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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Biden’s Factual Distortions

Former Vice President Joe Biden distorted the facts in two interviews in the wake of the Nevada caucuses:

  • He claimed that one of his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders, “was opposed to Obamacare.” Sanders voted in favor of the bill in 2009, saying it was “not as strong as I wanted” but “begins to move this country toward the long-time goal of providing comprehensive, affordable health care for all Americans.”
  • In an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Biden falsely claimed that he had never labeled South Carolina as his campaign’s “firewall,” in case he didn’t perform well in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. Biden has used that metaphor more than once.
Sanders Voted for the ACA

Biden’s campaign points to Sanders expressing opposition to the Affordable Care Act before the Senate ultimately passed the legislation. It’s true Sanders said as late as a week before the Dec. 24, 2009, vote that he was “not voting for the bill” but that he would “do my best to make this bill a better bill” that he could support. After a provision was added for billions in funding for community health centers, Sanders’ vote was a yes.

Biden made his claim during an interview on MSNBC on Feb. 23, a day after the Nevada caucuses, in which the former vice president came in second, behind Sanders. (See the 4:57 mark of the video.) “He was opposed to Obamacare, didn’t like the fact we didn’t push a single-payer option,” Biden said of the Vermont senator.

It’s no secret Sanders, who has pushed Medicare for All legislation, backs a “single-payer option,” or a universal coverage system in which everyone has health insurance through the federal government. He also supported that in 2009, introducing an amendment for a single-payer system while the ACA was being debated. However, he proposed the amendment on the Senate floor on Dec. 16, 2009, knowing it wouldn’t pass and then withdrew it when Republican Sen. Tom Coburn objected to a request to dispense with the reading of the full amendment.

On the Senate floor, Sanders criticized the Republican effort to “bring the U.S. government to a halt by forcing a reading of a 700-page amendment,” and he went on to explain why he wanted to propose legislation he knew would fail.

Sanders, Dec. 16, 2009: My amendment, which was cosponsored by Sens. Sherrod Brown and Roland Burris, would have instituted a Medicare-for-all single-payer program. I was more than aware and very proud that, were it not for the Republican’s obstructionist tactics, this would have been the first time in American history that a Medicare-for-all single-payer bill was brought to a vote before the floor of the Senate. I was more than aware that this amendment would not win. I knew that. But I am absolutely convinced that this legislation or legislation like it will eventually become the law of the land.

The following day, after a public option provision was dropped from consideration, Sanders told Fox News that “as of this point, I’m not voting for the bill,” citing the lack of a “Medicare-type public option.” He said he would “do my best to make this bill a better bill, a bill that I can vote for, but I have indicated both to the White House and the Democratic leadership that my vote is not secure at this point.”

The public option was a federal government health insurance plan that individuals and small businesses could have selected among other, private insurance policies. The Senate also considered, but eliminated, a compromise Medicare buy-in option for those age 55 to 64. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent, opposed those measures.

But just two days after that, on Dec. 19, 2009, Sanders touted the addition of a provision he said he requested to add $10 billion in funding for community health centers to boost primary health care services. And, as we said, when the Senate held the final vote on the Affordable Care Act, Sanders voted for it.

By the time of the vote, the bill also included an extra $600 million in Medicaid funding to Vermont, though the Associated Press reported it was the negotiation from the state’s other senator, Patrick Leahy, that won that concession due to the state having already expanded Medicaid eligibility prior to passage of the ACA.

Vermont wasn’t the only state to get benefits viewed as deals to secure votes. The AP listed seven senators, as well as a handful of other states and interest groups that got some concession in the final bill. Then-President Barack Obama said that “compromise is part of the process,” adding the new amendments “have made this landmark bill even stronger.”

On Dec. 22, 2009, Sanders said on MSNBC that the community health center funding, which would go to all states, “was an important factor in helping me to vote for this bill.”

The Biden campaign pointed to several instances in which Sanders called the ACA “modest.” In October 2013, Sanders also said in an interview that it was “too complicated,” and his Senate office said: “He prefers a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system that would provide better care to more people at less cost.” But those statements don’t indicate that Sanders “opposed” the ACA; they show he’d prefer a Medicare-for-All system instead, a position he has campaigned on in the presidential race.

