vision 2020

Will Biden’s New Anita Hill Fumble Hurt His Candidacy?

A lot of skeletons in the ol’ closet. Photo: Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart, Irin Carmon, and Ed Kilgore discuss Joe Biden’s mishandling of an ignominious episode from his past.

Ben: On Thursday — day one of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential bid — he was already caught in an awkward situation involving Anita Hill. We learned that earlier this month, he called Hill to — well, it didn’t sound like apologize, exactly — but to regret the way Hill was treated during the infamous Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991, which he chaired. But the conversation didn’t go the way Biden wanted it to. Hill told the New York Times she left it unsatisfied, and that she won’t be backing Biden’s candidacy. What was he thinking here?

Ed: We’re regrouping for a moment, Ben, at this juncture to put ourselves into the Mind of Joe Biden.

Ben: [Loud whirring sounds.]

Irin: There was this great piece that assembled the pattern of Joe B. non-apologies. It appears that he is congenitally unable to do so, and that if it sounds like a non-apology, that’s by design. I’m struck by how many times Hillary Clinton said “I’m sorry” and it wasn’t enough.

Ed: “Being Joe Biden means never having to say you’re sorry.” That, children, is an allusion to a line in a book/movie that was popular about the time Biden entered the Senate (Love Story).

Ben: I got the reference, boomer.

Ed: Can’t be too sure these days.

Irin: I got it too!

Biden may believe apologies make him sound weak. But what I heard in his appearance on The View today and his spokesperson’s statement was utterly feckless.

Ben: I was thinking to myself, as I watched that, that President Trump’s utter aversion to ever admitting fault may have bled over to the Democratic side. But, as you said, this is a long-running thing with Biden.

Irin: Weakness was letting the GOP steamroll Anita Hill when you were the chairman of the committee, and confirming Clarence Thomas in a Senate controlled by Democrats.

Trump may be a reason Democratic voters will accept it from Biden this time.

Ed: The spokesperson’s fumble raises the question of what appeared to be massive staff as well as candidate failure. Maybe Biden blindsided his own staff with this. Biden has been known to be a tad freelance-y, and it would actually be less alarming if his supposed steamroller of a campaign apparatus didn’t screw this up, too.

Irin: It is weak to let this drag out for 28 years because of your ego.

Ben: Yes — why not do this years ago? Why save it up for the month you’re announcing? Seems like political malpractice — and the kind of thing that might be indicative of future lapses.

Irin: Ultimately, I think he thought he wouldn’t have to, and he made it abundantly clear on The View that he doesn’t think he did anything wrong.

Ed: There’s nothing more feckless, though, than an attempted non-apology apology, particularly to someone with the power to damage your about-to-be-announced presidential candidacy. Just wallowing in his own illusion of innocence would have been much smarter.

Ben: Also today, Biden’s campaign announced that he had raised $6.3 million in his first 24 hours, a very impressive figure that surpasses all other Dem candidates at that stage. He’s consistently leading in national and state polls, and we know his voters are mostly older Democrats on the conservative side of the party. Does the Hill stumble matter, politically speaking? Or is it (as I believe) more just a troubling sign of things to come, in terms of his iffy judgment?

Irin: It may not. I think some voters don’t care about what we would perceive as weaknesses because they’re terrified over Trump and have talked themselves into thinking he would be the one to beat him.

It’ll be interesting to see how black women, the backbone of the Democratic Party, react to being reminded of how Hill was treated. Which we’ve been talking around! But he allowed her to be put on trial, failed to rein in Republican railroading of her, and failed to call corroborating witnesses. This is supposed to be the match for Trump?

Ben: That’s where the “no apology” thing could be perceived as an advantage — we Democrats need to stop being weak, a.k.a. owning up to mistakes!

Ed: Oh please.

Ben: Hey, I didn’t say I endorsed that idea.

Irin, good point re black women. I think there’s a good chance that the attack won’t stick, the way the “superpredators” stuff didn’t stick for Hillary — she still dominated among that demographic.

Irin: You could argue it did eventually stick for her, if you consider that black voters in key states didn’t show up for her in the general.

Ed: All the talk about Joe appealing to white working-class men in the general election is pointless if he loses African-Americans in the primaries. He’s toast if that happens.

Getting back to your question of why this may matter: I wrote a post yesterday morning analyzing Biden’s strategy for winning the nomination, and concluded the key thing for him was to avoid “early stumbles.” Then he committed one like an hour later. So yeah, I think it’s a sign of future mistakes.

Irin: It’s comically inept. And yet Democratic voters are so willing to forgive his bumbling, if my in-box and Twitter mentions are any indication.

Ben: The thing that’s going to be a problem for him is anything that dents this notion of “electability,” which is his biggest asset right now. And watching him fumble around for an answer to basic questions (which he did during some of his appearance on The View) may ultimately be more damaging than what he’s actually saying. Because it makes him look unsure of himself and a little weak.

Irin: Yes, and old.

Ben: And old.

Ed: Well, Nate Silver made the point that for a front-runner, Joe Biden doesn’t have much margin for error, even in the primaries, so every little bit of Mr. Magooism hurts.

Irin: It’s possible that until now, Biden has been coasting on gauzy memories of the Obama administration. Today was the first day we saw Biden himself as a candidate, unscripted.

Ben: And thus we’re reminded of all his previous unsuccessful presidential bids. There was a reason those didn’t go so great.

Ed: Every time I’ve brought up the past campaigns and other baggage to Biden fans, they generally say, “Nothing before 2009 matters any more.” But if the “fresh slate” starts looking like the old one …

Irin: The question is whether Biden has learned from those past mistakes. Today it looked like he had no interest in even listening to any criticism.

Ben: I’m certainly a lot less confident that a candidate’s obvious flaws and baggage will bring them down after 2016.

Irin: My mantra is going to be, no one knows who’s actually electable, vote for the person you want to be president.

Ed: I’ve long thought that us non-conservatives vastly underestimated the extent to which Republicans relished Trump’s evil nature and “baggage” because they wanted to sic him on their enemies. Siccing Biden on Democrats’ enemies would be like (to borrow a phrase from the late Hunter Thompson) sending out a three-toed sloth to take turf from a wolverine.

Ben: Hunter who? Never heard of him.

Ed: He was a character in Love Story.

Will Biden’s New Anita Hill Fumble Hurt His Candidacy?