6 moments from Joe Biden's political career that have not aged well
Throughout the 2020 primary race, and now as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden has run a campaign predicated largely on an all-encompassing pitch to voters: that after nearly 50 years in politics, first as Delaware's senator, and then as President Barack Obama's running mate, Biden has the experience necessary to move beyond the aberration of the Trump presidency and return to the "normalcy" of a pre-Trump America. He has painted, in a literal sense, a decidedly conservative vision of the presidency, though he's reportedly begun to rethink that strategy as a once-in-a-generation health crisis has swept the nation, followed by ongoing, impassioned protests for racial justice.
While the merits of Biden's approach can and should be debated, it's undeniable that his years spent steeping in Washington, D.C., certainly position him well to claim the title of "Beltway insider with a lived understanding of How Things Get Done In This Town."
But with those decades of experience come a lifetime of bad decisions, awkward encounters, and political opinions that have long since passed their expiration date. And if Biden wants to run on the strength and depth of his experience, then he's going to have to address some of the episodes in his career that have aged the worst since his start in politics. Here are a few select stances he should be prepared to explain if he wants voters to finally elevate him to the White House.
In 1974 — just a few years into his first term as the junior senator from Delaware, and only two decades after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling began to integrate America's public school systems — Biden emerged as a pivotal figure in the fiery debate around how best to break down systemic discrimination and segregation in education. When faced with fierce opposition from a local, and largely white, parents' organization, Biden — who had previously cast votes defending the court-ordered busing of black students into primarily white school districts — suddenly began backpedaling on the issue.
Claiming he'd become "more and more disenchanted with busing as a remedy" for desegregation, Biden stated unequivocally in 1981 that: "We want to stop court-ordered busing." In doing so, Biden would eventually ally himself with staunchly racist North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms (R) in an effort to limit the government's ability to financially push communities to desegregate by way of busing, which Biden called an "asinine concept."
Biden's opposition to the practice came back to haunt him more than two decades later, when California Sen. Kamala Harris (D) cited her personal experience being bused to school as a child in California to attack Biden during a Democratic presidential primary debate last June.
"She mischaracterized it," Biden later told MSNBC, "because I supported busing to eliminate de jure segregation."
"I’ve always been in favor of using federal authority to overcome state-initiated segregation," Biden told a group of labor unions in Chicago shortly after his clash with Harris. "I never, never, never ever opposed voluntary busing."
The United States got its first glimpse of Biden-the-national-figure in the late 1980s where, after a decade in the Senate, he emerged as a potential frontrunner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination after Colorado Sen. Gary Hart — the actual frontrunner — dropped from the race over allegations of an extramarital affair.
On Aug. 23, 1987, at the Iowa State Fair, Biden offered a rousing speech decrying the inequalities that left his ancestors disadvantaged — a speech, it turns out, that was lifted in no small part from former British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.
Campaign advisers quickly moved to downplay the suspected plagiarism, with aide Tom Donilon telling The New York Times that Biden "was not trying to put something over, he's under a huge amount of pressure. He didn't even know what he said. He was just on automatic pilot."
Larry Rasky, a press aide for Biden's campaign, even went so far as to suggest the allegations were being planted by other rival Democratic candidates to distract Biden while he both ran for president and led the Senate Judiciary Committee's fight against President Ronald Reagan's Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork.
"It's a tempest in a teapot,'' Rasky claimed. The hypothetical other campaign, which Rasky never named, is trying ''to spin a story that will hurt our campaign while we are trying to lead the fight on Bork," he said. It would later come out that footage of the state fair speech had been leaked by aides to fellow Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis.
But in the days and weeks after Biden's borrowing of Kinnock's words became public, more and more instances of plagiarism were alleged, including from speeches by both Robert and John F. Kennedy. Biden was also alleged to have plagiarized in a review article he authored during his first year in law school.
Biden's campaign never quite recovered from the snowballing scandal. He did offer a decidedly unenthusiastic mea culpa press conference, in which he explained away his law school lifting as "something very stupid 23 years ago" and described it as a "mistake." "I've done some dumb things, and I'll do dumb things again," he said, perhaps prophetically.
