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Biden's behavior not disqualifying

Think of the politicians who have done much worse, such as driving drunk.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers construction and maintenance conference in Washington on April 5. Credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

The movie about Dick Cheney, “Vice,” begins with him getting pulled over for drunken driving. It is one of two drunken-driving arrests Cheney incurred, and it didn’t prevent him from becoming vice president. Nor did a drunken-driving arrest block Cheney’s boss, George W. Bush, from ascending to the White House.

But Joe Biden shouldn’t be president because he’s been too handsy with women? Really?

Let’s be clear: Biden has touched women inappropriately. And we know that because the women have told us. Nobody has alleged that he sexually assaulted or harassed them. But by last count, seven women have come forward to say the former vice president made them feel uncomfortable by squeezing their shoulders, kissing their heads, and so on.

He acknowledged as much in a video released last week, pledging to be “more mindful and respectful of people’s personal space.” But that wasn’t enough for critics like Lucy Flores, the first woman to accuse Biden, who has told interviewers that his behavior is “disqualifying” for becoming president.

I believe Flores’ account of Biden’s actions, which were wrong. But Flores is wrong to insist his behavior makes him ineligible for the White House.

And if you think otherwise, consider the number of politicians who have sought or obtained high office following drunken-driving arrests. They include not just Bush and Cheney but also Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke, who was charged in 1998, when he was 26.

That should not disqualify O’Rourke for the presidency. But by any reasonable measure, it’s vastly worse than anything Biden is accused of doing.

First, it was a crime. O’Rourke took two Breathalyzer tests that placed his blood-alcohol level above Texas’ legal limit at the time. He was arrested and charged; he also completed a diversion program, which led to the charges being dismissed.

Second, drunken-driving puts others in mortal peril. Nearly 11,000 people died in alcohol-impaired car crashes in 2017, accounting for 29 percent of traffic fatalities. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there’s an alcohol-related traffic death every 48 minutes.

Third, drunken driving doesn’t hinge on individual perceptions or reactions. And that’s the biggest difference between what O’Rourke and Biden did. For every woman who says she felt violated by Biden, there’s another who found it innocuous or even charming.

Consider Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who posted a photo of herself touching foreheads with Biden. “Everyone’s experience is their own,” Bottoms tweeted. “As for mine, I found my introduction and interaction with @JoeBiden to be genuine and endearing.”

Again, that doesn’t make Biden’s behavior OK. But this controversy highlights the ambiguity of these matters, which puts them in sharp contrast to drunken driving. If you drive while intoxicated, you’re putting everyone on the road in danger. What they think about you doesn’t matter in the least.

So how should we think about Biden? It’s legitimate for voters to reject him because of his inappropriate behavior around women, just as others might decide to vote against O’Rourke because of his arrest. But it’s absurd to say Biden shouldn’t run on those grounds, unless you’re prepared to say the same about O’Rourke.

I guess that many of Biden’s critics have other reasons for opposing his possible presidential bid, including his mixed record on abortion rights and his conduct during Anita Hill’s testimony at Clarence Thomas’ 1991 Supreme Court hearings.

So let’s talk about that, instead. And don’t leave out Biden’s opposition to school busing, which hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention. The focus on his personal behavior turns politics into a game of gotcha. That’s a contest nobody wins.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania.

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