Mona Charen argues that conservatives are being hypocritical in covering Tara Reade’s sexual-assault allegations against Joe Biden: “Doesn’t it matter if Biden is actually innocent? . . . What have we become if we are indifferent to actual innocence in our rush to settle scores?”
This has the question backward. Conservatives do not exist in an isolation chamber in which we talk only to ourselves. Before you can decide who is innocent, you must first decide what innocence and guilt mean, and how you prove them. There is enormous debate on those questions, and that debate cuts so fundamentally to our sense of justice and fair play to accusers and accused that it is, I submit, more important even than the fate of a particular presidential election or Supreme Court nomination. It’s a debate that recurs in our politics: Biden, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas, Al Franken, Justin Fairfax, Bob Packwood, Ted Kennedy, Roy Moore, Chris Dodd, John Conyers, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Blake Fahrenthold, Al Gore, Stephen Reinhardt, Alex Kozinski, Trent Franks, Bobby Scott . . . the list goes on and on. It’s also a debate that not infrequently veers into areas politicians can control, such as the standards for due process on campus — areas in which the accused will not have an army of flacks to defend them on cable television.
Under the “believe all women” standard, the standard that many liberals — including Biden himself, who wants it applied on campus — held Kavanaugh to, the former vice president would be declared guilty of Reade’s charges. That standard is deeply illiberal and dangerous, rejecting not only our longstanding commitment to due process but our commitment to the truth itself. Yes, “due process” means something different in a political campaign than it does in a criminal courtroom, but the fundamental idea is the same: Hear the witnesses, examine the evidence, evaluate the credibility of all involved, and come to the best conclusion you can about the truth. If the charge is proven true, the consequences should follow accordingly; if it isn’t, one shouldn’t just retreat to, “Well, there’s an accusation,” because doing so is fundamentally unfair.
That brings us back to “believe all women.” You are never, ever going to get liberals, progressives, and Democrats to admit that the standard they espouse is bad and dangerous until they are compelled to live under it themselves (or at least to explain openly why they believe they should be exempt from them, as Linda Hirshman did in her clarifying recent New York Times op-ed, “I Believe Tara Reade. I’m Voting for Joe Biden Anyway”). As I have noted before, that was one of the lessons of the two-decade-long battle over the Independent Counsel statute: Only when it came back to bite one of their own did Democrats admit that the statute was bad and dangerous.
And therein lies the value of the Tara Reade allegations: They are an enormously valuable teaching moment on the need to both hear out accusers respectfully and subject their claims to the same informed skepticism that we apply to any other accusation in law or politics. That is a principle we will still be fighting about after Biden and Trump are gone from the national scene. Without sustained pressure on Democrats and their media and cultural allies to face up to the contradictions in their standards, we may not succeed in getting them to admit that yes, conservatives are right on the principle. Conservatives should not have to keep that pressure up alone — and to their credit, a determined group of left-wingers has also been consistent on the need to hear Reade out — but this is a public argument of great importance to whether we will continue to be a classically liberal, rule-of-law-based society.
None of this means that conservatives should go down the Jacob Wohl–Jack Burkman road of attempting to fabricate sexual-assault accusations against high-profile political opponents. Blatantly bad-faith smears should be treated as such. But conservatives had nothing to do with injecting Tara Reade into the public debate. Even if you are deeply skeptical of her evidence, it is clear that she is a Democrat and former Biden staffer, and that she has been telling people at least some version of this story for nearly three decades. That is more than enough to make this fair game for debate and a fair case study in how we evaluate such claims with appropriate rigor.
If you decide, after an appropriate evaluation of the facts, that Joe Biden is innocent, so be it. But how you go about that evaluation is important, too. You never know: Someday your reputation, or your liberty, may depend on it.