Joe Biden’s political future was tied to former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams last month after the two met at his request, launching whispers of a potential shared 2020 ticket.
Those rumors — stoked by Biden’s aides — have now given Abrams power over Biden’s potential presidential campaign. And many of those around her think she should use it to make sure that campaign never happens.
“It’s clear that time has passed him by,” one Abrams ally told BuzzFeed News, as Biden’s aides work to contain an early crisis around the former vice president touching women. “He should not be running.”
Interviews with three members of Abrams’ former staff this week suggest the sentiment toward Biden inside her group of young, race-conscious loyalists won’t go away until Biden does. Some pro-Abrams Democrats are furious that associating with Biden’s past now could compromise Abrams’ political future.
Abrams herself has remained silent for four days about the latest Biden controversy — not exactly the reflexive defense of a staunch political ally — as she considers her next move, which still could include teaming up with him for a 2020 campaign.
Aides to both Biden and Abrams have publicly denied that there’ve been any formal discussions about a joint ticket. But the rumors haven’t died down since they started after the two shared lunch, with two sources telling BuzzFeed News last week that Biden has in fact pitched the idea to Abrams.
Biden’s team has, to this point, been willing to give Abrams and her allies say over much of the story around their relationship.
At some point in Biden’s courting process, before their lunch meeting made at the former vice president’s request, members of Biden’s team gauged her comfort level with what they had planned next, a source close to Biden’s team told BuzzFeed News: for the broad contours of their meeting to be made public. It’s not known what she said in response, but an Associated Press report on the meeting was published March 14, the same day as the lunch.
Such plans are part of the delicate process of how campaigns work to control their narrative. But since then, that caution has exploded as multiple women have come forward telling their stories about separate incidents involving Biden touching them in ways that made them feel uncomfortable, though not in a way they’ve described as sexual.
Lucy Flores, a Nevada Democrat who ran for lieutenant governor in 2014, detailed how Biden approached her from behind at a campaign event, smelled her hair, and kissed her head. “I’m not suggesting that Biden broke any laws, but the transgressions that society deems minor often feel considerable to the person on the receiving end,” Flores wrote. “That imbalance of power and attention is the whole point — and the whole problem.” A second woman, Amy Lappos, told the Hartford Courant of a similar situation at a 2009 fundraiser in Connecticut. “It wasn’t sexual, but he did grab me by the head,” she said. “He put his hand around my neck and pulled me in to rub noses with me. When he was pulling me in, I thought he was going to kiss me on the mouth.”
The stories do not yet appear to be affecting Biden’s 2020 decision, which he’s for weeks said he would announce “soon.”
Abrams has not yet directly addressed the allegations against Biden herself. But she has a history of writing on how leaders handle mistakes or slips in their past, and has long said that if handled properly, certain situations in which people were wrong can be used as a platform for progress.
“If you are going to make any decisions, take any leadership actions at all, live a fulfilling life, then you are going to be wrong,” Abrams wrote in Lead From the Outside, which lays out her political philosophy.
Abrams has said leaders will inevitably make mistakes, but that effective leaders can’t be afraid to speak about being wrong. She believes it’s a necessity for leaders to demonstrate how what they learn informs change and strengthens their leadership in the future. “The goal then is the ability to admit that you have done so and use that information to move forward,” she wrote. “Knowing how to be wrong is fundamentally about honing the ability to admit that you don’t know. Effective leaders are able to say to the person they want to impress the most: ‘I don’t know.’”
Intentionally or not, Biden’s initial public response to Flores reflects that thinking. A written statement released from his spokesperson over the weekend, while not directly addressing Flores’ allegations, emphasized Biden’s willingness to gain knowledge by listening “respectfully,” despite inappropriate action never being his intention.
“I may not recall these moments the same way, and I may be surprised at what I hear,” Biden said in the statement. “But we have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention. And I will. I will also remain the strongest advocate I can be for the rights of women. I will fight to build on the work I’ve done in my career to end violence against women and ensure women are treated with the equality they deserve.”
A spokesperson for Biden declined comment. An Abrams spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment asking about how her past comments about mistakes and leadership apply to Biden’s physical behavior with women.
Abrams’ supporters are said to be waiting for a surer sign of what Abrams intends to do next, a decision Abrams has said could come as late as this fall. That includes her donors, said one Abrams friend who cast serious doubt about whether Abrams could help fix Biden’s image problems at this point.
There’s still an undercurrent of uneasiness about the prospect of a super ticket between Abrams and Biden. Abrams’ friends and advisers are fearful of the fraught racial dynamics and the cultural optics of an association with Biden, who is being pilloried for alleged misdeeds he’s yet to fully account for, and what they could mean for the rest of her career. A top ally who asked they not be identified for this story said they and others were discouraged because of how much work Abrams put in to build a Democratic movement to turn Georgia blue, only to have it be possibly leveraged by Biden.
Abrams, though, seems like she could be more willing to move beyond the allegations and any perceived blemishes on his long policy record, if she believes Biden’s response to be genuine.
“I talk about the fact that we make mistakes based on the information that we have at the time, and one of our responsibilities is to create space for people to understand that mistakes happen and that you can grow,” Abrams told a panel of interviewers on CBS last week, before the allegations were made public. “And what I hope anyone running for president will do is acknowledge mistakes made, talk about what you’ve learned, and apply those new lessons to how you intend to lead.”
Asked in the same interview about Biden’s treatment of Anita Hill during the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Abrams gave some view into how she sees Biden changing.
“People cannot trust you if they don’t know that you know who you are and what you’ve done,” she said. “But once you’ve admitted and you’ve offered atonement, then we should move onto the next space. And so I think he’s begun the process, but this is going to be a long primary and there are going to be a lot of questions and I think he’s tough enough to take it, and I think he’s smart enough to be responsive.”