Joe Biden has been affectionately regarded as "Uncle Joe" among many Democratic voters for a long time: The gaffe-ridden, affable centrist who, in his role as Barack Obama's vice president, was relatively powerless and unthreatening, making him easy to like. But with Biden now saying he's "95 percent committed" to running for president in 2020, many people may be less willing to overlook the "creepy uncle" aspects of Uncle Joe's image.
The entire controversy over Biden's personal behavior is exposing a fault line in the Democratic coalition about how to beat Donald Trump in 2020. Some want to nominate a guy like Biden, who is perceived as potentially capable of peeling off some of Trump's 2016 voters -- and, not coincidentally, perceived as unthreatening to men who resent the rise of feminism. Others, including myself, want the nominee to be a woman, and to pull in new voters with a bold feminist vision.
This weekend's Biden brouhaha illustrated why the "centrist white guy" approach might not actually be the safe bet that many have assumed. Among other things, casual sexist behavior that used to go virtually unnoticed is now far more controversial.
See, Joe Biden is handsy. This isn't news. At various points in time, feminists have pointed out that the long history of the former veep being photographed kissing, sniffing or otherwise being uncomfortably familiar with women's bodies is a real problem. Video compilations of the behavior already have millions of views. Even Hillary Clinton has been recored making the "You can stop touching me now" gesture after Biden held her in a hug way too long.
On Friday, former Nevada state legislator and lieutenant-governor candidate Lucy Flores spoke out about this behavior, writing a piece for New York magazine in which she described Biden sniffing her hair and kissing her head before she went on stage at a 2014 campaign event. This was accompanied by a longer piece by writer Rebecca Traister, arguing that while Biden clearly isn't as hostile to feminism as he used to be -- and that's a good thing -- his paternalistic and condescending manner is dramatically out of step with an era when women demand full respect and equality.
Ours is not an era of nuance, and so words like "allegation," which may seem to equate Biden's dubious behavior with more overt sexual harassment, are being thrown around. To this point, no one has accused Biden of sexual harassment, still less of anything close to the multiple accusations of sexual assault that have been made against President Trump.
Notably, Flores herself does not make such an accusation in her article, instead discussing some of the subtle ways, short of harassment, that men signal that they don't take women seriously as equals.
That's why the "creepy uncle" language keeps cropping up. Most women — most people, really — are familiar with men who take advantage of that gray zone between treating women with respect and being a Trump-style overt harasser. The creepy uncle stands too close, he kisses too much, he hugs too long, he stares too hard and he clearly spend a lot of time strategizing how to get as close to the line as possible without crossing over it.
His hand gets close to your breast, but doesn't quite touch it. He doesn't just lightly touch your back like a friend, but squeezes your waist as if he was your lover. He always finds an excuse to use "affectionate" body language, extracting a placating smile or giggle before he finally backs off. He pretends not to know that he's pushing boundaries, even though he manages never to do any of these things to other men.
Coercing nervous giggles from women might seem like a harmless peccadillo, especially compared to what other men, like our "grab them by the pussy" president, have been up to. And with Trump's backers disingenuously trying to equate Biden's inappropriate behavior with Trump's overt bragging about sexual assault, it's not surprising that many people want to deny that Biden did anything wrong at all.
Stephanie Carter, who was photographed with Biden's hands on her shoulders while her husband was sworn in as defense secretary in 2015, has written an article stressing that Biden was just "a close friend helping someone get through a big day" and explicitly denying that this is a "#MeToo" story. Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC got into a huff, ranting, "Democrats, you have to ask yourself, what exactly is the line — the #MeToo line — you want to draw?"
Biden's defenders are so quick to deny that this is a "#MeToo" situation that they perhaps fail to understand that Biden's feminist critics have never said it was. The larger point is that there's a whole range of sexist behaviors that fall short of sexual harassment but that are nonetheless demeaning, demoralizing and -- most of all -- profoundly inappropriate for someone who wants to lead a progressive political coalition into the future.
This isn't a debate about barring your mildly creepy but otherwise beloved uncle from the family reunion because you know he'll be a minor annoyance to the female guests. This is about whether or not someone who clearly doesn't perceive women as full equals should be at the head of a party whose voters and supporters are majority female. No one is saying Joe Biden is the devil, or that he should be barred from public life. They are suggesting that maybe he isn't the best choice as a presidential nominee, especially when so many exceptional and qualified women are in the running.
Biden's response to the controversy, released Sunday, only underscores this point. Biden insists that "not once -- never -- did I believe I acted inappropriately." Although he promises to "listen respectfully" and says he's glad it's a time "when women feel they can and should relate their experiences," this approach frames the issue as a matter of misunderstanding, rather than a question of sexism. Unfortunately, that also extends permission to those who wish to view this as a matter of women overreacting, rather than one of men crossing boundaries they really shouldn't.
Maybe Biden doesn't feel he did anything wrong. In that case, he's too daft to be the Democratic nominee, let alone our next president. Setting aside the dangerous buffoon who currently holds the office, the presidency is, among many things, a diplomatic position. As such, it requires someone who paid attention in kindergarten when we were told that we keep our hands and mouths to ourselves.
It is worth noting, although this should be obvious, that Biden has no history of sniffing men's hair, kissing their heads or rubbing their shoulders in public. I'm sure he also feels affection for men, but either he doesn't want to touch them that way or he knows that men are far less likely to react with a placating smile. No matter his motivations, Biden's behavior reflects his willingness to be an active beneficiary of a system where women are not afforded the same basic respect for their bodily autonomy that men get without asking.
This entire debate also exposes the problem with focusing on where "the line" is for #MeToo, or obsessing about the supposed moment the movement will go "too far." That discourse assumes that women will always be subject to some amount of sexism and to men's petty power trips, and that the only reasonable ground for debate is over how much of that stuff men will be allowed to get away with. Biden's behavior makes clear that wherever "the line" for allowable sexist behavior is set, many men will actively seek to discover how far they can push it without crossing it.
Instead of setting boundaries, perhaps it's time to start talking about setting baselines: And the baseline for male behavior towards women in a professional setting should be to treat them as equals. Which, in pragmatic terms, means that if a guy feels the urge to hug someone tightly, sniff their hair or give them a smooch, he should ask himself first if he'd do it to a 250-pound man. If not, he shouldn't do it to a woman either.
As for the forthcoming Democratic primary campaign, this controversy crystallizes why Biden -- who according to all major polls, remains far and away the frontrunner -- seems like a questionable choice for the nomination. At best, he's the choice who reflects a desire to look backward and to set aside or neglect all the social progress of the past decade.
There's a temptation, in the face of the anti-feminist backlash that led to Trump, to give in to that, just like a woman who offers the creepy uncle a placating giggle so he'll back off. Democrats don't have to make that choice. They could instead decide to stand firm and commit to moving forward into a better future. There's a whole bevy of qualified female candidates — Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris, among others — whose nomination would send that message.