Biden controversy splits Dems on generational, political lines

The controversy over former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden campaign cancels fundraiser with Mueller prosecutor Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here's why The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation MORE’s behavior toward women has split Democrats along generational and political lines and is testing the party’s zero tolerance policy on sexual misconduct in the "Me Too" era.

Biden’s campaign-in-waiting has been rocked by allegations from two women who have accused the former vice president of unwanted and inappropriate touching. Neither woman has said there was anything sexual about the contact. Biden has said he did not intend to make the women feel uncomfortable.

The former vice president and his top advisers are in crisis mode, privately reassuring supporters and donors that he’s committed to running for president in 2020. Publicly, Biden has been thrust into the center of a debate over whether any allegation of misconduct should be disqualifying for Democrats.

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Some liberals say the party must not waver on the issue if it's going to maintain the moral high ground against President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinneapolis erupts for third night, as protests spread, Trump vows retaliation Stocks open mixed ahead of Trump briefing on China The island that can save America MORE, who has also been accused of sexual misconduct.

Shaunna Thomas, the co-founder and executive director of the women’s rights group UltraViolet, said Biden’s response to the controversy — that he didn’t intend to do harm — shows that he’s out of step with the current moment.

"It’s about leadership and proving he’s the right person right now to be president," Thomas said. "The people pointing out his history as they personally experienced it have given him a gift — to own the harm done, whether he intended it or not, make amends and be a champion for change. Joe is choosing a different path right now, and that is unfortunate."

However, many Democrats leaped to Biden’s defense, arguing that his behavior was innocent and is being blown out of proportion. Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFrustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Major space launch today; Trump feuds with Twitter Justice Department closing stock investigations into Loeffler, Inhofe, Feinstein MORE (D-Calif.) called Biden a "warm, tactile person" and said that his public displays of affection are "a new thing that people have been affronted by."

Biden’s defenders say criticism of his behavior is an example of the "Me Too" movement going too far and creating an atmosphere of panic about interactions between men and women.

On Tuesday, in a clip that went viral, MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski blasted Biden’s critics and warned that party was cannibalizing itself by damaging a candidate some view as the party’s best hope to defeat Trump.

Brzezinski called the allegations of inappropriate touching against Biden "ridiculous." She warned "woke" liberals against "eating those who can beat Trump."

"I think the next time I see Joe Biden and he doesn't hug me and give me a kiss and hold my hand while we're talking to you, that's the new Joe Biden, and that's not the Joe Biden I knew," Brzezinski said on "Morning Joe."

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMinneapolis erupts for third night, as protests spread, Trump vows retaliation The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers MORE (D-Calif.) sought a middle ground, saying she doesn’t believe Biden’s actions are "disqualifying" but that he should be more cognizant of how he makes women feel.

Pelosi also seemed to swipe at Biden’s apology, in which he said it was never his "intent" to make women uncomfortable.

"It's important for the vice president and others to understand it isn't what you intended. It's how it was received," Pelosi said.

When Biden enters the presidential race, the 76-year-old will have to fight back against the perception that he’s from a bygone era.

The Democratic Party has shifted dramatically to the left since Biden left the White House in 2016, and the "Me Too" movement has ushered in a new era of accountability about how powerful men treat women.

The allegations "have the effect of highlighting a generational divide — making Biden seem like a man out of his time," said Democratic strategist Basil Smikle.

There’s also a political element to the criticism of Biden, who would enter the presidential race as a top contender.

There is bad blood between the campaigns of Biden and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGloves come off as Democrats fight for House seat in California Senate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Unemployment claims now at 41 million with 2.1 million more added to rolls; Topeka mayor says cities don't have enough tests for minorities and homeless communities MORE (I-Vt.), the progressive favorite. The Sanders campaign views the former vice president as its primary obstacle on the path to the nomination.

Several other 2020 contenders would also benefit from Biden being sidelined or politically weakened by the controversy.

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSenate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers Senate Democrat introduces bill to protect food supply It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE (D-N.Y.), who is running for president, said Biden had "demeaned" women and that he must "address this more directly" if he gets in the race. Another 2020 contender, Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharPolice killing in Minneapolis puts new scrutiny on Biden pick Cortez Masto says she's not interested in being Biden VP Voting rights, public health officials roll out guidelines to protect voters from COVID-19 MORE (D-Minn.), said she has "no reason not to believe" Biden’s accuser after the first account surfaced.

Many progressives already viewed Biden with suspicion.

Once he gets in the race, the former vice president will have to defend many of his past positions, including his vote to authorize military action in Iraq. Biden has already expressed regret for his handling of Anita Hill’s Senate hearing in the 1990s, when she accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.

"He’s been in politics for a long time, and our party has evolved over that time," said Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. "Some of the positions he’s taken in the past that were once mainstream are no longer mainstream, and the party has become much more progressive."

Other Democrats are defending Biden as ahead of his time and say he shouldn’t be subjected to a purity test for his decades of service.

"He pushed for the Violence Against Women Act. He’s the one who pushed for LGBT equality in the Obama administration. He has a record to stand on here," said one Democrat.

Still, several Democrats told The Hill that Biden bungled his response and that his indecision about entering the race has made him seem flat-footed.

"It would have been very different if he came out and said, 'This is who and how I am, but I realize now is a different time, and I need to listen to what women are saying,' as Pelosi said," one strategist said. "But now, as he’s been waiting to get in, the two lanes of problems he was having have converged, and he has both an ideological problem and a 'Me Too' problem that are both amplified by a generational divide."