On Tuesday in New York, Joe Biden talked openly about the regret and frustration he feels for the way in which the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation of Clarence Thomas – which the then Delaware senator oversaw as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee – played out.
Speaking about Anita Hill, a former co-worker of Thomas’ who alleged that he had harassed her, Biden said this:
“We knew a lot less about the extent of harassment back then, over 30 years ago. She paid a terrible price, she was abused for the hearing. She was taken advantage of. Her reputation was attacked. I wish I could have done something. To this day I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved, given the courage she showed by reaching out to us.”
Biden’s comments were part of a broader condemnation of what he called a “white man’s culture” that has dominated in society – and the Senate – and that Biden believes has “got to change.” (He added that he did ultimately vote against Thomas’ confirmation.)
Which is a good sentiment! And the right sentiment for a candidate who very soon will be running for the Democratic presidential nomination. The problem for Biden – and the Hill testimony makes it plainly – is that he came of age in a very different political time, when “white man’s culture” was totally and completely dominant. And, even more problematically for Biden, he has decades upon decades of recorded Senate votes that, if properly utilized by one of his Democratic opponents (or several of them) could cast him as someone who simply is not made for these times.
One of the most remarkable facts about Biden’s life is that while he has run for president twice, in neither race has his long voting record in the Senate been given the sort of deep dive that we now come to expect of someone running for president. Biden’s 1988 bid was cut short by plagiarism allegations that drove him out of the contest in 1987. In his 2008 run for president, he was never a top-tier (or, really, even second-tier) candidate, and so his opponents largely ignored him and the media didn’t spend a ton of time looking into his loooooooooong voting record. (Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1972.)
That’s not to say that Biden’s Senate record doesn’t have moments that distinguished him then – and will distinguish him in the race to come. Biden’s boast that he has “the most progressive record” of anyone in the 2020 field, which he is not yet in, might be a bit of a stretch, but there’s no doubt that he played central roles in passing the Brady guns bill and the Violence Against Women Act.
But the broader issue is that Biden has been around politics so long – and voting in the Senate for so long – that lots and lots of those votes can and will be picked apart as evidence that he is simply not the right person to lead an increasingly diverse, younger and more female Democratic Party. His stewardship over the Thomas hearing and his vote in favor of the 1994 crime bill are the two most obvious examples of that problem, but there are and will be others.
In some ways, Biden is simply a product of his times. As he acknowledged on Tuesday in regard to Anita Hill, “we knew a lot less about the extent of harassment back then, over 30 years ago.” True! But this presidential race is being run in 2020, not 1990. And none of Biden’s soon-to-be-opponents will let him off the hook for things he said and votes he made decades ago that might have reflected those times but seem deeply out of touch today.
The danger for Biden in this race is clear: He runs the risk of coming off like Don Draper in a Peggy Olson world. And, unfortunately for him, there’s just not much he can do about it.