When Friday’s Democratic debate turned to the issue of abortion, former vice president Joe Biden made sure everyone knew he’s been instrumental in protecting a woman’s right to choose. He took credit for the confirmation of several justices who support abortion rights, claiming to be “part of the reason why” Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elana Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg landed their seats.
But he left out Justice Clarence Thomas.
It’s long been one of Biden’s biggest weaknesses: Especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, the former vice president struggled to shake his association with the Thomas confirmation hearings, now infamous for their mistreatment of Anita Hill, a young African American law professor who accused Thomas of sexual harassment.
Biden, then a senator from Delaware, did not play a small role in these hearings: He led them, overseeing an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee as his Republican colleagues pummeled Hill with questions like, “Do you have a martyr complex?” and “Are you a scorned woman?” When other women came forward to testify against Thomas, Biden refused to call them as witnesses.
Going into the 2020 campaign, Biden knew this was going to be an issue for him. He called Hill before he launched his bid for the presidency, allegedly expressing “regret for what she endured.” (Hill was not moved. She has said that Biden “set the stage” for Kavanaugh’s eventual confirmation.)
“As the committee chairman, I take responsibility that she did not get treated well. I take responsibility for that,” he said on “Good Morning America” last year.
So it struck many viewers as particularly tone-deaf on Friday night, when Biden invoked Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan, while saying nothing about Thomas.
Perhaps even more surprising was the lack of response from the other six candidates on the debate stage. No one followed up to remind viewers of the less triumphant moments of Biden’s track record when it comes to the Supreme Court.
While the candidates might not have zeroed in on Biden’s comments, viewers certainly did. Within minutes, “Clarence Thomas” was trending on Twitter. Biden ultimately voted against Thomas, but viewers noted that his treatment of Hill — in the powerful role of chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee — undoubtedly helped Thomas claim his seat on the Court.
But on Friday, Biden didn’t mention any of that. He talked about the justices he’s helped usher onto the court — and the antiabortion justices he’s warded off.
“I am the reason why this right wasn’t taken away a long time ago,” he said, invoking his work to stop the confirmation of Robert Bork, a conservative justice nominated by President Reagan in 1987.
“So let’s get that straight."