Joe Biden, the touchy-feely politician

Joe Biden poses with a supporter on the campaign trail in 2012 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Joe Biden poses with a supporter on the campaign trail in 2012

Former Vice President Joe Biden is what used to be described as "touchy feely." He is physical, with everyone. He is also known as one of the more empathetic politicians around - the guy who calls when you have a problem and just listens.

But now two women say the touchy was a problem and the feely inappropriate.

This needs some professional context. Physical contact with supporters has been a necessary part of political campaigning for decades. The candidate who tries to run for office and refuses all physical contact with voters would soon be dismissed as cold and aloof.

In Biden's defence, several women have come forward to say that he has hugged and touched them too and it never felt inappropriate, only affectionate.

So clearly there's a line politicians have to walk. Physical, but not in the wrong way.

I'd posit that most women know exactly which side of the line any particular physical contact falls on - whether it is indeed appropriate or inappropriate. We just feel it. Women of my generation put up with too much inappropriate contact for years, assuming it was simply one of the costs of having a job in a largely male environment.

Younger women are less tolerant. Thank God. They have much less time for men behaving badly. So in many ways this is a story of generational differences. Biden is 76, he came of age at a time when touching wasn't automatically taboo - maybe it should have been, but it wasn't.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Stephanie Carter says a viral photo from 2015 of the vice-president with his hands on her shoulders was actually a moment of reassurance from a friend - she's now written an essay defending Mr Biden

Social movements are not black and white, they need to mature enough to deal with shades of grey. And Joe Biden's case is on the spectrum of greyness.

The case raises questions the #MeToo movement still needs to answer.

Is there an exemption for people of a different generation who behaved in a way that was culturally acceptable for their time? Is there a statute of limitations on past transgressions? Who gets to play judge and jury in accusations like these? And, in politics, is there a different standard for Democrats and Republicans?


Two allegations

  • Lucy Flores said Mr Biden kissed her on the back of her head at a campaign event in 2014. She was running as the Democratic candidate for Nevada's lieutenant governor at the time.
  • Amy Lappos, a former aide to a Democratic congressman, says Mr Biden touched her face with both hands and rubbed noses with her in 2009. "Uninvited affection is not okay. Objectifying women is not okay," she says.
  • Mr Biden has said in response: "In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort. And not once - never - did I believe I acted inappropriately."

It's almost too easy to contrast Biden with Donald Trump, who, on video, relished his ability to grab women's genitals and is now President of the United States. But the Democratic Party, in this era, has set itself up as the party of moral purity, on gender as well as race. It is the zero tolerance party so its politicians will inevitably be held to a different standard.

Joe Biden hasn't announced whether he is going to run yet. These allegations may mean he fights harder and announces soon, but they may also mean he never does. His supporters would say that's a travesty of justice and Democrats would be shooting themselves in the foot, losing a candidate with as good a chance as any of unseating Mr Trump.

But Biden would be running in 2019 not 1999 and today there is a big difference in perceptions of what is appropriate behaviour.

In this moment, after all the traumas and stories and successes of #MeToo, Mr Biden's touchy-feely style may just be unacceptable. So these accusations have perhaps raised questions about Joe Biden's suitability that have more to do with age than gender.

Who will take on Trump in 2020?

Mr Biden has yet to jump into the race, but plenty have. So who else has a shot at becoming the next president?

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