Commentary: On Tara Reade, Biden will probably be OK. I'm more worried about #MeToo, feminism

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Jessica Leeds. Ivana Trump. Kristin Anderson. Jill Harth. Lisa Boyne. Mariah Billado. Victoria Hughes. Temple Taggart. Cathy Heller. Karena Virginia. Tasha Dixon. Bridget Sullivan. Melinda McGillivray. Natasha Stoynoff. Jennifer Murphy. Juliet Huddy. Rachel Crooks. Samantha Holvey. Ninni Laaksonen. Jessica Drake. Summer Zervos. Cassandra Searles. Alva Johnson. E. Jean Carroll. Karen Johnson.

Tara Reade.

That’s my idea of what fair and balanced (in the real sense, not the Fox News sense) journalism looks like when anyone tries the high-wire act of writing about the issue of serious sexual misconduct and assault as it pertains to the 2020 presidential election and the two men who have a credible chance of winning it — President Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

Since Trump announced his first presidential campaign in 2015, a staggering 25 women have been willing to go on the record with an array of charges that range from groping (an act the 45th president has famously bragged about on tape) to barging into dressing rooms of undressed teenage girls to, in one case, a highly credible allegation of straight-up rape.

Although there are other women who’ve accused Biden of what we might call “creepy” behavior, only Reade has alleged Biden sexual misconduct that could be viewed as criminal. He denies it, and she so far has not produced evidence beyond a classic “she-said, he-said” scenario.

So, yeah, 25-1. So if you’re looking at the 2020 race through a lens of feminism, and if you want to view the sexual misconduct piece of this as a numbers game, then Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is your man. But of course, the toxic masculinity of our political leaders is not a numbers game, it’s a question of morality. And it’s beyond frustrating to me that in a nation of 330 million people, we somehow find it impossible to produce a presidential nominee with a lifetime of impeccable treatment of women. Is it really that hard?

In today’s boiling stew of partisan anger, it’s hard to write or talk about Reade and the Biden case without losing one’s sanity, let alone hundreds of Twitter followers. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes — arguably the most thoughtful journalist on TV, who’s offered by far the best coverage of the pandemic — recently gave a balanced report that allowed Reade’s allegations to be heard while also noting the problems with her story, and was besieged by so-called liberals tweeting #FireChrisHayes (which disgusted me).

I’m pretty sure Biden’s candidacy will survive the Reade allegations. But the explosion that occurred when the momentum of the #MeToo movement — which has done so much to elevate the stories of survivors of sexual assault — collided with our toxic partisan politics has the potential to seriously damage the feminist cause. And there are powerful forces out there that would love that, to make #MeToo become a blip that never really challenged the patriarchy. The person who can do the most to stop that from happening is Biden. Just as many once referred to Bill Clinton (pre-Obama, obviously) as “America’s first black president,” it’s really incumbent on Biden to promise the nation he will govern as “America’s first woman president” — until we can get the real thing.

I first mentioned the Reade allegation in this column on March 29, or more than a month ago. I wrote at the time that “it’s credible enough that we should listen to her, and investigate fully.” Since then, we do know a little more. The short version of her case is that she has worked as an aide to the then-Delaware senator in the early 1990s and last year — when as many as seven other women said Biden had made them uncomfortable with things like unwelcome touching or hair-sniffing — she added her name to that list. Reade said in 2019 that her ex-boss made her uncomfortable with shoulder or neck rubbing and asked her to serve drinks at an event because he liked her legs. But then she came back earlier this year with the more explosive charge that Biden had backed her against a wall and digitally penetrated her.

Reade has produced some corroborating evidence. One neighbor (and Biden voter) has said Reade told her of an assault not long after it allegedly happened. But other evidence — a call to CNN’s Larry King Show from a woman who seems to be Reade’s late mother saying her daughter had “problems” with her powerful boss — seems more supportive of the 2019 version of events. Reade has said she made a written complaint at that time but that it does not mention a sexual assault, and Biden has now forcefully denied that an assault ever happened in two TV interviews (while Reade canceled an appearance scheduled for Fox News). At the moment, the story is not a good look for Biden but lacks any “smoking gun” proof of a crime, and at this stage is not a campaign killer.

