The vexing Biden trilemma: How to handle the Tara Reade accusation

The vexing Biden trilemma: How to handle the Tara Reade accusation
Credit: Gage Skidmore

Tara Reade's allegation that former Vice President Joe Biden sexually assaulted her in the 1990s is increasingly gaining political traction, and it poses a vexing problem for the Democratic Party, progressive advocates, and any serious opponent of President Donald Trump.

In fact, I believe the allegations create a thorny trilemma — three distinct courses of action to take, each of which is bad. Nevertheless, I believe one course of action is the least bad option.

Before I explain the options before us, however, I should note why I believe Reade's allegations are such a problem. If they were plainly spurious, like the trumped-up allegations against former Special Counsel Robert Mueller or Mayor Pete Buttigieg, they could easily be dismissed. But as I reported when Reade's allegations first became public, her claims deserve to be taken seriously. I found her story persuasive and credible at the time, and since then, a strong and compelling additional corroborating witness has come forward who says she was told of the incident long ago. Though some disagree, my view is that the accusation has received a sufficient level of corroboration in the public sphere that it can be considered most likely to be true.

We've encountered many such cases in recent years of powerful men facing credible allegations. But few have come at such a critical time and implicate the question of which party might control the White House. So how should we proceed in light of these facts?

Option 1. Write Joe Biden off completely

One tempting option is to declare that, given a plausible allegation that Biden raped a woman, there's no way anyone could or should ever vote for him for president.

This perspective may come most compellingly from the perspective of survivors of sexual assault. HuffPost ran a story interviewing 15 survivors about the issue. One, referred to as Susan G., said she would vote for Biden, but she hated being put in the position.

“Voting for an accused man is not something I take lightly,” she said. “It truly feels like I have to sell out part of my soul to appease the other.”

But Susan's response also points to the reason why this option is a bad one. Even on the single issue of whether people who have been credibly accused of sexual assault should be president, voting against Biden isn't the clear answer. In the system we have, presidential elections always come down to two people. If you don't vote for Biden, you're making it more likely that Trump will become president — and vice versa. And Trump has been accused of serious sexual misconduct and rape by a large number of women, many of whom are as believable as Reade. He also famously admitted to this pattern of behavior on the "Access Hollywood" tape.

And in addition to this issue, there are many policies and positions on which Biden is clearly superior to Trump. So adopting a "Never Biden" stance seems difficult to fully accept.

Option 2. Embrace the fact that Biden is the nominee

Biden's last opponent in the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders, has dropped out of contention. So one may conclude that, whatever allegations emerge against Biden, it's too late to handle them. The only issue now is whether Biden is better than Trump, and as I just argued, he clearly is.

This doesn't mean Reade's allegation needs to be completely ignored. Some likely supporters of Biden, like Rebecca Traister, have called for him to be more forthright in addressing the allegation. Others are calling for him to release his Senate office records, which might reveal whether a key part of Tara Reade's claim — that she filed a complaint with his office — is true.

But a lot of advocates of this position seem to be engaging in wishcasting. They seem to think there's some answer Biden could give to the allegations, or some piece of evidence, that might make the whole thing go away. But this is extremely unlikely. It's hard to imagine how Biden could disprove or even cast significant doubt on an allegation that has already increased in its credibility. Even if a complete review of Biden's Senate files turned up nothing about a complaint from Reade, that wouldn't be dispositive.

Perhaps because of this fact, some who embrace this second approach have been egregiously misleading about the Reade allegation or adopting the same dubious excuses Republicans have given for disbelieving the claims against Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, and Roy Moore.

"The New York Times did a deep investigation and they found that the accusation was not credible," Abrams said recently. "I believe Joe Biden."

This is not true. While the Times story did seem to be framed so as to cast doubt on Reade's story, it did nothing to disprove it; in fact, it corroborated one small element of her account. Former interns confirmed that she was abruptly relieved of overseeing them in Biden's office for no clear reason.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday when asked about the accusation that although she supports the Me Too movement, she also believes in "due process." But this claim makes little sense when the voters are evaluating an allegation against a public figure; there is no "process" for doing that. What matters is looking at the allegation and related evidence, and unfortunately for Biden supporters, the accusation seems plausible.

If Democrats take this option in the trilemma, as they seem poised to do, they risk surrendering many of the gains of the Me Too movement. They also undercut many of their own criticisms about the Republican Party's handling of assault allegations and open themselves up to charges of hypocrisy. They also risk that more damaging allegations will come out in the future.

Option 3. Call for Biden to drop out

I'll be direct: This is the option I favor, though I concede it has significant downsides.

If we conclude, as I have, that the allegation against Biden is credible and serious, we can call for Biden to drop out of the presidential race. This is a particularly fraught choice because the primary has essentially ended and Biden is the presumptive nominee. It's practically impossible to start primary again, and to make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic makes it much harder to envision how a Democratic National Convention could choose an alternative nominee. The convention may not even convene in person at all.

There's another downside risk: splitting the party. The primary was fiercely fought, and many supporters of Sanders are still aggrieved that their candidate did not win. Many might not vote in 2020 at all, and some may vote for Trump.

But if Biden were to drop out — because of the Reade allegation or any other reason — it seems to me it would be a big mistake to give the nomination to Sanders. Sanders always sold himself as a revolutionary candidate who was going to change the landscape of politics, but those promises failed. He did not change the shape of the electorate, and he could not convince even Democratic primary voters to back a revolution; he performed worse in 2020 than he did in 2016. It makes little sense to give him the nomination after his entire theory of how he could win crashed and burned. Of course, denying Sanders the nomination after coming in second would further alienate his followers, especially if someone who performed worse in the primary were chosen.

The best option may be to choose a Democratic governor who has handled the pandemic exceptionally well. Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington (who was in the primary but dropped out early), Gavin Newsom of California, and Gretchen Whitmer of Minnesota could all be strong candidates.

But it's inevitably a risk. The candidate to replace Biden would naturally be pretty untested, and it may be impossible to avoid the appearance that the party is just trying to force its will on the voters. While Biden is leading against Trump in many polls, Democrats may find his replacement would perform much worse. And perhaps it will turn out that Reade recants her allegation or — highly unlikely, but conceivable — some evidence emerges that casts significant doubt on her claim.

So why choose this path? It shows a principled position that sexual assault allegations should be taken seriously. It embraces and entrenches the lessons of Me Too. And it also mitigates some of the risks of sticking with Biden: that more allegations might emerge, or that the right-wing will successfully (if hypocritically) weaponize the Reade accusation against the Democrat in November. This path also acknowledges that, if calls for Biden to drop out fail and he ends up running against Trump in the fall, voting for the former vice president is a perfectly acceptable choice.

None of these options is good — that's why it's a trilemma. But I think each of them requires more scrutiny and consideration than they're getting at this time.

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