WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden kicked off his third run for the White House Thursday with a video announcement and it is guaranteed that his long career in the Senate — that included the controversial, 1991 hearings into Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations — will again come under the microscope.
Biden faced these same questions when he ran for President a second time in 2008 and then after Democratic nominee Barack Obama made him his running mate.
Biden announced his 2020 by video on YouTube and other social media. He is expected to make his first public appearance as a candidate on Monday at an event in Pittsburgh featuring union members, a key constituency.
In his video, Biden drew a stark contrast between himself and President Donald Trump.
"Everything that has made America America is at stake," he said, adding: "I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time. But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are, and I cannot stand by and let that happen."
Biden, 76, had been wrestling for months over whether to run. His candidacy will face numerous questions, including whether he is too old and too centrist for a Democratic Party yearning for fresh faces and increasingly propelled by its more vocal liberal wing.
In the run-up to his announcement, Biden tried to confront the issue about how, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he had overseen Hill’s allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
“To this day I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved, given the courage she showed by reaching out to us,” Biden said, speaking of Hill at a charity event in New York in late March. “I wish I could’ve done something.”
His critics call that excuse flimsy, saying Biden has downplayed his considerable authority.
“He could have done more,” Kimberle Crenshaw, a UCLA law professor who assisted Hill’s legal team in 1991, told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s not an apology. An apology starts with a full acknowledgement of the wrong you have committed. If he wants the women’s vote, he’s got to do something more than symbolic stuff.”
The #Metoo movement and the fact this Democratic field includes several prominent, accomplished women candidates means Biden will have to work harder to assure voters he’s the right candidate for these times.
State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, said he has known Biden since the 1960s and predicted Biden would not shy away from the topic.
“I’ve known him for a long time. This is someone with an incredibly strong constitution if you look at what he’s overcome during his life,” D’Allesandro said. “There’s no question this will continue to come up. Nobody is perfect in public life, and the longer you’re involved in it the more people can take shots at you. I’m sure on this matter and others Joe thought he could have done it better but that’s true of all of us who get into this game.”
A leader in the state’s anti-sexual violence movement said all 2020 candidates, including Biden, face an electorate that demands their attention.
“People underestimate how important issues of domestic and sexual violence are to voters in New Hampshire and across the country. A recent bipartisan poll shows that an overwhelming majority of voters in the Granite State believe that victims of crime deserve meaningful rights,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Every candidate needs to focus on this issue, she said.
“We’re all evolving in our understanding of these issues and the coalition looks forward to having a conversation with every candidate about how they can address domestic and sexual violence in a way that is trauma-informed and considerate of survivors’ experiences,” Grady Sexton said. “It’s critical that each candidate understand the importance of enacting policies that support the rights of victims and prioritizes public safety.”
Biden’s handling of the hearings goes beyond being just a single data point in his 36-year Senate voting record.
The incident became a test of leadership in a climactic political event as Hill’s allegations blew up what were already high-stakes confirmation hearings. Thomas, a young black conservative, had been picked by President George H.W. Bush to replace Thurgood Marshall, the legendary civil rights lawyer and the court’s first African American justice.
Hill, then a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, alleged that Thomas harassed her by talking in sordid detail about sex and pornography while she was an employee of his at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas flatly denied the allegations.
The hearings turned a spotlight on that glaring lack of diversity.
“There was a real and perceived problem the committee faced,” Biden said at the March charity event. “They were a bunch of white guys.”
Former California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was one of the House members who marched to the Senate at the time demanding action, does not think voters should hold the case against Biden.
“I believe the committee was very uncomfortable with the whole thing; they didn’t know how to deal with it,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I believe Joe when he says he wishes he could have done more.”
The most important thing he did, Boxer said, came after the 1992 election swept four more women into the Senate. Biden, to ensure no woman ever again faced an all-male Judiciary Committee, recruited two of the newly elected women senators to sit on the panel.
D’Allesandro said Biden’s Senate career was marked by pursuing other policy achievements, including the Violence Against Women Act and the federal assault weapons ban that’s since expired.
“He’s helped a lot of people over the years and always looked out for those less fortunate as the working class guy from Scranton, Pennsylvania,” D’Allesandro said.
“We’ve got a lot of great candidates in this field, but he does offer a contrast to Trump who was born on third base.”
Bigger obstacles for Biden may be his age (76), his habit of speaking off the cuff and committing gaffes and what memories remain of those first two runs for President, that each ended in failure.
“This business has changed, and to succeed you have to constantly evolve with it. I think he has,” D’Allesandro added.
The Los Angeles Times and Reuters news service contributed to this report.