We all learned back on the playground that whoever makes the rules of the game stands a better chance of winning it. It’s an uncomfortable lesson, one that requires us to accept that norms are fluid, that expectations shift, that people’s actions are not only judged as right or wrong, but are also measured against the depravity or valor of their peers.
Already it’s a lesson that looms large in the 2020 campaign: Will the Democrats choose someone who can play by Donald Trump’s renegade rules, or will they gamble on someone who refuses to engage on those grounds? Which brings us to Joe Biden, the would-be Democratic front runner who presents the latest challenge to Democrats trying to decide whose rules to play by.
Lucy Flores was the first woman to declare publicly that Biden crossed a line when he moved in behind her, sniffed her hair and kissed the back of her head. “He made me feel uneasy, gross, and confused,” she wrote in an essay for New York magazine’s website that launched a thousand takes. Congressional aide Amy Lappos came next. She described Biden grabbing her head and rubbing noses with her. “I never filed a complaint, to be honest, because he was the Vice President. I was a nobody,” Lappos said. “There’s absolutely a line of decency. There’s a line of respect. Crossing that line is not grandfatherly. It’s not cultural. It’s not affection. It’s sexism or misogyny.”
Two more women followed with accounts of relatively chaste yet unwanted physical intimacy that mirrored a flood of images–unsolicited massages, too-close embraces–that spread on social media. It added up to a theme: Biden was getting too close to too many women far too often.
Some Democratic rivals praised the bravery of the women who spoke up. “I believe them and I respect them being able to tell their story and having the courage to do it,” said California Senator Kamala Harris. “These individuals feel demeaned, and that’s not O.K.,” said New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. But both stopped short of demanding that Biden beat an immediate retreat from political life. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took a similar tack, offering staid advice to her longtime congressional colleague, suggesting that Biden pretend he always has a cold, and keep people at arm’s length.
In year three of what candidate Pete Buttigieg has christened the “porn-star presidency,” Biden’s allies had plenty of room to run. The argument in his defense, after all, seemed obvious: How could Democrats seriously consider disqualifying the gregariously grippy Uncle Joe for his many decades of perhaps discomfiting public displays of affection, when President Pussy Grabber occupies the Oval Office? Some were quick to dismiss Biden’s offenses as the routine behavior of an old-school, back-slapping, baby-kissing, glad-handing pol. He never intended to insult, much less assault, anyone, they argued. Others noted the difference between a hugger and a harasser: one is endemic to politics, a contact sport in which practitioners are judged by their perceived warmth; the other is guilty of wielding physicality as power.
Unlike the many women who have accused the President of sexual assault–groping and kissing and hands up skirts–Flores and the three other women who spoke out against Biden did not accuse him of sexual misconduct. Other women rushed to defend him, with one calling his kiss on her head “nurturing, supportive.” And unlike the President, Biden did not dismiss the women who spoke up against him as liars, but declared his need to listen respectfully. In an April 3 tweet, he struck a chastened note. “Social norms are changing. I understand that, and I’ve heard what these women are saying,” he said. “Politics to me has always been about making connections, but I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future. That’s my responsibility and I will meet it.”
From there, the public conversation took its own course. Critics noted that Biden’s statement, pointedly, did not include an apology. The question had quickly become not whether Biden’s handsiness was appropriate, but whether his candidacy was viable. And in this, the nearly 50 years of his public record was suddenly under scrutiny–with different pundits’ judgments based not on derivations from some agreed-upon rule book, but on the shifting norms of our complicated times. This is the man who as Senator drove the landmark 1994 Violence Against Women Act into law. Did his political style do more damage to women than his singular legislative achievement prevented? And does his advocacy for women over the years counteract, for progressives, the fact that in the ’70s and ’80s he consistently voted to restrict access to abortion?
Even as Biden’s fate is litigated, the larger tests facing Democratic candidates come into focus. There is the challenge of the generational divide, in which a rising cohort, characterized by its diversity and tolerance, is intolerant of conduct that was long commonplace. Then there is the challenge of navigating norms in an era defined by the #MeToo movement. Perhaps Biden should have realized he was too close, too touchy. And maybe people told him so and he ignored them, believing that his embrace created a powerful, palpable bond with the people whose lives he was trying to help.
And then there is the challenge of whataboutism–that pervasive tactic in which you accuse your adversary of doing something worse than whatever you’ve been accused of. It’s a race to the bottom for the defensive and aggrieved, and it will be a defining feature of the 2020 campaign, animated by the fact that whoever prevails in the Democratic primaries will face a President who has said more outrageous things, done more outrageous things than any other candidate in modern memory.
So how should Democrats embrace this challenge? Should they reject strong contenders whose offenses pale in comparison to Trump’s? You can almost hear veteran pols in the “whatever it takes to win” caucus howling at the prospect of a circular firing squad, of the party crippling some of its strongest contenders because of a zero-tolerance policy that has zero connection to reality. Zero tolerance, the argument goes, denies voters the chance to weigh their values, to bring to their calculation a subtle reckoning with their hopes and needs. It allows only two dimensions, all or nothing, which is not how politics works and certainly not how life works. We must walk and chew gum in our values assessment. Some things are bad but not all bad things are equal. To hold their candidates to higher standards is to unilaterally disarm against a President willing to fight dirty. They say: pick the strongest contender, forgive him or her their trespasses and then strap in for the fight.
But on the other side are the activists, the heart of the Democratic base, who have made the early race a series of apologies and litmus tests over everything from climate to Medicare to racial and gender privilege. It’s long past time, they insist, that the party assert and reflect the values of a diverse electorate and challenge a system too slow to change. What good is winning on solid principles reduced to sand?
This debate is just the beginning. The media’s coverage of this election, as always, will seek to provide context. For now, the context is the incumbent. Biden’s past statements against “forced busing” will plunk on the scale next to Trump’s stack of racist insults. Video of his handling of Anita Hill will loop past the Kavanaugh hearings. And it won’t just be Biden. When Beto O’Rourke is accused of gauzy generalities, his allies will counter with the sham of Trumpism: a promised wall still unbuilt, a health care plan unwritten, a growing nuclear stockpile in North Korea. Articles about Amy Klobuchar as a mean boss will be compared with the serial bullying of the President’s Twitter feed. A replay of anything like Hillary Clinton’s email furor will be laid alongside the President’s non-secure cell phone and a security-unclearable White House staff. Financial scandals? Let’s discuss it on the 68th floor of Trump Tower.
It may be politically satisfying, but this line of defense comes at a cost. If Democrats can’t hold their candidates to a higher standard, then they are allowing the President to set the standards. Fighting fire with fire may very well burn down the house. The challenge to the 2020 candidates is addressing a nation sick of the paralyzing polarization that turns adversaries into enemies and morally bankrupts a country where leaders must win at all costs. There’s a reason most candidates are choosing to talk about Trump as little as possible, and frame a positive message on their own terms.
To uphold standards is to assert that they still matter; that we are a nation with values, who expect our leaders to reflect the best in us. If Trump fails that test, it’s not a reason to discard it, it’s a reason to defend it. So recognize Joe Biden for the good he has done in public life and the principles he has honored, but push him to reckon with his behavior and record. Challenge Beto to flesh out his vision. Ask Bernie Sanders who will pay for free college. The candidate who can take the high road all the way to the White House will have done the country a service before he or she even takes the oath of office.
This appears in the April 15, 2019 issue of TIME.