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Democrats must demand Joe Biden respond to the sexual assault allegation

On the merits, the substance, Tara Reade had no case. That is until a former neighbor of Reade’s went on record saying Reade told her in 1993 that Joe Biden had sexually assaulted her. That doesn’t mean Biden is lying when he says the allegation is false, just that Reade’s story seems more plausible today than it did last week.

It means that while the allegation likely still wouldn’t pass muster during a criminal proceeding, it’s plausible that a civil jury would rule in her favor based on the “preponderance of evidence” standard, which is not as robust as “beyond reasonable doubt.”

Because this case probably won’t be settled inside a courtroom, all that’s left is the court of public opinion.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. Democrats and a good number of independents and moderate Republicans are hoping Biden will dethrone President Donald Trump in November — all while knowing that dozens of women have made accusations against Trump, from harassment to rape. Trump was caught on audio bragging about being able to casually sexually assault women.

I’m among those who desperately want to see Trump defeated. Because of his open bigotry and racism. Because of his long history of xenophobia. Because he effectively used the kidnapping of brown kids as official immigration policy. Because of his lack of character and intellect.

Because a Trump victory likely means a seven-two Supreme Court within a few years, which would jeopardize women’s rights, voting rights and so many other things I believe are important to preserve. And because he has led one of the worst governmental responses to the coronavirus pandemic in the world yet still focuses more on his approval ratings than the tens of thousands of Americans already killed by COVID-19.

Initially, I did not think Reade’s story plausible. Publicly, she changed it, first coming forward as one of a handful of women who said they felt Biden had made them uncomfortable, or worse, because of the way he touched their shoulders or smelled their hair. Then she said what he had done to her was worse, an actual sexual assault when she worked for Biden in 1993.

Reade said she told her mother at the time, but her mother had since passed, so couldn’t corroborate Reade’s story. Reade’s brother corroborated her story, but initially told The Washington Post she only mentioned unwanted attention, and only later claimed she also told him about the assault.

A couple of friends said she told them something as well, but none of it seemed clear. And it was all clouded by Reade’s bizarre writings, in which she praised Vladimir Putin and demeaned the United States. That didn’t mean she wasn’t credible. But given the role Russia has played in our elections recently, that connection couldn’t simply be brushed aside.

Then The Intercept unearthed a transcript of a phone call into a “Larry King Live” episode from long ago. “I’m wondering what a staffer would do besides go to the press in Washington?” the caller said. “My daughter has just left there, after working for a prominent senator, and could not get through with her problems at all, and the only thing she could have done was go to the press, and she chose not to do it out of respect for him.”

Reade said the caller was her mother. Though the caller didn’t mention Biden’s name or a sexual assault, if it was indeed Reade’s mother, it strongly suggests Reade told her something she felt was disturbing enough to prompt a call. Then add the account by Reade’s former neighbor to Business Insider.

Full disclosure: I voted for Elizabeth Warren, not Biden, during the South Carolina Democratic primary. Over the years, I’ve argued that men like Bill Clinton, Bret Kavanaugh, Mark Sanford, Al Franken and Justin Fairfax should have stepped aside from their prominent leadership roles. Our standards for the men we give power should be high.

Allegations against those men ranged from ill-advised and immoral, such as Clinton’s lying about an affair with an intern while he was president; Sanford’s inexplicable trip along the “Appalachian Trail”; Franken’s inappropriate and ill-placed behavior involving multiple women; Christine Blasey Ford’s credible-sounding claim that Kavanaugh tried to rape her when they were in high school; and allegations of sexual misconduct by two women about Fairfax.

I’ve also spent time teaching my journalism students about cases such as the Central Park Five, the Duke lacrosse team and a now-infamous and debunked Rolling Stone story about an alleged gang rape culture at the University of Virginia.

Five young black and brown men were convicted in the Central Park case and sent to prison even though they were innocent. A group of wealthy white young men were falsely accused in the Duke lacrosse case. The Rolling Stone story was built upon the fantastical tales of a disturbed young woman. Not only that, false rape allegations have been used to justify the imprisonment, torture and lynching of black men throughout this country’s history.

But it’s also true that women victims of sexual assault have often been mistreated by their families and friends and communities and disbelieved by a criminal justice system that forces them to undergo invasive procedures to collect evidence that often goes untested.

That’s why they’ve been forced to rely more upon the court of public opinion. That’s why there’s a #MeToo movement. That’s why it would be unwise for even those of us who desperately want to see Trump defeated to ignore the Reade allegation. That doesn’t mean we must now believe her. It’s also plausible that Biden is telling the truth when he says he didn’t do what he’s been accused of doing.

Taking this allegation less seriously than we did the one leveled against Kavanaugh by Blasey Ford wouldn’t just be political hypocrisy or cowardice. It would mean that we were lying when we claimed that we wanted women to be given a fair hearing. Trump or not Trump, I won’t be among those who take that road.

At a minimum, Biden must be forced to respond to the allegation, not in a statement through his campaign, not through surrogates, but live and in detail. Democrats should demand nothing less. They whiffed on the handling of the claims against Clinton in the 1990s, one of which also included an alleged rape. The party has never fully reckoned with that past, even as it has championed women’s rights since, including Biden’s prominent role in the passage of the Violence Against Women’s Act.

Trump proved that white Evangelical Christians weren’t serious when they insisted that they believed in morality and prioritized Jesus’s teachings. If Democrats aren’t careful, Reade’s allegations against Biden will prove them to be just as hypocritical when it concerns the issue of sexual assault.

Isaac J. Bailey is a journalist and professor of communication studies at Davidson College. His book, My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South was published in 2018.

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