For Biden, 45 years in public life is 45 years of hugs, kisses, foreheads leaned against foreheads, shoulder touches, and gripping hands. It’s been right out in the open in photos and videos, goes the argument. But that conviction can obscure how much the sensibilities have changed.
For many, this is not enough to excuse the behavior. “It’s important for the vice president and others to understand is, it isn’t what was intended—it’s how it was received,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Biden friend and the most prominent female Democratic official, said on Tuesday morning, speaking at an event hosted by Politico. “To say, ‘I’m sorry that you were offended’ is not an apology. ‘I’m sorry I invaded your space,’ not ‘I’m sorry you were offended’—because that’s not accepting of the fact that people think differently about communication.”
Reflecting the changing sensibilities, Pelosi added that she is a member of the “straight-arm club” of only shaking hands—though in the past, she’s often greeted people with kisses, including Biden and President Barack Obama.
“He’s handsy—and some women are okay with it, and some are not,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic consultant. “The defense isn’t ‘Some women were okay with it.’”
Demonstrating the difficulty people are having in discussing Biden is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. A leader in combatting sexual assault long before launching her own presidential campaign, she said in 2017, after calling for the resignation of then-Senator Al Franken: “I think when we start having to talk about the differences between sexual assault and sexual harassment and unwanted groping, you are having the wrong conversation. You need to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘None of it is okay. None of it is acceptable.’”
Asked about the current allegation against Biden, she told reporters in Washington, D.C., on Monday afternoon, “Based on what I read, Lucy Flores felt demeaned. It’s not okay.” But when I asked whether the senator felt Flores’s allegations had been over her line in the sand and whether she felt they should disqualify Biden, a campaign spokeswoman wouldn’t say, despite several requests.
And Alyssa Milano, the actress and vocal women’s-rights advocate, rose to Biden’s defense on Monday. “I respect Lucy Flores’ decision to share her story and agree with Biden that we all must pay attention to it. But, just as we must believe women that decide to come forward, we cannot assume all women’s experiences are the same,” she wrote on Twitter. “I believe that Joe Biden’s intent has never been to make anyone uncomfortable, and that his kind, empathetic leadership is what our country needs. Especially now.”
The Flores allegations and any others that could come out will be problems, Biden and his team know. They think, though, that he’ll benefit from being seen as caring and endearing for behavior that Flores and others might have found uncomfortable or paternalistic.