We do not know whether the accusations that Tara Reade has leveled against Joe Biden are true or false. That is a question of evidence and of inquiry that might be answered as time rolls on. We do know, by contrast, that the double standard that has been exhibited by Biden’s campaign and by the political press in tandem is a national disgrace. Both culturally and legally, due process must be habitually applied to nobody or to everyone. If, upon the most frivolous and protean of pretexts, it is routinely accorded to one faction while being denied to another, it is effectively lost.
Though he has not deigned to address it directly, Joe Biden insists that he is innocent of the charge that he digitally penetrated an intern back in 1993. “It is untrue,” his communications director says. “This absolutely did not happen.” If so, we hope that this incident has taught Biden that his previous approach toward accusations of sexual assault was dangerous, illiberal, and ultimately untenable. During the summer of 2018, with Brett Kavanaugh under the national spotlight, Biden was unequivocal in his demand that Americans must believe women as a matter of unwavering reflex. “For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally,” Biden argued, “you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real, whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time.”
Biden took a similar line when, as Barack Obama’s vice president, he was tasked with overhauling the manner in which sexual assault cases were evaluated on college campuses. Per the Chronicle of Higher Education, “the sweeping Title IX changes that have transformed higher education would not have happened without Biden’s support.” By “transformed,” the Chronicle means that Biden was responsible for lowering the standard of evidence so drastically — and expanding the definition of sexual misconduct so dramatically — that accused students were left with no realistic chance of clearing their names. Summing up the approach he had taken toward Title IX in a 2017 conversation, Biden put it simply: “I believe you.” Why, we must ask, should his own accuser not be granted the same privilege?
Similar questions must be posed to the media, which have displayed an extraordinary and unjustifiable double standard in this case, and which, despite the best attempts of the New York Times editor Dean Baquet, have failed spectacularly to account for it. Two years ago, when Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was accused of teenage sexual misconduct, the press focused breathlessly on the charges, reporting without caveat anything that came across the transom. Nothing was too ridiculous to repeat — including the claim that Justice Kavanaugh had been involved in a “gang-rape” ring — and what little hard evidence was available was willfully supplemented by weaselly “opinion” pieces in which it was insinuated that the experiences of other people confirmed the specific accusations against Kavanaugh himself. Worse still were the presumptions that undergirded the media’s focus. For some writers, the mere fact that Kavanaugh had been accused was sufficient to tank his nomination, given the “cloud” that it would allegedly create around his tenure. For others, the vehemence of his denial was an indication of his guilt and unsuitability. Yet more took the view that there was no need to presume innocence at all, because Kavanaugh was engaged not in a criminal trial but in a “job interview.” The affair represented a nadir of American journalism.
Given that the evidence is stronger in this case than it was in Kavanaugh’s — we know, at least, that the accuser and accused have met — we must ask why the same rules are not being applied in this instance. Joe Biden is hoping to be president of the United States. Might not a “cloud” follow him around, too? Biden has not only denied the charges categorically, but he has demanded that the press “diligently review” and “rigorously vet” them. What, when compared to his “I believe you” mantra, should this tell us about his character? Is a presidential election not a “job interview,” too? And if, as was the case in 2018, the venue of the alleged assault tells us a great deal about the likelihood of its veracity, might we expect to read a slate of pieces outlining what it was like to be a female intern in the Senate in the early 1990s?
We are of the same view today as we were in 2018, and as we were before that. We believe that sexual assault is a hideous crime and that we should punish only people who are guilty of it. It is monstrous when the perpetrators of evil get away with their acts. But it is also monstrous when the innocent lose their good names. Our preference for due process derives from a desire to avoid either outcome.
More practically, we believe that our political system itself benefits strongly from the presumption of innocence. If the mere introduction of an accusation is sufficient to prompt a candidate’s withdrawal, the incentives for false charges will grow legion. Joe Biden is a hypocrite and an opportunist, but that is no reason to treat him any differently than we would treat anybody else. If he has truly changed his mind on this most important of questions, we welcome him into the fold. As Biden now argues, Tara Reade’s accusations should be “respectfully heard” and “rigorously vetted.” And, if the evidence does not rise to the level, the man at whom they are aimed should be assumed not guilty. But we will not get to that point with one side throwing a blanket over the story and muttering, “well, this time he’s one of ours.”