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Joe Biden on Civil Liberties

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Joe Biden

Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), the 2008 Democratic vice-presidential nominee.

Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images.

ACLU Rating:

Joe Biden has an 80% lifetime rating from the ACLU, the second-highest of any major-party 2008 presidential candidate (only Dennis Kucinich, at 89%, has him beat).

Abortion and Reproductive Rights - Strongly Pro-Choice, with Reservations:

Joseph Biden is the only 2008 Democratic presidential candidate to have voted in favor of the ban on live intact D&X ("partial birth") abortions in 2003. He has remained relatively silent on the Supreme Court's Gonzales v. Carhart ruling, which upheld the ban. Otherwise, his pro-choice record is flawless--he has received an 100% rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America for three consecutive years, and his record prior to 2003 is also strongly pro-choice.

Death Penalty - Strongly Retentionist:

Biden's record on death penalty reform is the weakest of any of the 2008 Democratic candidates. He is a supporter of capital punishment, and holds the distinction of being the author of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (often referred to as the "Biden crime bill"), which expanded the federal death penalty to include drug trafficking, a nonviolent offense.

The First Amendment - Supports Campaign Finance Reform:

In 2007, Biden voted against a bill that would have exempted grassroots lobbying from campaign finance reform regulation. On the other hand, Biden has consistently opposed other measures to restrict free speech, such as the constitutional ban on flag desecration. Biden was also a strong and outspoken opponent of the Communications Decency Act of 1995.

Immigrants' Rights - Moderately Generous:

Biden supports a citizenship path and guest worker program. Because he is primarily a foreign policy senator, he tends to think of undocumented immigration in more Mexican terms--blaming it on the country's "dysfunctional distribution of opportunity," which he promises to take on if elected president.

Lesbian and Gay Rights - Everything But Marriage:

Biden voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, but has been quoted as saying "I don't know why we should be frightened of [same-sex marriage]." Although he sees same-sex marriage as a likely inevitability, he has not taken the step of actually supporting it. Instead, he supports a civil unions policy that would grant the same legal rights. He also supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), federal hate crime legislation that includes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories, and the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

Race and Equal Opportunity - Regressive Words, Progressive Actions:

If you judge Joe Biden by his words, he is one of the most problematic candidates on race issues--referring to Obama as "clean, bright, and articulate" during the 2007-2008 primaries and making inappropriate jokes about Asian-owned convenience stores. But the Rev. Jesse Jackson has stood up for Biden, claiming that he is a strong supporter of civil rights, and the voting record of Biden--a frequent speaker at NAACP events--bears that out.

The Second Amendment - Supports Increased Gun Control:

Biden's 1994 crime bill also banned semiautomatic "assault" weapons for 10 years, and he would probably renew the ban if given an opportunity. His NRA rating is, predictably, F.

War on Terror - Democratic Mainstream:

Like all other senators but one (and Russ Feingold isn't on the ticket), Biden voted for the original USA PATRIOT Act in 2001. His record has been pretty standard for a Democratic senator from the northeast--he stood with the Bush administration when everyone else did, but was among the first to express some skepticism about the Bush administration's post-9/11 policies.

Tom's Take:

When Biden ran for president in 2007 and early 2008, I wrote:
Biden's outspoken style makes him interesting to listen to, but it would make him a problematic president. Other than Biden's high ACLU rating, his savant-like gift for foreign policy, and his refreshingly down-to-earth attitude about same-sex marriage, there is little to recommend him as a candidate. There is no issue where he is the best in the Democratic field, and at least one (the death penalty) where he is the worst. His civil liberties record, like his candidacy in general, is strictly middle-tier.
But this middle-tier presidential candidate may well be a top-tier running mate. His history of race-related gaffes is unlikely to hurt him when he's the running mate of the first non-white major party presidential nominee, and his vast foreign policy background fills in the only significant gap on Obama's resumé. His record on capital punishment, while unfortunate, is well within the Democratic mainstream. And how can you hate a guy with an 80% lifetime ACLU rating?

Biden would not have been my very first choice as Obama's running mate, but he would have been in my top five.
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