Too Old, Too White, Too Male

Former Vice President Joe Biden campaigns for Democratic congressional candidate Mikie Sherrill at Montclaire State University in Montclair, N.J., September 5, 2018. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Scrutiny of Joe Biden’s role in the Clarence Thomas hearings and sexism on Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign could shake up the 2020 primaries.

While assessing the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign in its aftermath, Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager, admitted that the operation was “too male” and “too white.” Now, despite the success of the grass-roots revolt Sanders led against the Hillary Clinton juggernaut, both Weaver and Sanders are starting to realize that the continued health of their progressive insurgency is under threat for precisely those reasons.

As a front-page article in the New York Times this week illustrated, not even a left-wing icon such as Sanders is going to be given a pass for the culture of sexism that apparently pervaded his campaign. Sanders wasn’t accused of any personal misbehavior, but his reactions to the numerous incidences of sexual harassment, demeaning treatment of women, and gender-pay disparity in his campaign, as detailed by the Times, seemed very familiar to those who have been following the way large cultural institutions have dealt with #MeToo allegations.

As far as Sanders was concerned, poor “human resources” work was to blame. He offered the obligatory, unconvincing non-apology apology “to any woman who felt she was not treated appropriately” and promised to “do better the next time,” but nevertheless claimed he should not be held responsible because he “was a little bit busy running around the country” while his campaign was devolving into a hotbed of malfeasance.

Sanders acted, in other words, as if the investigation of his last campaign were irrelevant to the question of whether he should run another one in 2020 — a distraction from the Democrats’ singular focus on “resisting” President Donald Trump. But if he thinks this isn’t a serious obstacle to winning the nomination he came so close to securing in 2016 the next time around, he hasn’t been paying attention to what’s been going on in the country in the 15 months since the #MeToo movement began.

The same can be said for Joe Biden as he also ponders whether to enter the 2020 race. The increased focus on Biden’s role in the confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas after charges of attempted sexual assault were made against Justice Brett Kavanaugh last fall should weigh on Democrats’ minds as they decide whether the former senator and vice president should be their party’s standard-bearer next year.

According to early polls of Democrats, the two septuagenarians are the current leaders in the 2020 race. Though that is based more on name recognition than anything else, it does mean that both would begin with a head start over their many prospective rivals for the nomination. But both seem slow to understand that the issues raised by the #MeToo movement, issues that might not have had any impact in the past, are poised to prove decisive in this election.

Biden had long since outrun any criticism defenders of Thomas’s accuser, Anita Hill, had thrown in his direction by the time he became Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the fall of 1991, when Thomas’s fated was being decided, he was blamed for the harsh questioning to which Hill was subjected by some senators. But he could also point out that Thomas blamed him for allowing last-minute attacks on his character to be launched in the first place. When Thomas claimed to be the victim of a “high-tech lynching” on national television, he was directing his anger at Biden rather than the other members of the committee’s Democratic majority.

A decade after Obama’s ascendance, however, the criticisms have returned, and Biden finds himself in the same position as Sanders.

Of course, neither Biden nor Sanders is a genuine #MeToo villain, even by the debased standards of guilt and innocence that have reigned over the past year. But the Times’s exposure of the Sanders campaign may make it even easier for Democrats to favor a female candidate or, at the very least, make it harder for them to nominate an old, white male with pre-October 2017 #MeToo baggage of any sort.

The case for Biden is that he is the rare Democrat with ostensible appeal to the working-class voters who put Trump in the White House. Yet with the Democrats’ base in thrall to the progressive Left, the assumption that his path to the nomination will be smooth seems highly unrealistic. Indeed, the influence of the radical Left should be feared by both Biden and Sanders.

More to the point, Biden and Sanders should both be prepared to have their potential rivals bring up their #MeToo problems in a campaign. Such attacks would have particularly potency coming from any one of the prospective female candidates — Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar — in the race.

The continuing emphasis on #MeToo doesn’t guarantee a female nominee, of course, especially in such a crowded field, with multiple sharp-elbowed contenders attempting to appeal to the same voters. But it does mean that Democratic men are going to have to prove their innocence in a way that will make it far more difficult for Sanders and Biden than either of them currently anticipates — and that being old, white, and male could be their undoing.

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