The media narrative that Joe Biden represents the moderate third way has been aided by the attacks of other candidates for Democratic nomination on both his US Senate voting record and on the Obama Administration.
Given this general acceptance of his moderation I decided to dig deeper because never have I as a keen political observer seen Joe Biden in the Bill Clinton/Al Gore/Joe Lieberman class of Democratic moderates. In fact, my recollection was that he was relatively liberal relative to his colleagues in the Senate, but was never an arch-liberal. But rather than just making assumptions, I decided to consult the record, which is readily available to those willing to spend time looking at votes, voting scores and interest group ratings. As one can imagine, this undertaking revealed an officeholder over 36 years that evolved, but also had contradictions in how he viewed issues through the years. Biden has many very good votes and a few very bad ones. He also appeared to shift left once Ronald Reagan became President.
Since it is difficult to quantify the ideology of executive actions without some serious research, Biden’s Senate voting record is a little easier to track down, analyze and draw conclusions from. Having served 35 years in the Senate it’s easy to track down.
It is also important to nail down what exactly we mean by a moderate or centrist. My assumption has always been a moderate or centrist is someone who is neither liberal or conservative but is somewhere between 40 and 60 on a scale of 1 to 100 ideologically. Perhaps that can be stretched to the middle third, between 33 and 67.
Also as we will observe later it’s important to distinguish between social and international policy issues where Biden has generally been fairly far to the left relative to the body he served in versus economic issues where his record is generally less progressive relative to other Senators.
In order to ascertain Biden’s actual ideology we consulted interest group scores, old Congressional votes (as a GovTrac patron I use the site regularly), National Journal, The Almanac of American Politics and other sources.
One easy place to start in searching for Biden’s ideology is to consult the yearly ratings of American Conservative Union (ACU), the organization that puts on the CPAC conference and has had more impact on developing a comprehensive conservative ideology since the 1970’s than any other group. A 100 score denotes a perfect conservative from ACU. For example, Ted Cruz’s lifetime score is 98.25 and Ron DeSantis’ score is a near-perfect conservative 99.31.
Joe Biden’s lifetime rating from the ACU was 12.67 which is not that much higher than Bernie Sanders lifetime rating (over 28 years of service in Congress) of 6.78. Both Biden and Sanders on any objective 1 to 100 scale using ACU’s ratings which are calculated over dozens of votes each year would be classified as “liberal” though Sanders is slightly more liberal than Biden. It should be noted Biden’s ACU ratings averaged in the high 20’s from 1973 to 1980 and promptly dipped into single digits once Ronald Reagan became President, where it stayed for the rest of his career.
Biden’s shift to the left may have been part of the reflexive Democratic reaction to Reagan’s arch-conservatism, as this pattern can be detected in some other Democratic officeholders of that era (It’s worth a quick digression to describe how Reagan hit the leading Democratic officeholders at the time – Many in the Congress like Biden, Jim Wright and others swung hard to the left reflexively in order to oppose the new President while others, mostly at the state level in the south like Bill Clinton and even Bob Graham sought to mimic Reagan as much as possible thinking that was the best route forward for the party and formed the DLC as a result). Biden’s overall average of 12.67 reflects his initial center-left ideology which eventually shifted to being fairly far to the left.
Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz often accused of being a neo-liberal by the far left has a lifetime rating of 1.55 from the ACU based on her 14 years in Congress, meaning based on the ACU’s scale she has voted further to the left than Sanders has. In fact, very few members of Congress have voted as progressively as Wasserman Schultz based on ACU’s scores
But the ACU cannot be the sole guide as to ideology though it has historically been a pretty good one ( perhaps the ACU’s greatest contribution is distinguishing true conservatives like DeSantis from phony ones like Lindsay Graham among others by tracking voting scores based on ideology rather than partisan alignment). Other indicators need to be consulted.
National Journal the definitive guide for policy making and analysis of legislation in Congress has for many years tracked members voting records relative to the rest of the body. On this test, Biden was almost always to the left, in some cases to the extreme left on social and international issues. However, perhaps owing itself to Delaware’s unique status as a tax haven, his voting record on economic issues is far less reassuring.
For example, in 1999 according to National Journal’s ratings, Biden was tied for the Senate’s most liberal member on foreign policy. The following year, he was tied for the chamber’s most liberal member on social issues. However, on economics both years while more liberal than conservative he was more conservative than between 17% to 30% of the members of chamber. At the time the Republicans held a 55-45 edge in the Senate at the time. This put him toward the middle of the Democratic members on fiscal issues while he was toward the left on social and international related votes.
Going back a decade to 1989 and 1990, when the Democrats held a majority in the Senate, Biden’s scores on fiscal matters from National Journal were again more moderate with 22% to 40% of the Senate voting more liberally. However, much like a decade later, his voting record on social issues and foreign policy were to the extreme left of the Senate as a whole.
Throughout the 1990’s Biden’s record tended to be to the left on social issues, with the exception of his support for the Hyde Amendment (which was at the time supported by other members of the Democratic leadership) and his wishy-washy stance on other abortion restrictions. On foreign policy, he tended to stick to the Democratic line and support multilateral efforts. At the time his leadership on foreign affairs was critical to pushing back against the radicalization of the right on international policy and the extreme push toward unilateralism. Biden sparred often with the likes of Jesse Helms on these issues.
