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How liberal was Joe Biden?

(Kate Flock/Bloomberg News) (Kate Flock/Bloomberg News)

“I was always labeled as one of the most liberal members of the United States Congress. If it makes you progressive to mean that you are for Medicare-for-all or it makes it progressive, then that wasn’t the standard of what constituted in the past what is progressive.”

Former vice president Joe Biden, in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” April 29

In the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Biden brings years of experience — and many votes that will be subject to scrutiny. His strongest challenger at the moment, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is so far to the left that he’s not even officially a Democrat, but a Democratic socialist. Other candidates are also fairly liberal, backing ideas — such as Medicare-for-all — that were once considered pipe dreams.

So, it behooves Biden today to play up his liberal credentials. (In a famous 1974 interview with Kitty Kelley of the Washingtonian, Biden was quoted as saying he resented being called the “bright young liberal” of the new Left: “When it comes to civil rights and civil liberties, I’m a liberal but that’s it. I’m really quite conservative on most other issues.”)

Our colleagues at PolitiFact have already taken a stab at Biden’s comment to ABC, labeling it “false.” But we thought it was worth having our own fact check on the record. This is going to be one of those rare instances when fact-checkers disagree on the rating.

The Facts

Biden said he was labeled one of the most liberal members in the Senate when he was in the body more than a decade ago, though he indicates that the definition of liberalism has evolved since he resigned his seat. But it’s hard to get an accurate fix on where any lawmaker fits along the ideological spectrum, particularly one who served as long as Biden, as it depends on the methodology used to assign a bill as liberal, moderate or conservative.

The Biden campaign pointed to Voteview, a well-regarded database at the University of California at Los Angeles, as evidence for his statement. Voteview offers every congressional roll-call vote in American history on a liberal-conservative ideological map, including information about the ideological positions of voting senators and House members.

Over the course of his Senate career, Biden was generally at or about the 25 most liberal members of the Senate, according to Voteview’s scale. His average over 19 congressional sessions was 74 percent, which translates into 26th most liberal senator. His high was 81 percent from 1999-2001, and his low was 65 percent from 1977-79.

That meant he was no Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) or Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), but neither was he one of the conservative “blue dog” Democrats who voted more consistently with Republicans. In fact, Biden’s party loyalty score in Voteview is fairly high. Among Senate Democrats, Biden generally was found right in the middle of the pack, as Voteview analyzed the votes.

Digging into the database, we were surprised to see that Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) was actually listed as slightly to the right of Biden, given Harkin’s reputation for being rather liberal.

Jeffrey B. Lewis, a UCLA professor who manages Voteview, says this indicates the limitations of such aggregate rankings of votes. He suspected that Harkin was deemed less liberal overall because of farm votes he cast.

So, in terms of perspective, Biden was more liberal than about three-quarters of the Senate. Lewis said that as Biden framed it, being among the most liberal in the Senate, “I would mark that as misleading, but I am not sure it is demonstrably false.”

He noted that “if you are in the middle of your caucus, it is hard to say that you are also in its progressive wing — unless you think more than half the caucus is in that ‘wing.’ "

Voteview’s overview of party ideology shows that the Democrats drifted left during Biden’s time in the Senate, while Republicans moved sharply right. So even remaining in the middle of the Democratic caucus, Biden in effect became more “liberal” than the overall Senate over time.

Another metric is offered by GovTrack, which rates a lawmaker’s ideology based on bills that he or she sponsored and co-sponsored. Josh Tauberer, who founded GovTrack, told PolitiFact that Biden’s claim was “false,” based on website’s data.

Tauberer told The Fact Checker that “if I had to put a number on it, I’d say the left one-third of Democrats could be in the ‘most liberal’ category, which would translate to roughly the 83rd percentile overall. Of the 19 Congresses Biden served in, he was in the left one-third just once and it was in the 94th Congress,” 1974-75. (Note: the Voteview scale puts Biden at 70 percent in this Congress, which indicates how the results can differ greatly depending on what is being measured.)

There is also an ideological rating scale conducted by the National Journal, which in 2007 gave Biden a 94 percent overall liberal score, but also as low as 59 percent in 1997. Brendan Nyhan, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan, said National Journal’s ratings are not as reliable an indicator as Voteview because National Journal looks only at a selected subset of votes, not all votes, which results in a wide variation of the ratings from year to year.

When Biden announced his abortive run for the presidency in 2007, Congressional Quarterly said he had “amassed a mostly liberal voting record in Congress,” concurring “with the Democratic Party stand on 91 percent of Senate votes that pitted most Democratic senators against most Republicans.”

Notice that Biden said he had been “labeled a liberal.” Tauberer suggested that we fact-check whether “anyone actually labeled him as such at the time. If people said it then, he’d be right.”

It turns out that 2007 National Journal score was a handy talking point for the GOP when Biden was named as Barack Obama’s running mate. “Joe Biden, the third most liberal member of the United States Senate, has a lot to say and if you say a lot, you’ll eventually be right about something,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told Fox News on Oct. 20, 2008.

And here’s an Associated Press article from August 2008: “Sen. Kit Bond says Barack Obama’s choice of Sen. Joe Biden as a running mate makes the duo ‘the most liberal ticket ever’ for Democratic Party. The Missouri Republican on Monday called Biden a nice guy but said he will push for massive tax increases and government-run health care. Bond also criticized the Democratic running mate for opposing expanded offshore oil drilling.”

These days, Republicans don’t just label Biden a liberal, but a socialist: “No matter how they choose to characterize themselves, you can bet whether it is Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or somebody else, the nominee for president on the Democratic side is going to be on a path to try to turn America into a socialist country,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on May 11.

The Biden campaign said his statement was demonstrated by his actions.

“Whether it was introducing one of the first-ever bills to fight climate change in the United States Congress, writing the Violence Against Women Act, or defeating the NRA to ban assault weapons from our streets, Joe Biden has a monumental record of progressive accomplishment from his time in the Senate," said campaign spokesman Andrew Bates. "As Vice President, he went on to lead the biggest clean energy investment in American history and fought to move the Affordable Care Act over the finish line. He’s running to be the force for change that rebuilds the American middle class and propels the country into the future, and his record will be a major asset in that effort.”

The Pinocchio Test

Biden said he was labeled one of the most liberal members of Congress. Within the context of 100 senators, Biden was right on the cusp, according to two respected metrics of ideology — not quite in the top tier of liberals, but neither was he a moderate or conservative Democrat. One could argue he was not in lockstep with the most liberal elements of the party, but liberal enough that Republicans would feel little hesitation to fling the epithet at him.

If Biden had said he was one of the most liberal Democrats, that would be in the Two or Three Pinocchio range. So much depends on what votes one values as critical to that assessment. Instead, Biden said he was labeled one of the most liberal Democrats. Within the context of the U.S. Senate, Republicans certainly viewed him as a liberal and said so. That tips us more toward One Pinocchio.

On balance, we view this as a Two Pinocchio claim, what we describe as “half true.” Biden never quite made it in the top ranks of liberal senators, based on the bills he voted for or supported, no matter how often Republicans tried to place him there.

Two Pinocchios

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Two Pinocchios
“I was always labeled as one of the most liberal members of the United States Congress."
in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America"
Monday, April 29, 2019