Are Biden-for-President Supporters All Sexist?

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Joe Biden, Hillary Rodham Clinton
Biden and Clinton.Photo: Cliff Owen/AP/corbis

One of the unfortunate habits overtaking the left is a tendency to conclude that any behavior that could plausibly be motivated by bigotry is likely motivated by bigotry. It is no doubt true that a misogynist would want Joe Biden to challenge Hillary Clinton. Therefore, Scott Lemieux concludes, people who want Biden to challenge Clinton are sexist.

I don’t have any particular brief for Biden — it seems way too late for him to run, I think he has serious message-discipline problems that limit him as a candidate, and I’d probably vote for Clinton if he did run. What makes Lemieux’s column worth examining is not its conclusion but its reasoning.

Lemieux points out that Biden and Clinton have similar ideological profiles (which places the enthusiasm for Biden in a more suspect category than support for the left-wing Bernie Sanders). He insists that Biden is no more likely to win than Clinton. (“Clinton has consistently been a more popular political figure than Biden.”) Therefore, there’s only one possible reason anybody would want him to run:

Biden probably isn’t running, almost certainly wouldn’t win if he did and doesn’t bring any new perspectives to the party debate in the way Sanders’s campaign does. But he does have one characteristic that makes him seem more “presidential” to too many journalists: a penis.

At this point, the sexism of the contingent eager for Biden to run becomes hard to deny. We need to find a generic white male with Hillary Clinton’s policy positions to head the ticket, even though his two previous primary campaigns were flaming wrecks on the highway? This is tantamount to putting a “No Girls Allowed” sign on the door of the White House.

Lemieux’s argument that Clinton is more popular than Biden links to a comparison of their polling from 2013 — when Clinton still enjoyed the halo of her tenure as secretary of State, where she resided above partisanship. Since then, her popularity has crashed back to Earth. She’s now less popular than Biden:

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Granted, if Biden ran, his popularity might dip, too. On the other hand, it might not. Biden’s weakness is that he commits lots of gaffes. Clinton’s weakness is the perception of secrecy and corruption. Lemieux portrays the perception of Clinton as secretive and corrupt as entirely the product of the news media’s singular hatred for her and her husband: “For reasons I can’t explain, many mainstream outlets subject the Clintons to much harsher treatment than other political figures, Democratic or Republican,” he writes. I’d argue that Clinton’s negative image is the product of both unfair coverage and actual mistakes by the Clintons. Even if Lemieux is right, it seems as if his argument supplies a decent basis to prefer a non-Clinton nominee — why nominate a candidate who is going to suffer from unwarranted and completely unique hostility when it comes to the news media?

The point is not that Biden would make a better nominee than Clinton. (As I said, I don’t even think that.) The point is that reasonable people can disagree about this. It’s not as though Biden were some obscure figure suddenly thrust forward in a desperate search for a plausible white male nominee. He’s the two-term vice-president of the United States. Sitting vice-presidents run for the top job all the time. Lemieux’s argumentative method is to insist that, since he doesn’t consider Biden more electable than Clinton, nobody could consider Biden more electable than Clinton, leaving only sexism as a plausible account for their beliefs.

This particular form of illogic has gotten endemic on the left. A racist would oppose Barack Obama, but that doesn’t make all opposition to Obama racist. Likewise, a sexist would hate Hillary Clinton, but maybe we shouldn’t spend the next 15 months — and possibly the subsequent four or eight years — defining all opposition to her as sexist.