Tara Reade's assault allegation against Joe Biden is the worst-case scenario

Tara Reade's assault allegation against Joe Biden is the worst-case scenario
Tara Reade, Joe Biden. Screenshot courtesy of Democracy Now!

Two weeks after Tara Reade, a former staffer for Joe Biden, alleged that her old boss had not only behaved inappropriately toward her when she worked in his office in the 1990s, as she had previously claimed, but also raped her, The New York Times published the results of an investigation into her charge.

The report is awful for Reade, the Biden campaign, people who believe that she's telling the truth and those who are convinced she fabricated the story to bring down the former Vice President. It may prove to be a worst-case scenario for Democrats and the left.

As is frequently the case in such circumstances, their findings weren't definitive. According to The Times, "a friend said that Ms. Reade told her the details of the allegation at the time. Another friend and a brother of Ms. Reade’s said she told them over the years about a traumatic sexual incident involving Mr. Biden." At the same time, The Times noted that "no other allegation about sexual assault surfaced in the course of reporting, nor did any former Biden staff members corroborate any details of Ms. Reade’s allegation."

The Times found enough corroboration to convince many people, especially Biden's political opponents on the left and the right, that it is now a proven fact that the presumptive Democratic nominee against Donald Trump, who has also been accused of rape, is himself a rapist. It is highly significant that Reade told a friend about the incident contemporaneously--and relayed to others that something traumatic had transpired with Biden. That kind of indirect witness testimony has been widely cited as evidence to support other women's accounts of abuse at the hands of powerful men.

At the same time, many people were skeptical of Reade's charge because she was a Bernie Sanders supporter who leveled it on a stridently pro-Sanders podcast, and because it was a dramatic escalation of her original allegation that Biden had been overly handsy and essentially harassed her. (She had also praised Vladimir Putin in a Medium post, which tends to set off alarms in some quarters.) The Times has also faced some criticism for saying that its reporters "found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden," but while that wording is problematic, it is true that while Biden has frequently been accused of infringing on women's personal space and other behavior that falls into a "gray area," Reade is alone in alleging assault. Those who doubt her story argue that it's inconsistent with what they know of him after a very long history in the public eye, and that is true but not dispositive.

So while the Times investigation yielded enough evidence to make this an issue that will dog the campaign for the next eight months and open up Democrats, many of whom have stressed the importance of "believing women," to charges of hypocrisy, it didn't find enough supporting evidence to convince those who had previously been skeptical of Reade's allegation that she's telling the truth.

And, more importantly, The Times' story isn't enough to cause Biden to drop out or Democrats to scramble for an alternative nominee. We're stuck with this ugly situation even as Democrats and independents who lean their way attempt to unseat a venal authoritarian who's responsible for mismanaging the worst public health crisis in a century.

Within the Democratic coalition, opinions of Reade's credibility are largely (and predictably) cleaving along factional lines. While it's anecdotal, on social media, those who are strongly opposed to Biden's nomination tend to be the ones who are convinced that he's guilty of assault and those who either support him or are resigned to him taking on Trump in November tend to be the people who are confident that Reade is a fabulist.

So as the Democrats struggle to unite, we're faced with a significant faction that is convinced that "centrists" hate the left so deeply that they settled on a rapist, and a somewhat larger group that's equally convinced that the first one has fallen for a transparent smear campaign in their zeal to punish the "establishment."

The ambiguity may also represent a worst-case scenario for Tara Reade, whose allegation will not only be picked apart in the same way that other women's are routinely dissected, but also with partisanship and tribalism coloring people's perceptions. And if the GOP makes her charge central to their campaign, as is likely, and Biden loses to Trump in November, she may well be blamed for a generational catastrophe. It couldn't get much worse.

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