In late September, Biden ended his run for the White House. Decades later he acknowledged his fault for the episode. "When I stopped trying to explain to everybody and thought it through, the blame fell totally on me," Biden wrote in his 2008 memoir. He's never fully managed to shake the specter of his plagiarism scandal, either: In 2019, just a few months after announcing his current presidential campaign, Biden acknowledged that portions of his climate change plan were, in fact, lifted without attribution from an energy consortium known as the Carbon Capture Coalition.
The 1994 crime bill
Arguably, Biden's largest accomplishment during his many years in the Senate was co-authoring the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act — a massive piece of legislation that would later come to be known simply as "the crime bill."
The bill passed with huge bipartisan support, including from a majority of the Congressional Black Caucus, but was considered something of a mixed bag, legislatively. It contained crucial firearm restrictions, including the since-lapsed Federal Assault Weapon Ban as well as the Violence Against Women Act — two provisions that now make up a cornerstone of what's become the Democratic Party's policy priorities. It also dramatically increased funding for new police officers and took significant steps to both tighten drug sentences and promote incarceration.
Biden has long championed his involvement in the bill, at times calling it the "1994 Biden crime bill" and claiming the law's legacy was more something to support than to deride.
"It’s the one that had the assault weapons ban,” Biden explained to voters during the 2020 Democratic primary. “It limited the number of bullets in a clip. It made sure that cop-killer bullets, Teflon bullets, weren’t available any longer. It opened up the whole effort to make sure there [are] background checks for the first time in American history."
While it's true that the law was both relatively popular at the time and contained a number of measures still seen as important progressive issues, the crime bill's legacy has been decidedly less positive in the intervening years. It is often credited with (albeit it with significant debate) contributing to America's rising incarceration rates through incentivizing the construction of new prisons, and is pointed to as a reflection of America's most decisive effort to escalate the drug war.
At the time, Biden used the bill to shore up the Democrats' "tough on crime" bona fides. "The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 100,000 cops. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 125,000 new state prison cells," Biden said on the Senate floor in 1994. “I’d like to see the conservative wing of the Democratic Party."
But while the full extent of the bill's lasting effects are still being debated, its transformation into a political liability seems absolute: It's been cited by President Trump as a reason for communities of color to vote against any candidate who supported it. Democratic Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) also used the law to hammer Biden during an early presidential primary debate.
Biden has since begun attempting to thread the needle between his support for the bill and its criminal justice implications. "I haven't always been right," Biden told attendees at a Martin Luther King Jr. event in early 2019. "I know we haven't always gotten things right, but I've always tried."
The Defense of Marriage Act
In 1996, then-President Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act after the measure passed the Senate by a whopping 85-14 vote. The bill, which effectively codified an exclusively heterosexual federal definition of marriage while allowing states to deny same-sex marriages conducted elsewhere, was supported by a number of Democratic lawmakers at the time, including Biden.
Biden, who has since become a legitimate advocate and ally for LBGTQ rights, defended his decision to join the overwhelming majority of senators in supporting DOMA in 2004, calling it a states' issue in an interview with a local Delaware newspaper. He effectively did so again during the 2008 vice presidential debate against then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, when he expressed support for constitutional benefits to same-sex couples. When asked point blank whether he supported gay marriage itself, Biden said:
[Neither] Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that. That is basically the decision to be able to be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths the determination what you call it.
"My answer is the same as his," Palin responded.
Despite his subsequent, full-throated endorsement of gay marriage in 2012, Biden's DOMA vote has nevertheless continued to haunt him in the 2020 election. In July 2019, Sen. Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign manager Faiz Shakir used Biden's support for DOMA to highlight Sanders's own vote against the measure, pointedly telling The Washington Blade: "Bernie’s vote against DOMA may not have been the mainstream Democratic view at that time, but for Bernie, who already had a long record of standing with the LGBTQ community, it was the only morally acceptable option."
Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill
Just a few years after his aborted first run for the White House, Biden had largely settled into the role of powerful senator, whose position as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee made him one of the most influential lawmakers in Washington. It was in this position, however, that Biden made some of his strongest impressions on the general public during the confirmation hearings for now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who had been accused of sexual harassment by former employee Anita Hill.
