Former Vice President Joe Biden spoke openly of his role in the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, saying that he regrets not giving Anita Hill “the hearing she deserved.” The 2020 presidential prospect made the remarks at a New York City event hosted by the Biden Foundation and It’s On Us on Tuesday night that was meant to honor young people who help combat sexual assault on college campuses.
Biden lamented the “white man’s culture” that still persists today and that sought to undermine Hill’s credibility when she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee almost 30 years ago. “The hearing she deserved was a hearing where she was respected, where the tone of the questioning was not hostile and insulting, where the fact that she stepped forward was recognized as an act of courage in and of itself,” Biden said. “I wish I could’ve done something.”
Biden’s role in the 1991 hearings, which he oversaw as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, represents one of the biggest challenges to his potential candidacy for president in 2020, which is widely rumored but still unconfirmed. He has been criticized for contributing to the hostile and prejudiced environment that the committee imposed upon Hill during the hearings, particularly since the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Though still officially undeclared, Biden sits neck-and-neck with Sen. Bernie Sanders at the front of the ever-growing pack of Democratic primary candidates in most early polls. A recent Emerson College poll of Iowa voters had Biden leading the Democratic field with 25 percent of the vote to Bernie’s 24 percent, while an Emerson poll of Wisconsin voters had Sanders at 39 percent to Biden’s 24 percent.
If and when Biden decides to enter the race, he will have a lot to answer for from the left wing of the Democratic Party, even on top of his role in the Hill hearings. He has recently been criticized for his rhetoric surrounding the 1994 Crime Bill, as well as some resurfaced remarks from 1975 in which he argued that integrating schools was a rejection of the “whole movement of black pride.”
Biden’s remarks on Tuesday night signal how he might choose to confront some of those issues on the campaign trail, as does the rumor that he’s considering naming star Georgia progressive Stacey Abrams as his running mate. It’s unclear how such a move might affect Biden’s candidacy on a more substantive policy level, as Abrams generally sits much farther left than Biden on issues of criminal justice reform and voting rights. But it’s important to note that Biden’s central defense so far has been to point back to these specific, very public moments and lament his inability to do more, when in reality he had all the power and opportunity in the world to act—he just chose not to. This is another of those big public moments, and the way he chooses to approach it will determine both how his candidacy and political legacy will be remembered for years to come.