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For the third time, Joe Biden is running for president, and he’s already facing a scandal over his touchy-feely habits. But in a crowded 2020 field full of fresh faces, that’s just one of his worries.
Biden announced his campaign early Thursday with a video that directly attacked President Trump for suggesting a “moral equivalence” after the violent white supremacist in rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. Trump waited more than 48 hours to respond and then failed to condemn the demonstrators, who showed up to the University of Virginia with torches and chanted slogans like “Jews will not replace us.”
"In that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime,” Biden said in the video.
Some liberals will be delighted to see the former vice president in the race and coming out swinging at Trump (who immediately dubbed him “Sleepy Joe”). But once the campaign moves on, Biden will no doubt face some tough questions about his past — and not just the recent accusations that he touched several women in ways that made them uncomfortable. Biden didn’t apologize but said he would work harder to respect people’s personal space.
Over his 36 years as a Delaware senator, Biden supported the Iraq War, crafted an infamous overhaul of the criminal justice system, and voted to deregulate banks. To succeed in the Democratic primary, Biden will have to reckon with that legacy.
Questioning Anita Hill
During the Supreme Court confirmation process for Brett Kavanaugh last fall, Biden quickly proclaimed his support of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of assaulting her when they were both teenagers. But the former vice president was much less eager to talk about Anita Hill, the woman who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual misconduct back in 1991, when Biden was in the Senate.
Hill had accused Thomas of repeated sexual harassment during their time working together at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he was her boss. During Thomas’ confirmation hearing, she testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Biden chaired at the time.
Biden faced criticism for his questioning of Hill, which implied that he may not have believed her, as well as for being too friendly to lawmakers who subjected Hill to sexist questions.
“It is appropriate to ask Professor Hill anything any member wishes to ask her to plumb the depths of her credibility,” Biden said in 1991. “You can ask her anything you want. You can ask her what Santa Claus said or didn't say, whether she spoke to him or not.”
He also asked her to share what was the most embarrassing part of her relationship with Thomas.
“He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes. He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts involved in various sex acts," Hill told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991.
Biden has offered Hill some public half-apologies over the years, as recently as last month.
“To this day, I regret that I could not come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved, given the courage she showed by reaching out to us,” he said in March.
But Hill said that she’s never received a direct apology from the former vice president.
“The statute of limitations has run out on an apology. I don’t need an apology,” Hill said last November. “But sometimes when the doorbell rings, and I am not expecting anyone, I think, could that be Joe Biden?”
A “tough-on-crime” legacy
These days, Democratic 2020 candidates like Kamala Harris are rushing to distance themselves from the “tough-on-crime” labels they once embraced. But no presidential hopeful has quite the record Biden has.
Here’s Biden giving a nationally televised speech in which he criticized George H.W. Bush — considered a tough-on-crime president — for being weak on drugs and crime. Biden also called for more prosecutions against “violent thugs.”
In his legislative record, Biden was a champion of two pieces of legislation that fundamentally changed the American criminal justice system.
Back in 1988, Biden co-sponsored the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created new mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenders and pushed harder punishments for crack cocaine over powder cocaine. Black and Latino people were more likely to use crack cocaine and, therefore, more likely to face harsher sentences and jail time.
As the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1994, Biden became the architect of a crime bill widely considered to have fostered the climate that eventually led the United States to incarcerate more people than anywhere else in the world. The legislation included the infamous “three strikes” rule that mandated lifetime sentences for three-time offenders who commit a violent felony.
Bill Clinton, who signed the bill, even called the bill a mistake which “made the problem worse.”
The bill, originally written by Biden, also provided billions of dollars to put more cops on the streets, build more prisons, and pour resources into already existing prisons. It also eliminated Pell Grants for prison inmates, functionally killing many of their chances at higher education, and criminalized gang membership.
This year, Biden acknowledged his past failures related to the bill.
"I haven't always been right. I know we haven't always gotten things right, but I've always tried,” he said during a speech on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Washington, D.C.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton faced similar questions over her support of the bill in 1994, even though she wasn’t a lawmaker at the time.
"We have predators on our streets that society has in fact, in part because of its neglect, created," said Biden, who even called the legislation "the Biden bill” on occasion, in 1993. "They are beyond the pale, many of those people, beyond the pale. And it's a sad commentary on society. We have no choice but to take them out of society."
Biden thinks billionaires — Public Enemy No.1 for progressives — are just as patriotic as the nation’s poorest.
“Guys, the wealthy are as patriotic as the poor. I know Bernie [Sanders] doesn’t like me saying that, but they are,” Biden said to an Alabama crowd while stumping for Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in 2018.
That puts him at odds with Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and pretty much everyone else in the 2020 race — except for maybe Howard Schultz, who’s a self-avowed centrist and billionaire. But Biden probably doesn’t have a problem with that.
"I love Bernie, but I'm not Bernie Sanders," Biden said at a Brookings Institute speech in 2018. "I don't think 500 billionaires are the reason we're in trouble. The folks at the top aren't bad guys. But this gap is yawning, and it's having the effect of pulling us apart. You see the politics of it."
"I voted to go into Iraq, and I’d vote to do it again."
Biden is already courting wealthy donors in 2020, with a private fundraising event scheduled at the home of a man who endorsed a Republican for Pennsylvania in 2013. Other candidates such as Sanders and Warren have refused to court donor bundlers — who gather big donations on a candidate’s behalf — or to hold private fundraising events.
Biden also supported the Clinton-era Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 that lifted Great Depression-era restrictions on commercial and investment banks. Some economists say the bill ultimately ushered in the 2008 financial crisis. In 2016, Biden called his support of the bill “the worst vote” he ever cast in his Senate career.
Biden also gave a closed-door speech to Republicans just before the midterms, and he was paid $200,000 to do it. Biden praised Republican Rep. Fred Upton, a long-serving Republican from Michigan, as Upton faced the toughest race of his career — which he ultimately won.
In the 1970s, Biden’s home state of Delaware was embroiled in a fight over whether it should use “busing” to encourage desegregation at public schools. That would require sending children to different school districts to increase diversity. In other words, sending black children to mostly white schools and vice versa.
Then a young senator, Biden not only spoke out against the idea but became a leading voice against the cause.
“I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race,’” Biden told a Delaware-based weekly newspaper in 1975, according to the Washington Post. “I don’t buy that.”
The same year, Biden also condemned the concept of reparations for slaves, which has already become a 2020 campaign-trail topic.
“I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather,” he said. “I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation. And I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”
So far, most of the conversation in the 2020 race has centered around domestic issues, but when foreign policy inevitably takes center stage, Biden’s record could come back to haunt him, just as Clinton's did in 2016.
Like Clinton — though Biden’s record is not quite as hawkish — Biden enthusiastically voted to authorize President George W. Bush to invade Iraq.
“I voted to go into Iraq, and I’d vote to do it again,” Biden said in August 2003.
Before then, Biden had already distinguished himself as an interventionist in other instances framed as humanitarian missions. He supported Bill Clinton’s war in Kosovo as “absolutely correct” as a senator in 1999. Biden also wanted to send U.S. troops to Darfur in 2007.
Biden also has a long-documented history of support for Israel, whose relationship with the U.S. has come under fire with progressiveness in Congress. Other 2020 candidates, like Sanders and Beto O’Rourke, have also spoken out against the country’s far-right government and human rights abuses of Palestinians. Way back in 1995 — long before President Trump decided to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — Biden also voted in favor of the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which set aside money for the move.
Cover image: From right to left, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, wait of the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping before an official state arrival ceremony, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)