Even on the Creepy Uncle Joe-o-meter, this pegs hard into the red zone. Just days after claiming that “I get it” about a number of emerging complaints from women about his, er, “tactile style of politics,” Joe Biden poked fun at the complaints while hugging a young boy on stage. I’m not sure where ridicule lands on the Kübler-Ross progression of grief, but here we are:
Former VP Biden invites children on stage during his speech at a construction conference, puts his arm around a boy, and makes light of recent news related to his physical interactions with people: "By the way, he gave me permission to touch him." pic.twitter.com/XN9YmaaS1b
— NBC News (@NBCNews) April 5, 2019
Dude. Not only is this too soon, it’s also too weird. It might have been a funny joke several weeks down the line after having done an appropriate amount of public penance, but only with a willing adult capable of giving informed consent. The way to ensure that people think you “get it” is not to us a child as a prop to make fun of inappropriate-contact complaints. The boy doesn’t look like he’s all that keen to be getting the Uncle Joe side-hug in the first place, and it goes without saying that he’ll get an earful on the playground if any of his chums take a look at this clip.
The women who had come forward have already claimed that his folksy video from earlier this week didn’t cut it. For one thing, it never actually contained an apology, and in fact didn’t even contain an admission that he was the problem. Mocking their complaints two days later will only reinforce the impression that Biden didn’t take them seriously in the first place.
Lucy Flores, who stepped forward first, has already made that argument:
NEW: Former Nevada lawmaker Lucy Flores, who accused Joe Biden of inappropriate behavior, responds: "To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have." https://t.co/ebTwELvZnV pic.twitter.com/eCUTPSxV4h
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) April 5, 2019
It didn’t get any better after the jaw-dropping “joke,” either. Biden’s direct answer to questions about it today essentially confirms Flores’ conclusion:
"I wouldn't be surprised" if more women come forward to raise concerns about his behavior, Biden tells reporters. "But I've had hundreds and hundreds of people who contact me and say the exact opposite…I'm sorry I didn't understand more. I'm not sorry for any of my intentions"
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) April 5, 2019
Biden more directly argues here that the problem wasn’t Biden’s behavior or intentions, but how the women perceived them. Even for non-apology apologies, this is pretty cynical.
Of course, that’s precisely how Biden will outlast this scandal, as I predicted in my column at The Week. He’s spent his political life being shameless, and this stunt shows nothing’s changed … and that it’s likely to work:
The lesson that Biden learned since 1987 was that scandals don’t derail politicians unless their conscience does. Former President Bill Clinton proved that definitively by surviving the scandal surrounding his perjury over Monica Lewinsky, transforming his own scandal into a narrative of puritanical Republicans obsessed by prurient interest into his private life. Clinton succeeded so well at that his wife nearly won the office herself despite her own scandal at the State Department in using a secret e-mail system to circumvent congressional oversight. Trump learned the lesson well enough to refuse to even apologize for most of his behavior, and to only offer an apology and not a withdrawal after the Access Hollywood tape emerged in the last days of the 2016 campaign.
Biden understands that the path to electoral success in the midst of scandal is to brazen it out. After an obligatory apology, candidates can ignore further criticism by claiming to have already addressed the issue and have grown from it. Biden did both this week, pledging to be “more mindful about respecting personal space” while half-excusing his prior behavior by claiming that “social norms are changing.” Even if more women come forward with worse stories, Biden knows that he’s inoculated himself from the worst damage.
Biden helped blaze that path toward normalizing scandal, but let’s put the blame where it belongs: Both sides of the political aisle normalized scandal, and voters endorsed it by excusing the bad behavior of their allies. Biden’s only living in a post-scandal world; we’re the ones who built it.
Even I’m surprised at the speed at which Biden hit the shameless marker. It’s impressive, even if it’s also creepy.