The non-apology apology has been an art in Washington for decades, but Joe Biden’s artistry might be unparalleled. In a video yesterday, the former VP and future Democratic presidential candidate issued an “I get it” video, which many assumed was an apology. Instead, it looks more like a pre-emptive strike as three more women emerged late yesterday to accuse Biden of improper behavior:
Even more women are saying they had personal encounters with former Vice President Joe Biden that made them uncomfortable. Biden addressed some of the allegations in a new video. @mitchellreports has the latest pic.twitter.com/UMTBzLAgFb
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) April 4, 2019
The Washington Post reported on the three new accusers hours after Biden’s statement went out:
Three women told The Post that Biden’s behavior toward them made them feel uncomfortable and said Biden’s comments Wednesday didn’t fully address their concerns. …
In response to Biden’s video, Kohnert-Yount emailed: “I appreciate his attempt to do better in the future, but to me this is not mainly about whether Joe Biden has adequate respect for personal space. It’s about women deserving equal respect in the workplace.” …
[Karasek] said Biden, in the video, “still didn’t take ownership in the way that he needs to.”
“He emphasized that he wants to connect with people and, of course, that’s important. But again, all of our interactions and friendships are a two-way street. . . . Too often it doesn’t matter how the woman feels about it or they just assume that they’re fine with it,” she said.
One reason these women didn’t buy Biden’s remorse is that he never quite got around to expressing any. Buried in the folksy chatter and the pledges to have “got[ten] it” and to “do better” is the absence of two words. WaPo analyst Aaron Blake noticed their absence and how Biden subtly shifts the victimhood from the women to himself:
What the video is not is an apology. Biden never says he’s sorry, for his actions or for how they made the women feel. Indeed, Biden essentially suggests that he is a victim of the changing times. “The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset,” he said. “I get it, I get it. I hear what they’re saying, and I understand it.” He then repeats that he’ll do better.
That doesn’t exactly account for what he’s accused of, though. A former Democratic congressional aide describes Biden rubbing noses with her during a 2009 fundraiser in a way that made her think he was going to kiss her. Former Nevada lieutenant governor candidate Lucy Flores (D) said Biden’s smelling of her hair and kissing her head at a 2014 event made her uncomfortable. Both seemed to interpret something creepier than just an overly touchy-feely politician.
In the video, Biden says he will change his behavior but does not address whether his behavior crossed the line.
Blake thinks that it won’t matter much to Biden’s ambitions, however:
In the end, this seems to be an eminently survivable controversy for Biden — both because his conduct occupies such a gray area and even the most unfriendly interpretations of it may not be disqualifying. He’s getting votes of support from the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and even Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). Biden’s not-quite-apology is also more eloquent and personal than the types usually offered by politicians who are reluctant to give an inch and even suggest personal fault (Hillary Clinton being a great example).
But a non-apology is still a non-apology, and sometimes you can’t fully move on until you’ve been more explicit about whether you actually did something wrong.
Want to bet? In my column at The Week, I remind readers that Joe Biden has brazened his way out of scandal before, mostly because voters let politicians get away with them. Even a half-assed apology is enough to act as though the situation has resolved itself in an “asked and answered” sort of way. Donald Trump’s not the first politician to take advantage of that strategy, and fully moving on is exactly what Biden will do too:
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.
The video was smart strategy, not sincere apology or even an apology at all. It clears the decks and makes all new allegations of handsiness “old news.” Biden has pre-empted all these women and the dozens more who are likely to come forward with similar stories. The media will keep referring to it as Biden’s “tactile style” rather than anything truly objectionable, and it will be a mere blip in the 2020 sweepstakes. Bet on it.