Former Vice President Joe Biden on Monday called for a delay on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and in doing so injected himself into a debate that has unmistakable echoes with an episode in his own history.
Nearly three decades prior, Biden presided over the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, where Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against the then-nominee took center stage.
Biden, who was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, came under scrutiny for his handling of the hearings. He has since expressed regret, but it’s one issue from his decades-long political career that could be raised should he decide to run for president again in 2020.
“We’re living in a different time than 27 years ago” during the Thomas hearings, said Patti Solis Doyle, who served as Biden’s campaign chief of staff in 2008, when he was the vice presidential nominee. “The MeToo movement has impacted all facets of our culture and our society and certainly our government and politics.”
“If we did not think that the Clarence Thomas hearings was going to be an issue in 2020, well, I think what is going on with Judge Kavanaugh and Professor Ford, I think it now guarantees that it will become an issue for Vice President Biden should he run in 2020,” said Solis Doyle, a CNN political commentator.
Biden was asked Monday night by reporters if he believed Hill at the time.
“Oh, I thought she was telling the truth at the beginning,” Biden said, according to the Washington Post. “I really did.”
He added, speaking more generally, “For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real, whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time. But nobody fails to understand that this is like jumping into a cauldron.”
A spokesperson for Biden said earlier Monday that the former vice president believes votes on Kavanaugh’s nomination should be postponed after California professor Christine Blasey Ford accused the judge of physically and sexually assaulting her at a party during their high school years. Kavanaugh denies the allegation.
“Vice President Biden believes Professor Ford deserves a fair and respectful hearing of her allegations, and that the committee should undertake a thorough and nonpartisan effort to get to the truth, wherever it leads,” the spokesperson said. “He believes the vote should be postponed to allow this to happen appropriately, because this is an appointment for life to the nation’s highest court, and getting the decision right is more important than getting it done on a rushed timeline.”
Biden presided over the confirmation hearings for Thomas in 1991, when Hill alleged that Thomas, her former boss, had sexually harassed her when they worked together at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas denied the allegations and called the line of questioning at the hearing “high-tech lynching.”
Biden was criticized for how Hill was treated, as she faced intense and probing questioning about her alleged inappropriate encounters with Thomas. One of the most brutal lines of questioning during the hearing before the panel of 14 white male senators came from the late Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania.
“You testified this morning that the most embarrassing question involved — this is not too bad — women’s large breasts,” Specter said. “That is a word we use all the time. That was the most embarrassing aspect of what Judge Thomas had said to you.”
Biden also questioned Hill on the issue himself, asking, “Can you tell us how you felt at the time? Were you uncomfortable, were you embarrassed, did it not concern you? How did you feel about it?”
Biden ultimately voted against Thomas, who was confirmed to the Supreme Court with a narrow vote of 52-48.
As the #MeToo movement gained steam last year, Biden said he wished he had handled the hearing differently and that he owed Hill an apology.
“I believed Anita Hill,” Biden told Teen Vogue. “And my one regret is that I wasn’t able to tone down the attacks on her by some of my Republican friends. I mean, they really went after her. As much as I tried to intervene, I did not have the power to gavel them out of order.”
“I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill,” he added. “I owe her an apology.”
In a PBS interview in January, Biden said he had not contacted Hill about an apology. His team acknowledged Monday that he and Hill have not spoken. Hill did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Solis Doyle, who managed Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, gave Biden credit for his support of women’s issues and said he could “provide a great challenge” to President Donald Trump in 2020. But she added that he needs to more directly explain his role in the Thomas hearings should he run.
“I think that in the environment that we’re in and the MeToo movement, he’s going to have to address his role in the Clarence Thomas hearings more directly, and if he wasn’t prepared to do that before, certainly what’s going on with Judge Kavanaugh, I think, guarantees it,” Solis Doyle said.
“This doesn’t preclude him from running. This doesn’t preclude him from winning,” she said. “I think he just needs to be very direct and forthright about his apology.”