LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When former Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Kentucky in 2018 to stump for fellow Democrat Amy McGrath, he challenged voters to look in the mirror.
“The question isn’t who Donald Trump is,” Biden told the crowd. “We know who he is. The question is: Who are we?”
Now, Democrats – including McGrath as a would-be challenger to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – are being forced to gaze at their own reflection as Biden, the party’s presumptive 2020 presidential nominee, is being hit with allegations of sexual assault by a former Senate staffer.
Tara Reade, who once worked in the Delaware Democrat’s office, is alleging that in 1993 the then-senator pinned her against a wall, groped her and digitally penetrated her without consent. Biden has denied the accusation, but it has ignited a firestorm for his 2020 presidential bid.
The McGrath campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Thursday or Friday about Biden’s troubles. She did, however, make clear during her 2018 race that the “affliction” of sexual harassment wasn’t a partisan issue.
“We have to resist the natural impulse to give the benefit of the doubt for those we tend to like, but not those on the other side,” McGrath said on her 2018 campaign page.
“Bad behavior by Democrats should not be viewed as less detrimental to us than by those we disagree with politically.”
McGrath stood by Biden in the past during similar scandals, such as when he was criticized for the way he touched women in public.
Biden took to Twitter on April 3, 2019, to acknowledge how “social norms” were changing. He said he would be “more mindful about respecting personal space in the future.”
McGrath, in response, said she felt Biden “was enormously sincere, but also professional” during their interactions.
“He looks you in the eye and makes a real connection with people,” McGrath said in an April 3, 2019, tweet of her own. “I believe he is honest, humble, and cares deeply about our country.”
When I met @JoeBiden , I felt he was enormously sincere, but also professional. He looks you in the eye and makes a real connection with people. I believe he is honest, humble, and cares deeply about our country. #Leadership https://t.co/yVugqPrv30
— Amy McGrath (@AmyMcGrathKY) April 3, 2019
In January, McGrath endorsed Biden for president long before he took hold as the presumptive Democratic nominee. She said the former vice president was a candidate “respected and beloved” across party lines, who could “return honor and integrity to the Oval Office.”
Throughout the 2020 campaign, McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot, has touted how she stands with women whether it is about equal pay, stronger domestic violence protections or accessible health care.
But Democratic women are having an open conversation as Reade is receiving more of a spotlight after going one-on-one in an interview with former Fox News and NBC television host Megyn Kelly.
Some have argued, such as author Linda Hirshman, that they believe Reade’s account but plan to support Biden, anyway. “Suck it up and make the utilitarian bargain,” she said in a recent New York Times op-ed.
Kentucky political activist Honi Goldman took a bigger-picture view, saying because of the country’s political polarization, both Republicans and Democrats have created a double standard for their candidates.
“Whether it’s ignoring President (Donald) Trump’s continual harassment of women versus whoever the Democratic candidate is, we’re going to believe whichever candidate we want to support, and that’s a problem we’re going to have to get over,” she said.
Political experts have opined that the allegation could complicate Biden’s candidacy, which is still seeking to gel among progressives who backed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.
The thinking is Biden will need to put this controversy to rest soon given the need for strong support among suburban white women to beat Trump in November.
A USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll last week found Biden ahead of Trump 50% to 40% in a head-to-head race. But the same poll found 22% of Democrats who supported Sanders in the Democratic primary don’t necessarily plan to support Biden in November.
Democrat Virginia Woodward is a former director of Kentucky’s commission on women and briefly served in the state Legislature. She said the claims against Biden are troubling, but that she doesn’t believe this will railroad the former vice president among Democratic or independent women.
“It’s a concern, but I don’t know that it’s deeply concerning when I take into account his lifetime of public service and responsibility,” Woodward said.
“Women are not one-issue people,” she added. “I believe even independent women will take it as a piece of information given the totality of any candidate, and I don’t think it’s going to be an impact.”
Biden’s statement: Read Joe Biden’s full statement on Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegation
Marcia Roth, a former executive director of The Mary Byron Project, an anti-domestic violence group, said it’s unfair to throw Biden into the same camp as others. She said the former vice president, unlike Trump or Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, has been at the forefront of crafting legislation that has protected women.
“From what I’ve read, I don’t believe (Reade’s) accusation is credible,” Roth said. “I have no issues wholeheartedly supporting a man who has led on making laws and encouraging regulations that protect women, and that is Joe Biden, so I have no moral conundrum at all.”
Biden has been a champion who for years has spoken out against sexual harassment and assault. He was among those who defended Christine Blasey Ford when she accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when the two were in high school.
Other women, however, point out Biden’s record with women isn’t mixed and the new allegation merits a further investigation.
“I do think there needs to be an investigation to make sure this woman’s claim is taken serious and then investigate whether Biden did this,” University of Louisville Pan-African Studies professor Kaila Story told The Courier Journal. “I don’t think his record with feminism or women’s rights should somehow dissuade folks from investigating. … It does not give him a pass.”
Story mentioned how one of the first issues Biden faced when he entered the 2020 presidential campaign was his handling of Anita Hill’s testimony during the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas.
Many African American women, even those who backed Biden’s campaign in the primary, resent how Hill, who is black, was given little support when she alleged harassment by Thomas, who went on to become the second African American justice on the high court.
“It was a disgrace, and black women view (Biden) with anger and suspicion,” Story said. “Just because black women resurrected his campaign, that has more to do with getting 45 out of the White House rather than viewing him as a righteous or above-the-board guy.”
Trump is usually quick to attack adversaries at a moment of weakness, but he has largely refrained from going on the attack himself, telling reporters on Thursday that Reade’s accusation could be untrue.
“I know about false accusations,” the president said. “I’ve been falsely charged numerous times – and there is such a thing.”
The president’s allies, such as McConnell, have not avoided the issue, which could be part of a larger strategy to soften Biden up over the summer.
One of Biden’s strengths is trust, with 47% of voters saying they look at him as trustworthy and honest compared with 31% who view Trump that way, according to a USA TODAY/Suffolk poll.
McConnell has eagerly jabbed at Democrats over the issue in the past several weeks. He called it “jaw-dropping hypocrisy” how Democrats have responded to Biden compared with the explosive sexual assault allegations during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in 2018.
“McGrath owes everybody a detailed explanation for her disturbing hypocrisy on this matter,” McConnell campaign spokeswoman Katharine Cooksey said Friday.
McGrath, for instance, said during an appearance on MSNBC in July 2019 how a deeper investigation into Kavanaugh should have been conducted by the Senate. She compared it to her sitting on Marine Corp. promotion or disciplinary board.
“Whenever there’s a serious allegation the way that there was in this case, you stop the board,” McGrath said in July 2019. “You have an investigation, you look at all the evidence.”
But McConnell and other Republicans also run a risk by going after Biden on this issue, because it can bring up the president’s own past controversies.
Such a dig will likely renew scrutiny among Democrats of the numerous allegations leveled against Trump, as well conjure up the “Access Hollywood” tape that emerged in 2016 in which he bragged about groping women.
The McConnell campaign, for instance, avoided questions Friday when asked how the GOP leader makes any distinction with what Biden is being accused of now versus the multiple allegations against Trump.
Goldman, the Kentucky political activist, said female voters will have to individually weigh Biden and Trump’s alleged transgressions separately. She said women must be open and honest when speaking up against this sort of behavior.
“On the other hand it is not a political issue,” she said. “If you’re going to make it one, then it has to be treated the same across the board for all candidates.”
Follow Phillip M. Bailey on Twitter: @phillipmbailey.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Joe Biden’s sexual assault allegation puts Amy McGrath in a tough spot