Biden’s 2002 vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq is an outlier – he voted regularly in the 1980’s and 1990’s and again after 2005 on the extreme left of foreign policy. Biden voted with the left against Reagan and more conservative Democrats on Contra Aid, a big issue of the 1980’s and voted against the Gulf War resolution in 1991. After 2004, he became a leading voice for a sane solution in Iraq and was skeptical of President Bush’s “surge” in early 2007. Almost every year from 1981 onward, according to the National Journal voting scale, Biden was at the very left or close to very left on foreign policy.
But Biden, like John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and so many other seemingly liberal Democrats voted for the Iraq War Resolution which is a permanent blot on his record. It cannot be stressed enough despite the years of spin we have heard from Democrats that supported this resolution that those voting against military action included the two most senior and seasoned Senators, Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd, as well as Florida’s Bob Graham who unlike most others bothered to read the intelligence reports related to Iraq before casting his vote.
Biden, like Kerry had voted against the 1991 Gulf War, and perhaps with egg on his face from smoothly that military operation went, decided not to take a stand again and used the prevailing political winds to rationalize this stand. Whatever his reasoning, Iraq, a war which was misconceived and badly bungled is not a shining moment for Biden or many other Democrats. Though once again it should be noted Biden looked for practical solutions to getting out after helping lead Democrats off the plank in support of the war.
When looking at key votes from multiple editions of The Almanac of American Politics, from the 1970’s onward Biden generally skewed left. His votes on environmental issues were again fairly far left though some exceptions occurred. Unfortunately, this was the norm among senior Democrats who generally were green but would at times pick and choose votes or issues to side with industry on.
Biden’s lifetime score of 83 from the League of Conservation voters put him to the left of the midpoint of Democrats in the Senate he served with through the years. But it did not put him in the most liberal quarter of Democrats during his tenure. It’s a decent score, but not a great one from a progressive perspective.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s, Biden became a leading voice on pushing and eventually passing restrictions on gun ownership as well as waiting periods for buying guns. This can be interpreted as sound public policy which helped make us safer, but also ideas that cost the Democrats dearly in terms of losing seats outside major urban areas that had been with the party for a generation or more.
The struggles of the party outside major metropolitan areas can be traced as easily electorally to its efforts on guns than any other issue (the media today likes to claim racial issues drove voters away from the Democrats in the south and interior western states – race was a factor but from my recollection and more recent research guns were as big if not an even bigger factor, and Biden certainly was culpable in this sense, losing the Democrats whatever remaining capital they had in non-urban areas) Bernie Sanders, for what it is worth voted against most of the Biden-driven legislation on firearms. The loss of both houses of Congress in 1994 can be traced directly to gun control efforts, as can the Democrats inability to retain many seats in 1996 of retiring members who had opposed gun control. While Biden did the right thing for country, he did the wrong thing politically for his party in pushing restrictions in guns.
Whether Biden was pushing gun restrictions out of conviction or a sense of party loyalty can be questioned, but certainly his stands made him a conservative target even at home in Delaware. It is also worth noting that despite the rhetoric of the more left-leaning candidates for 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination, Biden probably has the most liberal record imaginable on firearms. Not just from a voting record standpoint, but from an advocacy one as well.
From the liberal Americans for Democratic Action which has tracked voting scores since the 1940’s, Biden’s score usually was between 80 and 100 from 1981 onwards, but lower before Ronald Reagan’s election. Here again though if you take the time to look at individual votes, Biden’s record skews left on social issues but veers toward the middle-left on economics. Generally, on important floor votes Biden would take the liberal line on any non-abortion related social issue (and did on many reproductive rights-related votes, but not on all) but on economic issues would pick and choose places to move to the middle. Toward the very end of Biden’s career he did move further to the left on economics.
The bottom line is Biden’s record is generally liberal with tinges of moderation. While on today’s scale he cannot be called a progressive in the vein of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, it is a stretch to call him a moderate or centrist. His left-of-center voting record generally put him left of the midpoint on every issue and in most cases left of even the Democratic midpoint. While aspects of his record on economics are troubling, it’s no more “conservative” than a party that as a whole has become aligned with Wall Street and large tech companies in the 2010’s.
In fact, Biden’s record on economics which was more conservative than his social, environmental and foreign affairs record as a Senator is quite possibly now somewhere in the mainstream among Democratic officeholders given the shift that has taken place within the upper reaches of the party on fiscal issues since President Obama’s election. While beating up on Obama’s more centrist policies has become popular among the left, it must be remembered he won two national elections with over 50% of the vote, the first Democrat to do so since Franklin Roosevelt.
But in an era of economic anxiety especially among younger voters Biden’s record and that of the Obama administration on core fiscal matters might give pause. Biden’s economic record could never be confused with that of Warren or Sanders.
It can be concluded that Biden is generally a liberal, but one with pragmatic instincts. It should be noted also that his far left record on guns might be problematic in trying to get non-urban working class voters to support his candidacy. Since winning red areas is part of Biden’s supposed appeal, his gun control advocacy could be a problem, unlike Sanders who has fairly consistently voted against restrictions on firearms. Otherwise, his record seems liberal enough to keep base Democrats but pragmatic enough not to scare swing voters- a small group but one that could be decisive next year.