Sexual assault allegations in politics – especially at the presidential level – are always serious, as, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump know all too well.
Tara Reade’s accusation against Joe Biden is very troubling. Where does this leave the presumptive Democratic nominee?
Biden has been wounded, but not fatally – yet. He will likely survive. Why?
First, Biden’s response has been emphatic and unequivocal: "It is not true, I am saying unequivocally it never, never happened and it didn't," Biden said in an interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "It never happened.”
Second, the accusation strikes almost everyone who knows Biden, and how he is perceived generally by the public, as out of character.
No support for Biden has been withdrawn from other Democrats. The most prominent and powerful women Democratic leaders in the country, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to former State representative Stacey Abrams in Georgia, have affirmed their support for him. None have called for Biden to step aside.
Third, the vetting of Biden as a potential vice president by Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 Obama is telling. A dozen lawyers reviewed his career and record in forensic detail. They found no hint of sexual impropriety and they were looking for it.
As Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod has related: “Through that entire process, the name Tara Reade never came up. No formal complaint. No informal chatter. Certainly, no intimation of sexual harassment or assault from her or anyone else. The team of investigators, expert in their work, would not have missed it.”
In the larger political environment prevailing today because of the pandemic, with little attention to campaign politics, this is low-level noise. The story is not moving any polling.
However, if the accusation mutates into something more compelling and confirmed, it could become a threat to Biden not only in the court of public opinion, but especially within the Democratic Party in terms of Biden’s securing the nomination.
If a record of Reade’s complaint to the Senate does emerge — contradicting Biden's unequivocal denial that a complaint was filed — then Biden’s credibility would be undercut because Biden could not have been clearer:
“I’m confident there is nothing. No one ever brought it to the attention of me 27 years ago … No one that I’m aware of in my campaign — excuse me, in my Senate office at the time — is aware of any such request,” he said on MSNBC.
If Biden is proven wrong on this key point, leading women Democrats could begin walking away from him. And if that happens what stellar woman from, say, the Senate would agree to serve as his vice president?
A moment of triumph for Biden — fulfilling his pledge to select a woman as VP — could turn into an immediate embarrassment for him, and her, and cripple their campaign on the launching pad.
Alternatively, if major credible accusations of sexual assault emerge, such a shocking development would place Biden in the same position as now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who faced exactly such charges two years ago. The allegations were sufficient for all but one Democrat in the Senate to vote against Kavanaugh’s confirmation. This scenario would place Biden's nomination in the utmost jeopardy.
Both scenarios are unlikely.
Senator Elizabeth Warren said on Monday that Biden's denial of the allegations made by Tara Reade was, "Credible and convincing. I support the vice president, I support his campaign, and I am proud to endorse him for president." On balance, this ends with Biden adamant and not enough critical mass to be sufficiently conclusive on the assault charge. It would remain a relatively minor issue and would not undercut Biden’s position within the party as the best Democrat to remove Trump from office.