Michelle Goldberg: Democrats, Tara Reade and the #MeToo trap

(Win McNamee | AP) Christine Blasey Ford is sworn in before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 in Washington. Her attorney's Debra Katz and Michael Bromwich watch.

Here is one thing that Christine Blasey Ford and Tara Reade have in common: Intercept reporter Ryan Grim was pivotal in publicizing their stories. Before anyone had heard of Blasey, Grim reported that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., had a letter from a constituent represented by a lawyer specializing in sexual harassment and assault cases. It was about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

And it was Grim who helped put Reade, the former Senate aide who has accused Joe Biden of sexual assault and harassment, on the public radar. In March, Grim raised questions about why a legal fund devoted to helping #MeToo victims declined to take her case. He later broke the news that a woman Reade identified as her mother called into “Larry King Live” in 1993 to ask for advice for her daughter, who worked for a “prominent senator, and could not get through with her problems at all.”

Try to imagine what would have happened if, a few weeks before Grim reported on Blasey, she had tweeted at him, apropos of Kavanagh’s fortunes, “Yup. Timing … wait for it … tick tock.” My guess: She never would have been asked to testify publicly. Democrats would not have dared to champion such politically tainted allegations.

Of course, Blasey didn’t tweet that. Reade did, after Grim tweeted that Biden would fare poorly in a two-person race against Bernie Sanders. A few weeks later, a political bomb went off.

Since then, commentators on the left and right have compared Reade to Blasey, usually to accuse mainstream Democrats of hypocrisy. Democrats, the argument goes, supported a movement whose slogan is “Believe women,” and yet many are unconvinced by this particular woman. Checkmate, libs!

But Democrats are not being asked to hold themselves to the same standard they apply to others. They would never have the audacity to demand that their political opponents act on a story with as many ambiguities as Reade’s.

To be clear, the fact that Reade timed her charges for maximum political impact doesn’t mean they’re not true. If Biden assaulted her, it’s understandable that she’d want to destroy him politically. Her story about that assault has changed, but as my colleague Elizabeth Bruenig points out, that is not unusual in survivors.

Reade’s story about filing a sexual harassment complaint has also changed, in ways that seem less explicable by trauma. On March 18, she tweeted, “When I filed a complaint against Joe Biden for sexual harassment and more I was fired in ’93.” But The Associated Press reported that last year she said, “They have this counseling office or something, and I think I walked in there once, but then I chickened out.” According to The AP, she now says she meant that she chickened out about reporting her full experience but did fill out an “intake form” with some broad details.

Again: None of this means an assault didn’t happen. Reade’s former neighbor Lynda LaCasse says she recently remembered that Reade told her the story in 1995 or 1996. Other people have told reporters that Reade shared her account with them years ago, but without going on the record by name. (Her brother has said the same thing, but his recounting of the story has changed.)

Still, where things stand now, it’s hard to compare Blasey’s case with Reade’s. Blasey had four sworn affidavits from people whom she’d told that she’d been assaulted, as well as therapist’s notes and the results from a polygraph. She testified, and was cross-examined, under oath. The Democratic plea, at the time, was for a thorough FBI investigation.

Initially, Democrats were credulous when the now-disgraced lawyer Michael Avenatti introduced another accuser, Julie Swetnick, but many eventually realized her story didn’t hold up. In the end that allegation probably helped Kavanaugh by discrediting Blasey’s case against him. The episode showed that everyone is best served when “believe women” is taken as a starting point rather than a conclusion.

Now feminists are caught in a trap. They don’t want to repeat the errors many of them made when they dismissed Bill Clinton’s accusers, nor do they want to erode the #MeToo taboo against picking apart the motives and histories of women who recount sexual assault. But just as Reade’s story can’t be wished away because it’s politically inconvenient, neither can its contradictions.

In The Washington Post, Lyz Lenz writes that Democrats should “insist that Biden step aside,” arguing that no investigation could be enough to redeem him. Personally, I’d sleep better if the party had a different, more vibrant candidate. But overruling voting results is a serious thing. To attempt it on the basis of a case with this many holes would be a slap in the face to the people who actually chose Biden.

On Friday, the website Law & Crime reported that a niece of Christine O’Donnell, a former Republican Senate candidate in Delaware, said that Biden commented on her breasts at a 2008 Gridiron Club dinner, when she was 14. Several people said they were told about this at the time, but it emerged that Biden wasn’t at the dinner. O’Donnell then said it might have happened at the Gridiron dinner in 2007, but Biden wasn’t at that one either. It was a demonstration of how easily #MeToo can be misused as a political weapon.

I suspect that whatever happens in this campaign, the credibility of the movement will suffer. The original #MeToo stories were carefully and meticulously documented. Now it threatens to become a way to handicap one political faction in the middle of a partisan free-for-all. In a season full of appalling and sickening losses, this is just the latest one.

Michelle Goldberg | The New York Times (CREDIT: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.