For all the talk of living in a “post-truth” world under Trump, this has never really been true. Yes, Trump and his acolytes lie systematically and shamelessly, like past presidents have done. But there has also been a broad and vigilant media effort devoted to tracking and correcting the president’s constant lies, ensuring that with nearly every public appearance Trump makes, his falsehoods are loudly called out (“The 30 most troubling lines from Donald Trump’s latest news conference on coronavirus,” reads one recent CNN headline).
But if we weren’t living in a post-truth world before, last night’s CNN debate confirms we are now.
Last night, former–vice president Joe Biden — who has spent this campaign telling all manner of lies about himself and others — lied nonstop about his record, that of his opponent, and what he plans to do as president, with no pushback other than from his opponent.
Multiple times, Biden charged Sanders “still hasn’t told us how he’s going to pay for” Medicare for All, even though he released a detailed funding plan last month. He misleadingly charged that Sanders had voted against the 2008 auto bailout. He accused Sanders of having “nine Super PACs” and threatened to “list them,” then backed down when challenged to do so. (For the record, one of those supposed “Super PACs” took only six donations over $5,000 in 2019).
But it was on his own record that Biden was particularly dishonest. Directly and repeatedly asked by Sanders if he had been on the Senate floor calling for cuts to Social Security, Medicare and veterans benefits, Biden repeatedly flat-out lied, saying he hadn’t — a fact easily disproved by the video of Biden doing exactly that in 1995.
As has been amply documented, Biden has spent his career taking aim at the program: he targeted it in his 1984 spending freeze proposal; he called for raising the retirement age and reducing its cost-of-living increases in 1996; he voted three years in a row for the balanced budget constitutional amendment, which, as Sanders warned at the time, would have imperiled the program; he called again for raising the retirement age in 2007, as well as introducing means-testing to the program; and as Obama’s vice president, he repeatedly rolled over for Republicans in negotiations, offering them significant cuts to Social Security and other vital programs.
Biden even managed to squeeze one more lie into the exchange. “I was not a fan of Bowles-[Simpson],” Biden said, referring to the commission set up by Biden’s administration to recommend cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. In fact, it was Biden who persuaded former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, known since the 1990s as an uber–deficit hawk who wanted to privatize Social Security, to co-chair the commission. Simpson later got in trouble for calling the program “a milk cow with 310 million tits.”
This was only the beginning. “I’m talking about a ban on fracking,” Sanders at one point said. “So am I,” replied Biden. In fact, Biden has never supported a fracking ban, and his campaign helpfully clarified today that he misled viewers last night. Biden changed his position on the Hyde Amendment “a while ago,” he said; in fact, he supported it until the middle of last year, when, under a torrent of criticism, he abruptly flipped, taking two contradictory positions on the measure in the same week. He “helped put together” the Paris climate accord, he claimed. In fact, no Obama officials can remember him being particularly involved in the effort. He again absurdly claimed that his vote for the Iraq War was actually an attempt to stop the war.
Perhaps Biden’s most outrageous lie was over his bankruptcy bill. Biden claimed that it “was passing overwhelmingly and I improved it,” that he “made it clear to the industry, I didn’t like the bill,” and that he “did not support the bill.” When Sanders said Biden “helped write that bankruptcy bill,” Biden replied, “I did not.”
These are all lies. Biden had been backing the bill since at least 1998, when he first voted with the rest of the Senate to end a filibuster against it, then voted again to pass it. Calling the bill “great news,” the executive vice president of the Delaware Bankers Association gushed that its passage “would make the credit card industry stronger and healthier.” Commenting on the bill, which was being pushed by the same credit card industry that was Biden and other Delaware politicians’ biggest donor, a National Consumer Law Center lawyer said “there’s no question that on this issue, big money has bought a process which is favorable to the banks and lending industry.” The bill ultimately failing only thanks to then-president Bill Clinton’s threats to veto.
Biden and three others reintroduced a version of the bill a year later, but it took a Republican in the White House for Biden to succeed. “Every offer is closer and closer and closer,” Biden said in 2002, as he and other members of Congress negotiated to get it over the line. Biden ultimately voted for it four times before it was finally signed into law by George W. Bush in 2005. Elizabeth Warren called Biden “one of the bill’s lead sponsors” in her 2014 book. Travis Plunkett, the legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America, later accused Biden of providing a “veneer of bipartisanship” to the legislation, which “provided cover to other Democrats to do what the credit card industry was urging them to do.” For good measure, courtesy of journalist Lee Fang, here’s Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch praising Biden in 2005 for working “tirelessly for years” on the bill.
Far from working to make it better, Biden consistently voted down amendments that softened the bill. As the New York Times reported in 2008, Biden was one of only a few Democrats who voted down amendments to require credit card companies to better warn consumers about the dangers of making only minimum monthly repayments, to protect debtors who had large medical debts or served in the military, and to put the onus on predatory lenders in certain cases where they had pushed people into bankruptcy.
And for all the grandstanding over Sanders’s Obama-like praise for Cuba’s literacy program, here’s something you won’t ever hear mentioned in the mainstream media: as Egypt’s blood-soaked tyrant Hosni Mubarak cracked down on anti-government protesters in 2011, Biden flatly refused to say Mubarak should step down, instead saying he had “been an ally of ours in a number of things” and that he “would not refer to him as a dictator.” Now, Biden says that “the idea of praising a country that is violating human rights around the world is in fact makes our allies wonder what’s going on.”
This is not a stutter. This is not even cognitive decline. This is part of a long-standing pattern of dishonesty in Biden’s career, a man who has shown his willingness to say and do anything at any given time in the pursuit of his political ambition, the only thing in which he has ever really consistently believed.
Ultimately, though, the question is: will any of this matter?
Look, Facts, Look
The past four years have shown that the Democratic electorate occupies a space that is heavily shaped by cable news and other establishment media institutions hostile to Sanders and his program. It was, after all, venerable centrist fact-checkers who actually sided with Biden’s absurd claim a few months ago that a video from 2018 showing Biden calling for means-testing of Social Security was “doctored” and “a fake.”
Sanders’s big gamble was that by catching Biden out in a lie, it would force news outlets and fact-checkers to go through the usual process of determining who was telling the truth. And to their credit, fact-checkers have been out in full force since the debate, pointing out Biden’s lies. Yet fact-checkers alone will not ultimately shape how the debate is perceived and remembered by viewers. “Biden sounds like a president,” reads the headline for CNN’s roundup of debate analysis today. Just like that, four years of media outrage over “alternative facts” vanishes in an instant.
It’s impossible to know what will ultimately happen in this election, particularly with state governments irresponsibly plowing on with tomorrow’s elections in the middle of a growing pandemic, seemingly determined to create a public health hazard if it means wrapping up this election. But make no mistake: if we are now living in a post-truth world, it is not only because Trump is in the White House, but also because of the campaign to drive him out, which seems to require a constant reshaping of the truth to fit its agenda, whether about Trump’s policy toward Russia, the history of previous administrations, or the minimization of the lies and inadequacies of his electoral rivals.
As others have pointed out, Biden has already gotten away with the kinds of lies that would have ended his campaign in a different era. In fact, they already did once before. That they’ve barely made a ripple now — and that he was allowed to unload a stream of lies as Trump-hating television anchors nodded along and cast him as “presidential” for it — doesn’t bode well for the years ahead.