Joe Biden Can’t Make Up for Dragging Anita Hill, but He Can Use His Privilege Differently Right Now
Justin Cohen
September 19, 2018

This coming Monday, Brett Kavanaugh, the president’s current nominee to the Supreme Court, and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accuses him of sexually assaulting her in the 1980s, will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In a country where powerful men almost never are held accountable for abusing women, what happens on Monday will contribute another chapter to an ongoing national conversation about how women’s rights and voices are trampled in the service of protecting the professional aspirations of white dudes.

Despite newfound interest in holding men accountable for their sexual aggression, opinions on the Kavanaugh confirmation mostly veer from the cynical to the pragmatic. The overwhelming consensus is that whatever happens on Monday, Kavanaugh will be confirmed.

This assessment, while depressing, is a reasonable conclusion, based on how this country treats powerful men who have assaulted women. Ten months ago, I wrote about the last time a Supreme Court nomination process was overshadowed sexual assault allegations, and Clarence Thomas’s 1994 confirmation hearings provide a striking historical antecedent to our current moment. At that time, Joe Biden was a Senator and chair of the Senate judiciary committee; despite a track record of both acting and speaking for the rights of women, Biden failed to use his position of immense political power in a way that protected the dignity of Anita Hill in that moment. Thomas was confirmed, and in the process, the Senate Judiciary Committee dragged Hill and her reputation in a way for which Biden has never fully apologized.

Joe Biden can never change what happened in the 1990s, and redemption is not at hand, as today’s Supreme Court nomination imbroglio lacks the complex racial dynamics inherent in a group of white men interrogating the sexual reputation of a black woman on national television.

That said, Biden could channel his energy, reputation, and privilege right now, in the service of protecting the dignity, reproductive rights, and power of women writ large. By most accounts, Biden retains close – if strained – relationships with many Republican members of the United States Senate. If one or two Republicans defect from the narrow 51 to 49 majority enjoyed by GOPers in the upper chamber, Kavanaugh’s nomination will fail.

Biden should dial the private numbers of every moderate United States Senator, between now and Monday, with three messages. First, that anyone who votes for Kavanaugh would be declaring an escalation of war against women’s rights and dignity. Second, that confirming Kavanaugh will unleash an even greater counter-political force, which will threaten the political livelihood of every moderate Republican who hopes to get re-elected next cycle. And third, that Christine Ford’s sexual reputation cannot be a topic of debate on Monday. Women who accuse men of sexual misconduct should not have their personal sexual histories put on trial, and the Senate Judiciary Committee should strive to set a new standard for that discussion on Monday.

Will personal calls from Joe Biden have any effect on the outcome of these confirmation hearings? Probably not. But there are few people in American life with the power, privilege, and reputation to turn the tide at critical moments. Joe Biden is one of those individuals, and he should burn as much of his privilege as necessary to prevent Kavanaugh from taking a seat on the court.

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