If former Vice President Joe Biden enters the 2020 race, his more than four-decades-long career in Washington will face fresh scrutiny, including his work on criminal justice and financial reform issues.
Biden, who served six terms in the Senate and eight years as vice president under President Barack Obama, has repeatedly said he feels he has ample time to determine whether he’ll enter the 2020 race, but those who’ve spoken with him believe he’s likely to launch a third bid for the White House, possibly later this spring.
His experience could be a boon to his candidacy: A CNN poll this month found that 39% of Democrats and Democratic-leaners find a candidate having the right experience to be president important to them in choosing a nominee in 2020. It was the second most important criteria, just under a candidate having a good chance of beating President Donald Trump.
But should he enter the 2020 race, some of Biden’s past votes and actions could play differently in the context of today’s Democratic Party.
Late last year, Biden declared himself the “most qualified person in the country” to be president but also acknowledged possible liabilities in his record.
“I’m ready to litigate all those things,” Biden said at an event in Montana in December. “The question is, what kind of nation are we becoming? What are we going to do? Who are we?”
One area that’s ripe for examination is his stint on the Senate Judiciary Committee, during which he backed tough-on-crime measures, including the 1994 crime bill. Critics have since argued the policy, which he at times has referred to as the “Biden crime bill,” has led to an era of mass incarceration.
Last month, he expressed remorse for his handling of criminal justice issues, saying “I haven’t always been right,” and specifically pointed to a bill that created a sentencing disparity for powder cocaine versus crack cocaine.
“It was a big mistake when it was made,” Biden said at a Martin Luther King breakfast in January. “We thought, we were told by the experts, that crack you never go back. It was somehow fundamentally different. It’s not different. But it’s trapped an entire generation.”
But the 1994 crime bill also housed the Violence Against Women Act, a signature Biden initiative which he touts as one of the proudest products of his career. The measure also included a federal assault weapons ban, which has since expired but continues to be a top agenda item for many Democrats.
As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden also presided over the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, during which Anita Hill detailed her allegations of sexual harassment by the nominee, her former supervisor.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, and during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Biden faced renewed scrutiny for his treatment of Hill.
“He owes all of us an apology,” Hill told the Boston Globe last year. “He owes the country an apology because the affront was not just to me. It was really a disservice to every one of us – not just on behalf of sexual harassment victims but also on behalf of those people who believe in the integrity of the court and that it should be protected by the Senate, whose role is to advise on judicial nominations.”
Biden has said he owes Hill an apology while also arguing he understood the gravity of the moment
“The woman should be given the benefit of the doubt and not be abused again by the system,” Biden said in an interview with NBC last fall. “My biggest regret was, I didn’t know how I could shut you off because you were a senator and you were attacking Anita Hill’s character … She got victimized during the process.”
“It seems like you get it now, versus in ‘91,” NBC’s Craig Melvin later said.
“Well I think I got it in ‘91,” Biden responded, noting he drafted the Violence Against Women Act. “People have their own opinion.”
If he runs for president, Biden’s ties to the financial services industry, which has a strong base in his home state of Delaware, will also come under the microscope.
Biden has already done battle over banking issues with one 2020 contender: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. As a Harvard Law professor, she argued against a Biden-backed measure which made it more difficult for individuals to file for bankruptcy.
“Senator Biden was on one side of that fight and I was on the other,” Warren recounted in 2015. “And you better believe I didn’t hold back.”
In 1993, Biden voted in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which puts him at odds with other 2020 contenders who voted against the pact, like Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders, both congressmen at the time. But Biden, who describes himself as “middle class Joe,” has long enjoyed support from the labor community and promoted issues that could appeal to working class voters, like a $15 minimum wage and the elimination of non-compete agreements.
In 2002, he voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, a decision for which he later expressed regret. That issue came into sharp focus during the 2008 presidential campaign with Biden and Hillary Clinton among the candidates who voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, while Obama, who wasn’t in the US Senate at the time of the vote, was against it.