Still, the controversy stirred up deep and possibly irreparable divisions within the #MeToo movement that came as women poured online to tell their own stories of sexual harassment and assault in the wake of the allegations against not just Trump but powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and many, many others. Some Biden supporters who consider themselves feminists launched attacks on Reade that were unsupported and uncalled for; one’s political leanings have nothing to do with the truth or falsity of a sexual assault allegation — and that smacked of the other tropes that have caused our so-called justice system to reject women’s claims over the years.

As someone who applauded Dr. Christine Blasey Ford for the courage to tell her story about now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, I was flummoxed to watch others who had felt the same way now trash Reade before her story was fully investigated. But here’s what bothered me even more: I knew those contradictions will be exploited by all the dark forces out there who never wanted the #MeToo movement to succeed, who want a return to an era of zero accountability for sexism.

What exactly is feminism? Does it mean blindly supporting the Democratic Party because it’s better than the Republicans on issues like reproductive rights or equal pay, and in 2020 it’s the only thing standing in the way of a second term for Trump? Or is it something more complicated? The best of the many pieces I’ve read came from Sarah Jones, who wrote, in New York magazine, on feminism: “The movement exists to critique power: to identify its abuses and demand its redistribution. Accept that, and you don’t serve the political class; you’re in tension with it. That’s uncomfortable. That’s inconvenient. That’s the point.”

Let’s be clear: This couldn’t have come at a worse time for #MeToo. The backlash from men — highlighted by the 2018 confirmation of Kavanaugh — that a movement that has striven for only two or three years to undo two or three millennia of patriarchy has lasted long enough continues to gain steam. Even the woman who created the hashtag, Tamara Burke, has complained that the movement has become “unrecognizable.”

And now misogyny is enlisting humankind’s most powerful weapon: fear. In the 2020 Democratic primaries, the women who led the Women’s March and elected so many new female members of Congress in 2018 got cold feet that America would never elect one of a slate of incredibly talented women; many went with the 77-year-old white dude who has issues. And when those issues surfaced, it was telling that top women Democrats were badgered and hounded to answer for Biden with a fury that the men who are actually accused of misconduct rarely get.

I don’t want to see women bullied about cleaning up this mess. I do want to see Joe Biden do even more than he’s done so far. He’s capable — the best thing about Biden’s overly long career in politics has been his ability to adapt, like his earlier-than-Obama embrace of gay marriage. But he can also be stubborn and set in his ways; just last week, as the Reade controversy was escalating, he announced a vice presidential search task force chaired by his old friend ex-Sen. Christopher Dodd, who was accused of gross sexual misconduct in a notorious 1990 magazine article.

C’mon, man.

If I were advising Biden? In a perfect world, before the coronavirus travel restrictions, I’d tell him to go to Seneca Falls or some other appropriate setting (because the basement thing just isn’t cutting it) and give a major address on women’s rights on the 100th anniversary of female suffrage in America. And while I’d have him repeat his denial of any assault on Reade, I’d also ask him to go much deeper in acknowledging that this is a woman who seems to be in pain — and that he is truly sorry about that. Like most successful and stubborn politicians, Biden hates to apologize. But he should apologize, in the strongest possible terms, to any woman who feels wronged by him in the past, including Anita Hill. He needs to ask for absolution so he can focus on what really matters now, the future.

This Biden speech would outline how his presidency will accomplish things for women that would have been unimaginable when he was first elected to the Senate in 1972. In other words, he needs to go well beyond his admirable commitment to name a woman vice president and to put a black woman on the Supreme Court. He needs to lay out a Women’s Bill of Rights agenda for the 21st century, on how women will finally get true pay equality, new guarantees of reproductive rights and protection from domestic violence and sexual assault in the workplace or on campus, as well as societal changes like child care and paid sick leave that will make their lives better.

Here’s the deal: I am a feminist. And — based on what we know today — going into the voting booth and choosing between Biden and his uncomfortable past versus Trump’s open misogyny and his string of sexual assault allegations is a no-brainer for me or anyone else who proudly wears that label. But we also need to hold Biden accountable to do better for women, because I believe he can. We can’t go back to 1993, either to find out what really happened or undo any mistakes of the past. But we can go forward in 2021. Joe Biden owes that to all women. We all do.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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