Joe Biden has a problem — and it’s bigger than his odd penchant for unwanted displays of affection.
The former vice president has been accused by two women of touching them inappropriately at public events: a former state legislator who said he kissed the back of her head in 2014 and a former congressional aide who said he rubbed noses with her in 2009.
“It wasn’t sexual, but he did grab me by the head,” the second woman, Amy Lappos, told the Hartford Courant. “I thought he was going to kiss me on the mouth.”
Biden issued a not-quite-apology, saying he knew he was given to “expressions of affection” but never believed he had acted inappropriately. “If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully,” he said.
That wasn’t enough for the most powerful woman in the Democratic Party, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. On Tuesday, she issued a remarkable public dressing-down to the potential front-runner for her party’s presidential nomination.
“To say, ‘I’m sorry you were offended’ is not an apology,” Pelosi said. “He has to understand — in the world that we’re in now — that people’s space is important to them.”
Pelosi said she didn’t think the episodes disqualify Biden from running.
But Biden’s recurring “creepy uncle” narrative is only part of a larger problem he will face if he enters the already crowded race, as he is still expected to do.
All his stumbling around on the outskirts of #MeToo and his less-than-pitch-perfect responses have reminded voters that, at 76, including nearly five decades as a national politician, he’s not a new face.
The problem isn’t that he’s old; it’s that he sometimes sounds outdated and old-fashioned, a throwback to another era.
Even some of the defenses his supporters offer — that Biden’s an “old-school guy,” a holdover from an era when politics was chummier — reinforce the image.
So do some of Biden’s recent themes: that politics needn’t be uncivil, that bipartisanship is a virtue, that it’s OK to “say a nice word every once in a while about a Republican.”
If he runs, his campaign could borrow a slogan from President Trump, with a twist: Make America Normal Again. (Spoiler alert: It won’t.)
Those are appealing goals, but they come with a whiff of nostalgia.
“Every campaign is about the future,” veteran Democratic strategist Tad Devine told me. “Biden’s biggest challenge is making himself the future, not the past.”
What’s the solution?
“Biden needs to give a speech — a speech that deals not only with the women’s issue, but all the issues in his past: abortion, race relations, crime. He has to explain where he is, talk about his evolution. And then he can begin to talk about the future,” Devine said.
He compared the exercise to the speech on race relations then-candidate Barack Obama gave in 2008, when he was under attack for incendiary statements from the former pastor of his church.
Besides, he added, if Biden doesn’t put those issues to rest, “they’ll keep popping up.”
As the front-runner in most polls, Biden would still enter the race with undeniable strengths. He gets strong support from older Democrats, who — despite all the attention given to young voters — still make up a majority of those who vote in primaries.
In a Quinnipiac Poll released last week, for example, Biden was supported by 37% of potential Democratic voters age 50 and older, against only 12% for Bernie Sanders. Among voters younger than 50, Sanders scored 26% to Biden’s 22%.
“Biden can run from a position of strength,” said Devine, who worked for Sanders in 2016 but is not working for a candidate this year. “His message can be that he has the experience to be president, more experience than anyone else. There’s a huge audience for that.”
And Biden can argue that, as a relative moderate in the left-leaning Democratic field, he stands a better chance of winning a general election. “If you become the candidate who looks like he can do that, there are a lot of defects people will overlook,” Devine said.
That argument won’t go unchallenged, of course. More than a dozen major candidates already are in the race; if Biden gets in, his rivals will doubtless point out that he ran twice before, in 1988 and 2008, and lost both times.
“Electability” can only be proved by actually winning in primaries and caucuses.
Democrats yearn for a candidate who can defeat Trump. Biden may yet be that candidate. But before he can make that case, he must put his past behind him — beginning with a more convincing apology. Then he can start on that vision for the future.