If you told a casual, left-leaning political observer in late 2018 that in less than two years, the Democratic Party would be softer on a high-level politician accused of sexual assault than the GOP were on Donald Trump, they would probably have laughed in your face. And yet, as the increasingly credible sexual assault allegation against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden roils his still budding campaign for the presidency, this is exactly what has happened.
When Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape leaked on October 7, 2016 — a mere one month out from the election — showing him openly bragging about how he would “grab [women] by the pussy” without consent, it was swiftly met with a chorus of voices from the GOP condemning the Republican candidate and calling on him to drop out.
Now, as Biden stands accused by a former staffer of subjecting her to exactly the same behavior in a Senate office in 1993, he has faced no such response from liberal and Democratic quarters. Instead, Democrats and their affiliates have rallied around their candidate, only doubling down as the allegations have been further corroborated.
A mere day after the Washington Post reported on Trump’s “extremely lewd conversation” in 2005, thirty-six high-profile Republicans publicly called for him to step down and end his campaign. This included not just anti-Trump Republicans like Sens. Ben Sasse (R-NE), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Mike Lee (R-UT) — who, incidentally, had been shortlisted by Trump for a Supreme Court seat — but former Trump backers like Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman. The list ranged from governors and members of Congress to state party chairs, presidential and Congressional candidates, and high-ranking staffers and officials like Condoleezza Rice. Even right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt, a Trump supporter who later migrated to MSNBC, called for him to withdraw.
A further ten elected GOP officials, while not calling for him to drop out, withdrew their prior support for and endorsements of Trump and/or declared they would not be voting for him in the election, representing states ranging from Utah and Alabama to Ohio and Florida. Many of the Republicans renouncing Trump did so on the grounds of basic morality and decency, with some specifically citing his treatment of women.
“I don’t want my boys growing up in a world where the President of the United States is allowed to speak or treat women the way Donald Trump has,” said Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL), withdrawing his support.
“I have tried to do everything in my authority as an Alaskan public official over the past seven years to combat sexual assault and domestic violence,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK). “We need national leaders who can lead by example on this critical issue. The reprehensible revelations about Donald Trump have shown that he can’t.”
“The ticket should resign, not just Trump,” said former John McCain staffer John Weaver. “The ticket owns the entirety of Trump’s behavior, past and present.” (Weaver has since founded Project Lincoln, which formally endorsed Biden earlier this month. Weaver, a self-described “Joe Biden supporter,” called Biden “the right leader we need for this moment” and part of “the Army of the Decent” on April 21, nearly four weeks after Biden’s sexual assault allegation went public).
Even the other man on the ticket, the anti-feminist Mike Pence, appeared privately and publicly disturbed by the tape. In what the New York Times called an “unheard-of rebuke by a running mate,” Pence skipped a party event in Wisconsin he was meant to attend on Trump’s behalf. Behind the scenes, Pence sent Trump a letter informing him he was making an “assessment” about whether to stick with the campaign, and reportedly planned a coup to force Trump off the ticket.
Behind the scenes, the pushback was even more intense. Frenzied GOP lawmakers, officials, donors, and activists urged then-RNC chair Reince Priebus to strip Trump of his candidacy, while RNC lawyers met to figure out if there was some arcane loophole that would let them do so. A group of billionaire lawyers offered Trump a payout to drop his bid. Priebus told Trump point blank he could either drop out immediately or suffer a historic loss, adding that Pence and Condoleezza Rice — who had been tapped by GOP donors and officials to be Pence’s emergency running mate — were ready to take over. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) reportedly told the RNC they should no longer “defend the indefensible,” and declared Priebus himself should go if he failed to remove Trump.
Even some of Trump’s most cowardly enablers mustered the courage to censure him in some limited way. Former House speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) disinvited Trump from a rally the two were set to appear at together, put out a scathing press release, and announced he would neither campaign with or defend Trump over the scandal — though he declined to rescind his endorsement.
Of course, most Republicans hadn’t suddenly transformed into feminists or developed a concern for sexual assault survivors. They believed the recording would mean electoral disaster, a situation that only worsened when women soon came forward accusing Trump of the very behavior he had bragged about on tape. Polls had Clinton widening her lead in the wake of the scandal.
Nonetheless, whatever their true motives, the GOP initially acted like a party that took sexual misconduct seriously. A not insignificant number of Republican luminaries made a concerted effort in public and private to end Trump’s candidacy over his history of sexual assault, with Trump defiantly refusing to step down. They proved unable to remove him because, with Trump already officially selected as the nominee and with a little over a month to go until voting, it was impossible to strip him of his candidacy and too late to remove him from a host of state ballots. So Republicans instead put up a unified public front and rallied around their damaged, repugnant candidate, a strategy they would stick to with increasing tenacity when future Republicans were similarly accused of sexual misconduct.