Sanders’ campaign pointed out that the senator defended the ACA in 2017 when Republicans were trying to repeal and replace it. “Our job today is to defend the Affordable Care Act,” Sanders told supporters at rallies that year, according to Vox. “Our job tomorrow is to create a Medicare-for-all single-payer system.”

The senator has been consistent in saying the ACA is a first step, in his view, and Medicare for All is what he believes the U.S. should implement. In that Dec. 22, 2009, interview with MSNBC, two days before his “yes” vote, he said the ACA wasn’t “anywhere near as strong a bill as I would like,” mentioning several factors including the lack of a public option. But, he said there were “a lot of good things” in the legislation, such as an expansion of insurance coverage to millions of the uninsured. The choice, he said, was either to “kill the bill” or “pass something and try to improve it in years to come.”

He reiterated that after the Senate passed the bill. “The bill is not as strong as I wanted and I will work to improve it, but it begins to move this country toward the long-time goal of providing comprehensive, affordable health care for all Americans,” Sanders said in a statement on Dec. 24, 2009. “We can do better, but this is an important step forward.”

On March 25, 2010, Sanders also voted for the reconciliation bill, passed as part of the ACA. He dropped an effort to try to add a public-option amendment to that legislation, saying that then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid convinced him and others that doing so might “destabilize a very sensitive situation,” according to a report at the time in the Las Vegas Sun.

Biden’s ‘Firewall’ Denial

In an interview with Margaret Brennan, host of CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Biden falsely claimed that he had never said that South Carolina would be his campaign’s “firewall,” in case he didn’t perform well in the first three primary contests.

Biden has previously used that term more than once when talking about his chances to win the state, where until recently Biden had long held a double-digit lead in polls — primarily due to his support among black Democratic voters in the state.

Brennan, Feb. 22: South Carolina, though, was your firewall.

Biden: You said it, my firewall. I’ve never said it–

Brennan: The campaign has said it’s your–

Biden: No–

Brennan: –firewall.

Biden: It’s not — I said I’m going to do well there. And I’ll do well there and I’ll do well-beyond there as well.

In an NBC News interview on Feb. 2, for instance, Biden said: “I think I’ll do well in Nevada. And I think I have a real firewall in South Carolina. And then we go into the Super Tuesday states that have a significant number of minorities and African Americans. I think I’m gonna do fine.”

The day before that, after a campaign event in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, CNN reported that Biden made a similar statement about South Carolina while answering a CNN reporter’s question about his chances in the Iowa caucuses.

“I just think it’s a different year in that I think the measure, you all won’t do it now, and I don’t mean it in a bad way, but I think what you’re going to have to measure is who can represent every aspect of the Democratic Party,” Biden said, according to CNN. “And that’s why I think it matters how you – it’s [Iowa] not as consequential in one sense as it has been in years past. Because I feel very strongly that we have a great firewall in South Carolina. I think we’re in a position where we’ll do very well in Nevada, I think it’s gonna be a real uphill race as it always is for a non-New Englander in New Hampshire. And I think it’s gonna be just a tossup here [Iowa]. It has been all the way along.”

The Associated Press also reported that Biden said in October that South Carolina is the state that would really propel his campaign forward.

“People talk about South Carolina being a firewall. I kind of view South Carolina being a diving board. It’s going to catapult me into the Super Tuesday areas that are a lot of the South, from Georgia to Texas to Florida, across the board,” he was quoted as saying.

Biden’s denial about once describing South Carolina to be his campaign’s “firewall” comes as recent polls show his lead in the state has dropped to single digits.

CBS News poll conducted before — and released the day after — Sanders easily won in Nevada, showed that Biden (28%) has just a 5 percentage point lead over Sanders (23%) in South Carolina. CBS News noted that Biden’s lead was once as large as 28 percentage points (over Sen. Elizabeth Warren) in November, according to another of its polls.

In the interview, Brennan also said that the same poll showed Biden’s support among black voters has declined by 19 percentage points in four months — from 54% to 35%.