It could have been a very different Democratic National Convention.
When Victoria Hill, 30, imagines what could have been, she thinks back to a moment from the Democratic presidential debate in February, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sparred with former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg over his history of alleged sexual harassment and gender discrimination — and his refusal to release former female employees from nondisclosure agreements.
“This is a question about electability,” Warren said in the debate. “We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who knows how many nondisclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against.”
Warren supporters went wild for it: The senator’s annihilation of Bloomberg over his history with women — widely credited with “destroying” Bloomberg’s campaign — offered a preview of how she might go about annihilating President Trump in a general election. It was easy to picture her giving an acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, lambasting him for the “Access Hollywood” tape and the many sexual assault and harassment allegations lodged against him. She could have celebrated the scores of women who have come forward over the past three years to say, “#MeToo.”
“She can stand with a clean record and actually speak to these things,” said Hill, a Democrat based in Lambertville, N.J. “That never would have worked for Biden. A lot of people would have recognized the hypocrisy there.”
The term #MeToo was not used at this year’s Democratic convention. While there was a segment on domestic violence — highlighting Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s early support for the Violence Against Women Act — sexual harassment and assault hardly came up. No one mentioned Trump’s misogynistic behavior or the allegations against him.
The decision to leave out #MeToo is likely “strategic,” said Nadia Brown, a professor of women and politics at Purdue University, who focuses on Black women and the #MeToo movement. It was relatively risk-free to highlight domestic violence. By all accounts, Biden has a happy family life, and a strong, healthy relationship with his wife, Jill Biden.
But since Biden announced his candidacy, women have been coming forward to report “inappropriate touching”: a hug that lasted too long, a kiss on the head. In February, Tara Reade emerged with the most serious allegation yet, accusing Biden of digitally penetrating her when she worked in his Senate office in 1993. While three people confirm Reade shared this story with them at the time, her account quickly came under scrutiny when reporters discovered Reade had previously lied under oath.
Across four nights — eight hours — of programming, the absence of the #MeToo movement has been easy to spot, said Brown. It was particularly jarring, she said, during an extended montage on the evolution of women in politics that aired Wednesday night.
Sexual assault and harassment have been central issues for the Democrats in the last two elections. In 2016, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and other Democrats — most notably former first lady Michelle Obama — condemned Trump at length for the “Access Hollywood” tape, where he brags about making sexual advances on women without their consent. Trump’s behavior toward women was central in 2018, too, says Melissa Deckman, a professor of politics at Washington College, who studies #MeToo.
“It was a historic year of women running, responding to Trump’s behavior,” she said. They ran on a platform of “outrage,” she said, furious that “America could vote for someone who was so misogynistic.”
The 2020 election is different, said Sama Aziz, 19, based in San Diego. In 2016, there were no allegations of sexual misconduct against either Clinton or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the two major contenders in the 2016 primary, she said, so Democrats had the high-ground.
“Right now we’re in a moment where there are allegations on both sides around sexual violence,” said Sage Carson, the manager of Know Your IX, a nonprofit dedicated to serving student victims of sexual assault. “So it’s a hard and complicated conversation for anyone to be having.”
Democrats likely avoided the subject of sexual harassment because they worried about how the footage might be co-oped by the opposition, said Brown. Even more importantly, she said, they probably don’t want to remind Democratic voters of allegations that have pretty much “disappeared” from the media.
The Democratic leadership also wants to steer clear of Anita Hill, who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearing in 1991, said Deckman. Biden led the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time of the hearing, and has been widely criticized for treating Hill unfairly, failing to call additional witnesses and allowing Republican colleagues to attack her. When he was launching his 2020 campaign, Biden called Hill to express regret over what occurred. (Hill has said she does not characterize his comments as an apology.)
Hill was noticeably absent from the gender and politics montage on the third night of the convention. (It was ironic that Wednesday night’s program was hosted by actress Kerry Washington, who plays Anita Hill in the movie “Confirmation” many pointed out on Twitter.)
“That really bothered me,” said Aziz, referencing the decision to leave Hill out of the video. “A lot of people are more hesitant to believe women of color, especially when they make sexual assault allegations against important men.”
There are other possible reasons for the #MeToo omission, said Deckman. In a year of such hardship — when Americans are facing a months-long public health emergency, an economic crisis and a major racial reckoning — the Democratic Party probably had to make some hard decisions about which issues to leave off the docket. Through her own research on the 2018 election, Deckman determined that sexual misconduct is rarely a deciding issue for voters. Women who say the issue is a top priority for them, she said, are probably going to vote for Biden regardless of which subjects get airtime at the convention.
In 2016, many Democrats thought that Trump’s behavior toward women would lose him the election, said Brown. They saw the “Access Hollywood” tape as a “smoking gun,” she said, assuming he could never win once that was released to the public.
“The Democrats used that tactic in 2016, and it didn’t work,” said Brown. Trump’s behavior has become so normalized that they’re not likely to impact the election, said Brown. Democrats recognize that, she said.
Aziz wishes Democrats had selected a candidate who could credibly confront Trump on these issues, without fear of what he might say in response. In the current political climate, she says, survivors of sexual assault can sometimes seem like “playing cards.”
“One party will target the other, making a list of all the sexual assault survivors who have made allegations against members of that party,” she said. “And then the other will do the same.”
If the Democrats had chosen a woman as their presidential candidate — women are, statistically, far less likely to perpetrate sexual assault or harassment — Aziz suspects things would have been different.
“The allegations would have been only connected to the opposition,” she said.
In a debate with Trump, the presidential candidate would have been free to say whatever she liked.