Unsurprisingly, the Democrat-aligned press had a field day. “A Sexual Predator in the Republican Party’s Midst,” went one New Yorker headline. “He’s grabbed women that way,” said MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, comparing Trump to the case of former Republican Senator Bob Packwood, forced to resign over sexual harassment accusations in 1995. “So you’re not allowed to be a member of the United States Senate if you get caught doing what Donald Trump says he does, but Donald Trump is not running for Senate, he’s running for president of the United States.” Rachel Maddow was equally scathing about the GOP’s decision to close ranks around Trump. “Some Republicans and a lot of other people are fantasizing that there is a Republican Party separate and apart from Donald Trump,” she said, accurately. “But it’s just not true.”
The GOP’s response to Trump’s sexual misconduct quickly became a disgrace. But it looks like a moral triumph when compared to the Democrats’ response to their own unofficial nominee’s alleged crime.
While a diverse array of high-ranking Republicans almost immediately denounced Trump and even called for him to step down, Democratic lawmakers refused to respond to questions about the Biden allegation in the days immediately after it went public, and continued to do so for as long as a month after. In contrast to the GOP, not a single Democrat has yet called for Biden to step down or rescinded their endorsement; not one has condemned Biden’s alleged assault.
While Republicans lined up a replacement ticket and worked furiously to kick Trump off his, they were thwarted by the late hour in which the allegation surfaced, in October. By contrast, Biden’s allegation was first aired in March, and for two weeks after he had a viable, popular opponent still in the race. At the present moment, Biden is still more than three months away from being officially named the party’s nominee, and voting is more than six months away.
Perhaps there is a similar behind-the-scenes scurrying by Democrats over their own compromised candidate. Yet it doesn’t appear so based on the party’s public behavior.
Instead, high-profile Democrats are lining up to defend their candidate and dismiss his accuser, using talking points developed by his campaign. While Pence privately and publicly rebuked Trump, considered leaving the ticket, and even looked to mount a coup, the allegation against Biden hasn’t dampened leading Democrats’ enthusiasm to be his running mate. Three such candidates — Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and former Georgia House minority leader Stacey Abrams — have all falsely claimed to the press that the New York Times exonerated Biden, with Abrams adding: “I believe Joe Biden.” (The Times investigation, in fact, corroborated several aspects of Reade’s testimony, but framed its report around denials by Biden’s top staff).
Even Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who has fashioned a political brand as a champion of sexual assault survivors, now says she “stand[s] by Vice President Biden” because “he has vehemently denied this allegation.” Though Biden’s spokesperson has said the allegation is false, Biden himself, in contrast to candidate Trump, has never personally addressed it nor been questioned about it. Gillibrand, who took the lead in ousting former Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) over sexual misconduct charges, refused to even provide a statement to Jacobin in the days after the allegation first went public. Meanwhile, the same day Reade’s allegation was further corroborated by two more people, Biden held a “Women’s Town Hall” where he was enthusiastically endorsed by 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, during which the allegation never came up.
With every possible escape route closed to them, the Republicans of October 2016 resigned themselves to living with Trump. But with numerous escape latches at within their grasp, the Democrats of April 2020 have chosen again and again to go with Biden.
A Party in Biden’s Image
If a Martian were to look at these contrasting responses to candidates’ alleged sexual misconduct and try to guess which party was the one that claimed to “believe women” and which party espoused consistent hostility to sexual assault survivors, it would likely get the answers mixed up. That the GOP of late 2016 had a more forceful response to its nominee’s history of sexual assault than the Democratic Party of 2020 had to theirs says much about the latter.
Of course, Democrats’ silence has been enabled by a mainstream press determined to protect Biden at all costs, a goal that has prevailed throughout the election so far. Without the wall-to-wall coverage that greeted the Access Hollywood tape, there has been none of the widespread popular outrage that pushed the equally unprincipled Republicans into briefly turning on Trump. Even now, cable news coverage of the allegation is a mere trickle, while Democrat-aligned women’s groups are refusing to say anything about the scandal.
In Biden, the Democrats have truly found their closest possible Trump equivalent: a candidate whose family relentlessly profits off his political career, has an alarmingly casual disregard for the truth, is frequently incoherent in public, has a history of alleged sexual misconduct, and can seemingly do nothing to lose his party’s favor, no matter how awful. But while Trump was a creature forced on an unwilling Republican establishment, Biden’s candidacy only exists because of the concerted efforts of his party’s establishment, who chose him fully conscious of his history of sexual misconduct, and have now decided their best bet is to call an ever more credible alleged assault survivor a liar. To paraphrase Rachel Maddow: If you think there is a national Democratic Party separate and apart from Joe Biden at this point, the Democratic Party would like to disabuse you of that notion.