The Bernie Sanders Attack Joe Biden Can’t Ignore

The former vice president inaccurately claimed the Sanders campaign “doctored” a video of his remarks about Social Security.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, right, did not get a chance to litigate his criticism of former Vice President Joe Biden's Social Security record at a debate this past Tuesday.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, right, did not get a chance to litigate his criticism of former Vice President Joe Biden's Social Security record at a debate this past Tuesday.
ROBYN BECK/Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden is finally firing back at Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ depiction of him as a longtime proponent of Social Security cuts, following a Tuesday debate in Des Moines, Iowa, that omitted the issue entirely.

But in seeking to reassure voters about his commitment to protecting Social Security, Biden is mischaracterizing Sanders’ tactics.

Biden inaccurately claimed on Saturday that a video circulated by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign had been “doctored” to make him seem more supportive of Social Security cuts than he really is.

The Sanders campaign has circulated video of part of a speech Biden delivered to the Brookings Institution in April 2018 in which he discusses his views about Social Security and appears to credit then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for zeroing in on the program’s financial problems. Below is a version of the clip that Sanders advisor Warren Gunnels shared.

Here is the clip with more context. Watch the full speech at C-SPAN.

Sanders adviser David Sirota has also referenced the speech in the Jan. 7 edition of his email newsletter, “Bern Notice,” claiming that Biden had “lauded Paul Ryan for proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare.”

“Paul Ryan was correct when he did the tax code. What’s the first thing he decided we had to go after? Social Security and Medicare,” Biden said at the time. “That’s the only way you can find room to pay for it.”

“We need a pro-growth, progressive tax code that treats workers as job creators, as well, not just investors; that gets rid of un-protective loopholes like stepped-up basis; and it raises enough revenue to make sure that the Social Security and Medicare can stay, it still needs adjustments, but can stay; and pay for the things we all acknowledge will grow the country,” he added.

A voter asked Biden at a campaign event in Indianola, Iowa, on Saturday about claims she had heard in phone calls that Biden supports Social Security cuts.

“Politifacts [sic] looked at it and they doctored the photo, they doctored the piece and it’s acknowledged that it’s a fake,” Biden responded. “What we’re doing is we’re putting out what the actual exchange between [former House Speaker] Paul Ryan and I were. And I have been a gigantic supporter of Social Security from the beginning.”

The fact-checking site PolitiFact indeed rated Sirota’s claims in his newsletter “false,” because Sirota omitted some words from Biden’s speech to Brookings. Sirota, and a video that PolitiFact does not directly address, do not include Biden’s insistence that a progressive tax code must raise “enough revenue to make sure that the Social Security and Medicare can stay” though those programs “still needs adjustments.”

But “doctoring” a video such that it could be considered “a fake,” generally refers to footage that is fabricated or tampered with, rather than a video excerpt that is simply lacking the full context.

What’s more, Biden’s uses the term “adjustments” in reference to Social Security after going on a riff about whether affluent Americans actually need their benefits, making it sound as if he implicitly is interested in some form of means-testing or income-based benefit reductions.

Biden’s campaign maintains that the plan on his campaign website, which would increase benefits, is what he meant by “adjustments.” Biden would not so much as consider cutting Social Security benefits in any way, according to the campaign.

“Now, I don’t know a whole lot of people in the top one-tenth of 1 percent or the top 1 percent who are relying on Social Security when they retire. I don’t know a lot of them. Maybe you guys do,” he said in his speech to Brookings, before launching into his plans for a “pro-growth, progressive tax code.”

As Biden notes in his conversation with the voter on Saturday, his Social Security plan would increase benefits and extend the program’s solvency by lifting the cap on taxable income for Social Security purposes. The benefit increases he proposes include the creation of a minimum benefit at 125% of the federal poverty level, tackling poverty in late old age through a benefit bump-up for people collecting benefits for 20 years or more, and a change allowing surviving spouses to keep a larger share of benefits.

But in the past, some proposals to reform the program that have included at least one of these benefit increases also cut benefits in other ways.

And as the Sanders campaign is fond of noting, Biden has a long history of endorsing Social Security benefit cuts dating back to the 1980s and 1990s.

As then-President Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden served as Obama’s liaison to Senate Republicans at a time when Obama had put a cut to Social Security cost-of-living adjustment on the table in pursuit of “grand bargain” that would also increase tax revenue. Obama would make that technical change, the “chained” consumer price index, part of his 2013 budget resolution, prompting a White House protest where Sanders spoke.

“Joe Biden should be honest with voters and stop trying to doctor his own public record of consistently and repeatedly trying to cut Social Security. The facts are very clear: Biden not only pushed to cut Social Security ― he is on tape proudly bragging about it on multiple occasions,” Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir said in a statement on Saturday evening. “The vice president must stop dodging questions about his record, and start explaining why he has so aggressively pushed to slash one of the most significant and successful social programs in American history, which millions of Americans rely on for survival.”

When asked for comment, Biden campaign staffer Andrew Bates said, “As Bernie Sanders himself said in 2015: ‘Joe Biden is a man who has devoted his entire life to public service and to the wellbeing of working families and the middle class.’”

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