Joe Biden has spent much of the past week trying to handle allegations that he has inappropriately touched several women, and the allegations may very well bedevil him for the remainder of his likely presidential campaign. He would not be the first politician to have his or her campaign dogged by a “scandal” that is actually comparatively mundane.
Of course, touching another person without their consent is not a thing to be excused or taken lightly. But compared to things such as bribery, corruption, illegal business deals, or other crimes sometimes committed by politicians, it’s relatively minor. And presidential candidates have seen their campaigns done in by a lot less. Consider the examples below.
Howard Dean: A Scream
Back in 2004, Democrat Howard Dean was riding high on a wave of solid poll numbers, an enthusiastic base, and a view towards possibly cinching his party’s nomination. But as NBC News reports, it all came crashing down thanks to a scream.
In January of that year, Dean had come in third the previous night in the Iowa caucuses. Speaking to a crowd of supporters, he reminded them that there were still several states to go, and he would take his campaign to each of them (and presumably win). And then, in the heat of the moment, this happened.
Dean instantly became the butt of every late-night TV joke, and even became a viral star, before the term “viral video” even meant anything.
He also never recovered. The nomination eventually went to John Kerry, who lost to incumbent George W. Bush.
Speaking of John Kerry…
John Kerry: A War Record Called Into Question
Even though he eventually won his party’s nomination, Kerry had to contend with a concerted effort by fellow Vietnam veterans who called his war record into question.
The former Massachusetts Senator had served on a “swift boat” in Vietnam and earned several Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for his service. However, several fellow Vietnam veterans, as The San Francisco Chronicle reported, challenged the validity of Kerry’s medals, saying that the circumstances in which he received them were exaggerated or downright false. An anti-Kerry group was formed — Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — and the term “swiftboating” even entered the lexicon to describe the act of making an unfair attack against someone.
Kerry, for his part, seemed to have weathered the storm well, having secured his party’s nomination, although he eventually lost to George W. Bush. Whether or not the “swift boat” controversy cost him the election is impossible to say.
Mitt Romney: Poorly-Chosen Words
If there’s one thing every politician knows, it’s that words can come back to haunt you. Mitt Romney learned this the hard way in 2012.
— The Hill (@thehill) April 1, 2019
As CNN reported at the time, during the second 2012 presidential debate, Romney was asked about pay equity. In the heat of the moment, he stumbled over his words. What he was likely trying to say was that, as Governor of Massachusetts, he and his staff considered the résumés of female applicants in the same way that they did those of male applicants. However, what he actually said came out differently.
“I had the chance to pull together a cabinet, and all the applicants seemed to be men. […] I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ And they brought us whole binders full of women.”
The phrase “binders full of women,” seen as insensitive and tone-deaf, became something of a meme that followed Romney all the way to Election Day. Romney eventually lost to Barack Obama, although whether or not his “binders full of women” remark played a role in his loss is impossible to say.
Election history is littered with verbal gaffes, phrases, video clips, and other moments that came back to haunt candidates. There’s Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables.” There was Marco Rubio awkwardly drinking water during his State of the Union rebuttal. There was George Allen referring to South Asian individuals as “macacas.” The list goes on.
All of this is to say that a political candidate could find himself or herself fighting a losing battle against a public image problem thanks to something that, in the annals of political scandal, hardly meets the definition of the word “scandal.” Whether or not Joe Biden will overcome the matter of his alleged tendency to be too handsy remains to be seen.