Joe Biden Is Sliding Down a Slippery Slope of His Own Making

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Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast/Photos Getty
Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast/Photos Getty

The Biden brand is shot.

It rested on three main props: straight talking, competence, and empathy. They supposed to be supported by his deep foreign policy experience and understanding America’s true allies.

All those have been torched by his Afghanistan exit fiasco.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the absence of empathy as he’s been dissembling over his responsibility for what appears to be an inevitable and unforgivable failure to save many thousands of Afghans who risked their lives to support our military.

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All this brought back a ghost that has always been uncomfortably resident in my memory: his performance in the 1991 hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court.

It’s a deeply visceral memory, as it probably is for many others. Basically, Biden cleared the way for Thomas to take his seat by disrespecting the courageous woman, Anita Hill, who stepped up to make credible charges of sexual harassment against Thomas. (Thomas himself, denying her accusations, equated her coming forward with a public lynching.)

The president would obviously like to disown that Joe Biden who, as a senator from Delaware heading the Judiciary Committee, came across as a smooth front for the club of congressional white men whose response to claims of harassment was instinctively dismissive (Sen. Arlen Specter offered the view that discussing large breasts in the work place was common)—perhaps ironically, in this case, while defending a Black guy.

Biden had promised Hill that they would hear her testimony first, before giving Thomas the time to respond. But, after pressure from Republicans, he reversed the order.

Crisply tailored and personable, at turns garrulous and glib, Biden let Hill testify (graphic details involving pubic hair, a Coke can and penis size) and then left her to swing in the wind, failing to call three other women who volunteered as corroborating witnesses. Thomas was confirmed by a 52-48 vote in the Senate.

I recall cringing as Biden offered, as some kind of rationale for his dereliction, that he had to endure two root canals while holding the hearings.

Anita Hill’s pain was more enduring. In April, 2019, as he was preparing to announce that he was running for president, Biden, sensing a minefield to be avoided, called her to apologize “for what she endured” 28 years earlier.

Her response was cool. She told the New York Times that the call left her deeply unsatisfied, that he had still not taken full responsibility for his conduct at the hearings, or for the way this performance had setback the chances for other women to succeed in their claims of sexual harassment and gender violence.

And she linked his lingering influence to the 2018 confirmation hearings of the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh where, again, accusations of inappropriate behavior by women were discounted.

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Clearly, like some other politicians of his generation, Biden’s understanding of what many women had to endure in the workplace has evolved. Jill Biden has made sure of that, and the #MeToo uprising has reinforced it.

However, Biden’s reluctance to make the kind of apology that would have satisfied Hill speaks to the problem facing him now: that when asked to admit to personally mishandling a very public challenge he just can’t go the extra mile.

Admitting to a mistake is the beginning of fixing it.

Thousands of Afghan men who served with the U.S. military, and their families, were thwarted by a bureaucratic vetting system that was too complex and too slow, and Biden didn’t seem to apply himself to fixing it until it was much too late. Now they, together with thousands of U.S. citizens remaining in Afghanistan, face a perilous situation as the Biden administration has tried to blame the Afghans themselves for being dilatory while, in fact, they sank in the morass of paperwork and conflicting advice.

Olivia Troye, a former national security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, tweeted that the system was deliberately sabotaged by Stephen Miller by hollowing out resources at both Homeland Security and the State Department. Even so, Biden’s White House had eight months to fix it and obviously did not.

Sure, Biden made the Trumanesque gesture of declaring that “the buck stops here” but has since repeatedly failed to live up to it. As he said on Sunday, he has to take the decision that nobody else can make. It seems abundantly clear now that some of those decisions were wrong. Why not just say that, without then blaming others, and move on?

Then there is the executive branch blame game: who warned whom and when did they warn them that a potential humanitarian catastrophe was likely? This was reminiscent of what followed after 9/11 when it turned out that the Bush administration had missed several clear warnings of an attack using hijacked airliners. No Bush national security adviser paid any price for that.

Of course, one reason for getting mad, as I am, at this slippery behavior is that Biden and his administration seemed for months to be meeting the standards they set for themselves, and that coherent, honest and competent governance was back after four years of anomie. Biden was right to get out, but that wisdom has been damaged by the manner of its execution.

In May 1940, Winston Churchill, within a few days of becoming prime minister, faced a terrifying military defeat: the loss of most of his army in France as they were overwhelmed by Hitler’s blitzkrieg. If you think the rapid collapse of the Afghan government under Taliban attack is some kind of cultural aberration, consider this: France, considered then to be a great power, collapsed in just six weeks and capitulated on Hitler’s terms.

Churchill feared most of his army would be lost. But, improvising a massive evacuation by every boat that could be sent, from warships to small weekend leisure craft, no fewer than 338,000 troops were scooped up from the beaches of Dunkirk in what seemed a miraculous reversal of fortune.

Churchill, however, was not one to spin a defeat into victory. “Wars are not won by evacuations,” he warned.

That’s the kind of realism that a true leader is big enough to show.

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