Joe Biden has problems.
The man that many — including myself — felt for sure a few months ago was the best person to win back the White House for the Democrats is losing his glow. Biden no longer looks like a sure thing, or even the best option, to topple President Donald Trump.
And it’s not just a Lucy Flores, #MeToo moment problem.
Flores is a Democratic politician from Nevada who alleges Biden acted inappropriately at a 2014 rally (she was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor), when he came up behind her, put his hands on her shoulders, sniffed her hair, then kissed her head. “I was shocked,” Flores wrote in an essay for The Cut, an arm of New York magazine. “I felt powerless.”
Biden at first dismissed her claims, but later clarified, saying: “In many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort,” the statement read. “And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested that I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.”
The hair-kissing story has captured headlines and raised new questions about Biden’s behavior. And a further allegation surfaced, adding to Biden’s immediate political problems: Amy Lappos, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, told the Hartford Courant on Monday that then-Vice President Biden pulled her in to rub noses with her at a 2009 fundraiser in Greenwich, Connecticut.
But the truth is Biden’s problems are far deeper than this.
There’s also Anita Hill.
Nearly 30 years after he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing probing Anita Hill’s allegations that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her, Biden still doesn’t accept the effect of his role. Not only did his handling of the hearing devastate and shame a credible, intelligent woman who bravely stood up against workplace harassment, but his failure to protect Hill made all women feel less safe in hostile workplaces. (Watch the disturbing supercut of hearing questions here.)
For me, Biden, as chair of that all-white-male Senate committee — intentionally, or not — helped to uphold the misogynistic culture that would ultimately allow Donald Trump to win the presidency.
Then there’s Biden’s mass incarceration problem.
Racial justice is now a front-burner issue for Black and Brown voters that every presidential candidate will have to address with a strategic plan for real justice reforms. But sadly, if we are seeking one of the main architects of the tough-on-crime laws that have led to America’s mass incarceration problem, we need look no further than Biden.
More than 2.2 million Americans are imprisoned today, and a majority of that population is Black and Brown.
There’s no arguing that Biden’s laws mostly targeted Black and Brown communities and have perpetuated the racial disparities in today’s justice system — from legislation he co-sponsored in 1988 that created huge sentencing disparities for possession of the cheaper crack cocaine (popular in Black and Brown communities) and powder cocaine (the chosen drug, then, of mostly affluent white users), to those that dramatically increased prison funding and established harsh mandatory drug sentences for low-level offenses.
One Biden-backed law, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, allows police to seize personal property (cars, cash, entire homes) without even proving the person is guilty of a crime. Local and state police departments can then sell the property and profit from the value of those seizures, with little or no public accounting of how the money is spent.
Today, in cities such as Philadelphia, where hundreds of homes and cars are seized each year, such civil forfeiture is under attack. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has promised reforms, in light of a class action lawsuit that spotlighted abuses.
“We saw a lot of cases where there was a marijuana joint, and they would try to take the defendant’s car,” said Darpana Sheth, an attorney with the Virginia-based Institute for Justice who served as lead counsel in the class-action suit.
But Biden’s biggest influence on mass incarceration came in 1994 as a result of his teaming up with President Bill Clinton to pass a series of crime laws that imposed mandatory minimum drug sentences and dramatically increased funding for prisons, opening the door for unprecedented growth in the prison population.
The numbers have decreased in the past few years. Still, in 2016, the imprisonment rate (number of prisoners per 100,000 people) was 1,608 Black prisoners for every 100,000 Black adults — more than five times the imprisonment rate for whites (274 per 100,000) and nearly double the rate for Hispanics (856 per 100,000).
To his credit, Biden now says he realizes some of his tough-on-crime laws were a mistake. “I haven’t always been right. I know we haven’t always gotten things right, but I’ve always tried,” he said in January.
Clearly, he is trying. And though Biden has not yet said whether he’ll run for president in 2020, his responses to both the Anita Hill criticism and Flores will be problematic if he does. He has not apologized directly to Anita Hill, for one thing.
Many are questioning whether he can be trusted to connect with women on the issues we face.
Early thinking among some Democrats was that it would take an older white man, a more traditional-leaning, less progressive candidate to take Trump down. Democrats won’t win unless they can appeal to white voters, many said.
But if the midterms showed us anything, it’s that Biden won’t win if he can’t get Black and Brown votes, as well, or if women feel he’s disconnected from their agenda.
Many Black voters fell in love with Biden after watching him play the affable, dependable VP to President Barack Obama. But that grace will only take Biden so far. Attitudes of race, gender and power have shifted since the Obama White House — we are more suspicious and less forgiving when it comes to accepting excuses and soft apologies for past racial biases and sexual misconduct.
We know Democrats face a tough, divisive fight in 2020. And before the battle, I want to know who has my back. Who will fight for us — all of us — when things get grimy?
Now, it’s hard to know if Joe’s right for this fight.