been cheering on the #MeToo movement for the last two-and-a-half years—will be forced to reckon with the fact that on November 3, they will be voting for a man who has been credibly accused of sexual assault, and that the only true rationalization for this decision—the alternative would be worse—is a rationalization all the same.

Liberals have spent the past four years excoriating conservatives for supporting a president whose very existence is an affront to nearly all of their so-called principles—honor, dignity, family values—but whose promises of tax cuts and a right-wing judiciary made the tradeoff both justified and unavoidable in their own minds.

Is that not the moral bargain that today’s liberals will now need to make about Joe Biden? Will the never-Trump crowd not be spending the next six months talking themselves into the idea that one sexual assault is a fair price to pay for universal healthcare and debt-free college education? And given the essentially binary nature of U.S. presidential elections, will they not, in some horrid sense, be correct?

St. Mark asked, For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?  I guess we’re about to find out.

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