Over the course of the hearing, Biden notably refused to call for testimony from multiple witnesses who were prepared to corroborate Hill's claims. He allegedly promised Hill the opportunity to testify before Thomas, which did not occur, allowing Thomas to largely dictate the hearing's tone and direction. And, perhaps most pointedly, Biden did not step in to shield Hill from some of committee Republicans' more egregious attacks, including questions from Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter over whether Hill was simply a "scorned woman." Specter also defended Thomas by downplaying some of his alleged instances of harassment.
"You testified this morning that the most embarrassing question [from Thomas] involved — this is not too bad — women's large breasts," Spector said to Hill. "That is a word we use all the time. That was the most embarrassing aspect of what Judge Thomas had said to you." Biden, as the panel's chairman, did not intervene to stop Specter's deeply offensive line of questioning.
Thomas was eventually confirmed to the bench, though Biden voted against his nomination. One year later, Biden would express a measure of regret about his handling of Hill's testimony, saying he wish he'd "attacked [her] attackers more frequently and consistently."
One year later, though, he attempted to shift blame to others. "The president insisted it be opened, not me." Biden told CNN in 2008. "Clarence Thomas's people insisted it be opened. What I would do all over again, I think that should have been conducted in a way under the Senate rules where the witness should have been able to do this in private."
Biden then spent the next few years largely distancing himself from the entire episode, offering oblique platitudes about the hearings and Hill herself. But in 2017, in the midst of the #MeToo movement's ascendency, Biden offered a more complete mea culpa to Teen Vogue:
I believed Anita Hill. I voted against Clarence Thomas. And I insisted the next election — I campaigned for two woman senators on the condition that if they won they would come on the Judiciary Committee, so there would never be again all men making a judgment on this. And my one regret is that I wasn’t able to tone down the attacks on her by some of my Republican friends. I mean, they really went after her. As much as I tried to intervene, I did not have the power to gavel them out of order. I tried to be like a judge and only allow a question that would be relevant to ask.
"I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill," he added. "I owe her an apology." Notably, his admission of owing Hill an apology did not actually entail apologizing to Hill directly.
Biden did eventually call Hill in 2019 to apologize. Her description of their conversation was not overly enthusiastic. "I cannot be satisfied by simply saying 'I’m sorry for what happened to you,'" Hill told The New York Times. "I will be satisfied when I know there is real change and real accountability and real purpose."
"The focus on an apology, to me, is one thing,” she continued. “But there needs to be an apology to the other witnesses and there needs to be an apology to the American public because we know now how deeply disappointed Americans around the country were about what they saw. And not just women. There are women and men now who have just really lost confidence in our government to respond to the problem of gender violence."
Biden's treatment of Hill — and his well-documented conduct around women in general — has come to the forefront once again, after his former congressional staffer Tara Reade accused him in spring 2020 of sexually assaulting her while she worked in his Senate office.
The Iraq War
In 2002, just over one year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Biden cast his lot with the slim majority of Senate Democrats who voted in favor of authorizing President George W. Bush to go to war with Iraq — arguably one of the most consequential and disastrous decisions of the 21st century to date.
In the years to follow, Biden would defend his vote, even as the war took turn after turn toward disaster. "Let me tell you what I see with Iraq," Biden told University of Delaware students in 2004. "We had to go into Iraq, not because Saddam was part of Al Qaeda, there was no evidence of that, not because he possessed nuclear weapons or because he posed an imminent threat to the United States, there was no evidence of that."
"The legitimate reason for going into Iraq," Biden continued, "was he violated every single commitment he made and warranted being taken down. And the international community and us had a right to respond."
By 2005, Biden would call his vote "a mistake" — one for which he has been pummeled by his political rivals in the Democratic presidential primary. Sanders in particular attacked Biden for the decision.
While Biden has since attempted to move past his vote — notably by leaning on Obama's decision to pick him as running mate even though Obama opposed the war — his early enthusiastic support for authorizing Bush to invade in the first place, coupled with his deeply anachronistic claim that he'd opposed the war almost from the start, has cast doubt on foreign policy experience. And given that foreign policy bona fides was one of Biden's strengths in 2008, it's concerning for the candidate to see that strength be called into question now.
Ultimately, the only person who can speak to Biden's decisions — whether outdated, unpopular, or simply wrong — is Biden himself. In some cases he has done so. In others, perhaps not enough. It's up to the voters to decide whether Biden's long history in politics is more of a blessing than a curse, and whether his past would truly be prologue for an administration desperate to frame itself as moving America forward.