But Biden’s remarks showed why, despite the many ambiguities of Reade’s claim, the story has been, and will be, so hard for him to put behind him. Today, he tried to walk a fine line: He wants to quell the furor over the accusations, while also affirming a principle the Democratic Party has embraced in recent years: that women’s accounts of abuse should be believed.
“While the details of these allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault are complicated, two things are not complicated,” Biden said in his statement. “One is that women deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and when they step forward they should be heard, not silenced. The second is that their stories should be subject to appropriate inquiry and scrutiny.”
This is perhaps a defensible standard: It’s clear that women have been discouraged from bringing complaints of sexual assault and harassment against powerful men, and have been demonized when they do so, yet no one wants to see false accusations triumph. The balance Biden laid out today is one that most Americans might even endorse.
Yet it’s also a different standard than the simple “Believe women” expounded by many liberal activists in recent years, especially around the allegations of attempted rape lodged by Christine Blasey Ford against now–Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. And some Democrats, having adopted that standard, will now struggle to explain why they are adopting a different one when it pertains to their party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
Many of the top women leaders in the party, who endorsed Ford’s account, have now said they stand with Biden, pointing in part to ambiguities in Reade’s story—though Ford’s account was, at times, ambiguous as well.
Moreover, Biden finds himself in the same bind. At the time of Ford’s allegations, he told The Washington Post, “I thought she was telling the truth at the beginning. I really did.”
And while not using the Believe women phrase, he offered this standard for assessing claims: “For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real, whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time.”
That’s a bit convoluted—the presumption that at least the essence is real. But today, Biden offered a subtly but importantly different standard. “Start off with the presumption they’re telling the truth”—but only as a starting point for investigation, rather than an endpoint.
“From the beginning, I’ve said believing a woman means taking the woman’s claim seriously when she steps forward,” Biden said. “And then vet it. Look into it. That’s true in this case as well. Women have a right to be heard and the press should investigate claims they make. I will always uphold that principle. But in the end, in every case, the truth is what matters. In this case, the truth is the claims are false.”