As soon as former Vice President Joe Biden announced his run for the presidency, he drew fire from the more progressive side of the Democratic Party. Justice Democrats, a group that backs Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and other new faces in Congress, issued a tweet thread laying out why Biden is not their candidate.
"Joe Biden stands in near complete opposition to where the center of energy is in the Democratic Party today," the group wrote April 25. "We don’t need someone who voted for the Iraq War, for mass incarceration, and for the Bankruptcy Reform Act, while voting against gay marriage, reproductive rights, and school desegregation."
The six issues in that tweet have long been seen as Biden’s Achilles’ heel in this Democratic primary. Biden’s votes are a matter of record, but on some points, such as gay marriage, Biden switched his position.
This is accurate. A little after midnight on Oct. 11, 2002, Biden joined 28 Democrats and 48 Republicans in the U.S. Senate to authorize the use of military force against Iraq. While the resolution encouraged working through the U.N. Security Council to disarm Iraq, it gave President George W. Bush a free hand to use American armed forces "as he determines to be necessary and appropriate."
The night of the vote, Biden said his concerns were eased by Bush who had said "war is neither imminent nor inevitable." Formally, the authorization was not a vote for war, but there was little doubt at the time that war would come.
He voted for bills that had that effect.
Biden voted for two large bills in 1988 and 1994 that experts agree added millions of people to America’s prisons. But both were sprawling pieces of legislation that included programs to reduce incarceration, too.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 funded alcohol and drug treatment programs and efforts to reach high-risk youth.
On the other hand, it doubled down on imposing stiffer penalties for possession of crack cocaine, more common in African American communities, than for possession of powdered cocaine, more common among whites. And it extended mandatory minimum sentences to people under 21 who sold less than 5 grams of marijuana.
Biden was one of 87 senators to approve the bill.
He also voted for the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, along with 53 other Democrats. Among other features, the bill included the Violence Against Women Act and banned 19 types of semi-automatic assault weapons. It funded 100,000 new police officers to expand community policing.
But it also imposed life sentences on many more people through a federal "three strikes and you’re out" provision, and it provided over $12 billion to help states build prisons. To get the money, states had to pass laws to keep people behind bars for at least 85% of their sentences.
With more people serving longer sentences, the prison population skyrocketed, doubling between 2004 and 2009.
In the early 2000s, Biden co-sponsored legislation that would make it harder for people to qualify for bankruptcy protection. The financial industry, a major donor to Biden’s campaigns, was eager to tighten the rules on Chapter 7, the most common path for households to wipe out their debts.
In 2005, Biden backed the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, and on a vote of 74 to 25, it passed the Senate and became law.
Under it, if a person made more than the median income in their state, and could afford to pay $100 a month on their debts, then they could not file for Chapter 7 protection.
He did, but he later changed his position.
Justice Democrats told us this charge against Biden tracks back to his 1996 vote on the Defense of Marriage Act. The measure defined marriage as between a man and a woman and allowed states not to recognize same-sex marriages. Same-sex couples could not claim federal benefits.
By 2012, then-Vice President Biden had changed his views. In an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Biden said, "I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying one other are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties."
At the time, that went beyond where the Obama administration stood, which triggered some quick press work by the White House communications team.
Most of his votes favored abortion rights, with limits.
As a Catholic, Biden has always navigated between the doctrines of his church and the policies of his party on abortion. The tension came to a head in March 1982 when Biden voted in committee to approve a constitutional amendment that allowed states to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court case that affirmed abortion rights.
The amendment never came to a full Senate vote. And the next year, on a second try, Biden voted against it.
Biden settled on a position in which he separated his personal beliefs from government policy. In the 2012 vice presidential debate, he said he believes that life begins at conception, as the Catholic church says. But he rejected the idea that government could impose that belief on everyone.
"I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women can't control their body," Biden said. "It's a decision between them and their doctor."
Biden added that the government should not help pay for women to have an abortion.
He voted against busing, but he supported desegregation.
Biden won his Senate seat in 1972 on a platform of integration, but once in office, he came under strong pressure from white constituents who hated the idea of busing to desegregate schools.
Historian Jason Sokol at the University of New Hampshire tracked Biden’s response to local opposition. In the Senate, Biden began voting for anti-busing amendments.
In 1974, he said "I have become convinced that busing is a bankrupt concept."
"Biden always claimed that he favored school desegregation but opposed busing as the means to achieve it," Sokol told us. "The amendments that he proposed, or supported, in the mid and late 1970s, paint a somewhat muddled picture. He did indeed propose some amendments that would have effectively hamstrung all efforts for desegregation. When he was made aware of those practical effects, he sometimes backed off — and he sometimes pressed on nonetheless."
We reached out to Biden’s campaign and did not hear back. Biden’s spokesman Bill Russo told CNN recently that Biden continues to believe that busing could not deliver a true solution to unequal education opportunity.
"Joe Biden is today — and has been for more than 40 years in public life — one of the strongest and most powerful voices for civil rights in America," Russo told CNN.
Justice Democrats accused Biden on six points: Voting for the Iraq War, for mass incarceration, and the Bankruptcy Reform Act, "while voting against gay marriage, reproductive rights, and school desegregation."
On each, there is a measure of accuracy. Biden’s support for the bankruptcy law has the clearest proof, and the Iraq resolution is a close second.
For the others, there are varying degrees of nuance. The crime bills greatly expanded the prison population, but they included other measures that aimed to protect women and offered alternatives to incarceration.
Biden’s views on gay marriage changed.
He once supported giving states the option to overturn Roe vs. Wade, but then opposed such a move, and his views on abortion affirm a basic right, while allowing for limits.
He opposed busing, but favored integration by other means.
The Biden record is more mixed than this claim would suggest. We rate it Half True.