Fact-Checking Joe Biden on the Campaign Trail

In the three weeks since former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, he has been widely portrayed in polls and commentary as the front-runner.

On the stump, Mr. Biden has focused on President Trump’s shortcomings in broad pronouncements about morality and character. At the same time, he has sought to parry criticism from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party about the record he has compiled over his nearly five-decade career in public service.

While Mr. Biden’s reputation for gaffes may have not caught up to him yet, his defenses against the left and the charges he has leveled against the right have not always been entirely accurate.

What Mr. Biden Said

“This idea that the crime bill generated mass incarceration — it did not generate mass incarceration.”

“If you go back and look, the black caucus supported the bill.”
— Nashua, N.H., in May

Mr. Biden sponsored the Senate version of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. While other Democrats have backed away from the bill, Mr. Biden has defended it with statements that lack a full account of its history and impact.

As violent crime rose in the 1970s and 1980s, states began to pass harsher sentencing laws. The 1973 Rockefeller laws in New York established lengthy mandatory sentences for drug offenses. Washington State passed the first “truth in sentencing” law in 1984, requiring prisoners to serve a long portion of their sentences before being eligible for early release. California enacted a broad “three strikes” law in 1994, which required 25-year sentences for third-time serious offenders.

The federal government followed suit, establishing mandatory sentences for drug offenses (with a notorious 100 to 1 disparity between powder and crack cocaine) and enacting the 1994 crime bill.

In remarks in Hampton, N.H. this month, Mr. Biden singled out “three big things” in the bill: funding for crime prevention, gun control measures like the assault weapons ban and the Violence Against Women Act.

Those portions “are important but not the major thrust,” said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, which advocates reducing incarceration.

Mr. Biden omitted more contentious components of the legislation: authorizing federal funding for prison construction and more police officers; incentivizing states to establish “truth in sentencing” guidelines; increasing the number of federal crimes subject to the death penalty; and enacting a federal “three strikes” provision.

As the bill moved through the legislative process, members of the Congressional Black Caucus expressed misgivings and produced an alternative measure. Eleven of 38 House members of the caucus voted against a procedural motion to advance the bill, and 12 voted against the final version.

As for the 1994 crime bill’s role in mass incarceration, the data shows that it was not the genesis or principal factor.

A spokesman for Mr. Biden pointed to an Urban Institute study that examined the effect of the crime bill on “truth in sentencing” state laws. It found the federal law had a “comparatively minor” influence on states, with a few exceptions. The spokesman also noted that Mr. Biden had criticized the “three strikes” provision in 1994.

The prison population — the majority of which is housed in state institutions — increased from under 200,000 in the early 1970s to over 300,000 by the end of the decade, then more than tripled to about one million in 1994, the year the bill was passed. The rise in the prison population continued, albeit at a slower rate, climbing to more than 1.5 million by 2009.

Though it’s difficult to pinpoint the precise effect of the bill, experts said the measure contributed to the trend.

“Federal policy still matters. It helps shape public opinion and can often influence what states do,” said Inimai Chettiar, the director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, which seeks to reduce the prison population. The bill, she said, “encouraged them to mass incarcerate further.”

Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center, said the bill “galvanized the prison construction boom,” with state and federal correctional facilities increasing 21.4 percent from 1995 to 2005.

“There was no one cause of mass incarceration,” Ms. Chettiar said. “Many of these laws passed by the federal government and states were joint contributors.”

What Mr. Biden Said

“I said back in 1987, I said we have an existential threat.”
Hampton, N.H., in May

Mr. Biden was one of the first members of Congress to introduce climate change legislation. In 1986, Mr. Biden introduced the Global Climate Protection Act, which directed the president to create a task force on developing and enforcing a strategy to combat climate change.

While there is no record of him using the exact words “existential threat,” Mr. Biden spoke at length on the Senate floor in January 1987 about the risk of “global warming — a term, though seemingly esoteric, that could, as time passes, come to signify an environmental disaster second only to nuclear war.”

“Global warming, should it occur in accord with the direst predictions, would be a catastrophe of biblical proportions for the entire world,” Mr. Biden said then. “Even though decades away, the most serious consequences of global warming could prove unavoidable unless we act now to prevent them. Our failure to show foresight when the dangers are clearly discernible would be an unforgivable dereliction of duty to our children and all mankind not yet born.”

His bill eventually made its way into foreign relations funding legislation that was signed into law in 1987.

What Mr. Biden Said

“I have the most progressive record of anybody running for the — anybody who would run”
— Delaware, in March

“I was always labeled one of the most liberal members of the United States Congress.”
— ABC interview, in April

The Biden campaign pointed to scoring from DW-Nominate, an ideological position tracker based on votes and maintained by the University of California at Los Angeles, that shows Mr. Biden as more liberal than 74 percent of members of Congress after being elected to the Senate in 1972.

Among members of his own party, though, Mr. Biden was consistently in the ideological center, according to DW-Nominate. In his last term in the Senate, which ended in 2008, Mr. Biden ranked to the right of fellow 2020 candidates Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and to the left of Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. (The other Democratic senators running for president did not take office until after Mr. Biden left the Senate.)

GovTrack, a service that monitors Congress, also placed Mr. Biden, from 2003 to 2008, roughly in the middle of Democrats on its own ideological spectrum, which examines each lawmaker’s patterns of serving as a co-sponsor of legislation. In that same period, Mr. Biden placed to the right of both Mr. Sanders and Ms. Klobuchar.

Scoring by ideological groups also contradicts Mr. Biden’s claim that he has an exceptionally liberal record.

In 2008, American Conservative Union gave him a lifetime score of 12.67 out of 100 based on how his 35 years of votes and statements aligned with conservative positions, a higher score than about 30 Senate Democrats (including Mr. Sanders and Ms. Klobuchar) and lower than 18 others.

What Mr. Biden Said

“There’s a $2 trillion tax cut last year. Did you feel it? Did you get anything from it? Of course not. Of course not. All of it went to the folks at the top and corporations that pay no taxes.”
— Pittsburgh, in April

Most Americans, not just those earning high incomes, received a tax cut last year, despite perceptions to the contrary.

The independent Tax Policy Center estimated that 64.8 percent of people received a federal income tax cut in 2018, while 6.3 saw an increase. About 81.7 percent of Americans who made $50,000 to $75,000 — roughly a median income — received a tax cut that averaged $750. That’s consistent with estimates from the Joint Committee on Taxation, the nonpartisan analysts of Congress.

What Mr. Biden Said

“They also got last year $192 million in tax breaks. They could have given everyone they laid off severance if they had to, could have given everyone. They did nothing.”
— Pittsburgh, in April

Mr. Biden was referring to General Motors’ announcement in November that it would cut thousands of jobs and idle five factories in North America.

The auto company received a lower tax cut from the 2017 legislation than Mr. Biden estimated: $104 million last year.

Mr. Biden is also wrong that G.M. “did nothing” for workers they laid off. A spokesman for the company said that it provided severance pay for all salaried workers, and that there were jobs available at other G.M. plants for all affected hourly employees. Severance pay for laid-off workers and moving expenses for transferred workers are outlined in contracts between the union and the company, according to a spokesman for the United Automobile Workers union.

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