Over the past week, presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden has faced two separate allegations of plagiarism.
On June 10, Fox News’ Sean Hannity did an analysis of Biden’s “Unity” platform, which Hannity claimed had multiple passages that were plagiarized from the Bernie Sanders campaign. However, there was an issue with that claim. While there is certainly overlapping text, the unity task force is a partnership between the Biden and Sanders campaigns so it is no surprise that the proposal used language from Sanders campaign nor is it unethical.
The next day, President Trump himself accused Biden of plagiarizing his “Build Back Better” plan, which Biden had unveiled just days earlier. According to President Trump, while the plan was “radical left”, Biden couched it in the “America First” language he had popularized.
This scandal, however, also has issues. President Trump doesn’t point to anything specific that Biden is accused of plagiarizing, just using similar-sounding language to pitch his proposal. However, politicians have a long history of imitating and parroting one another, even when in direct competition, as they try to find a message and a tone that resonates with voters.
For most political candidates, these would be non-stories and barely noticed. Neither of these stories carry anywhere near the same weight as his original 1987 plagiarism scandal, which forced him out of the Presidential primary, or even his June 2019 scandal, which saw him accused of plagiarizing much of his environmental policies and plans.
However, with Biden, they both capture headlines, especially among his political opponents. Simply put, Biden is completely unable to shake the shadow of plagiarism, even though other politicians clearly have.
Why Biden’s Story is Different
Over the years, we have covered a slew of political plagiarism scandals. These have included President Obama, Senator John McCain, Michael Bloomberg, Sarah Palin and a series of scandals involving the Trump campaign and Presidency. However, in all of those cases, the politicians involved were able to simply brush aside the allegations and move on. Even if they ultimately failed in their bids, it wasn’t plagiarism that sank them.
For Biden, however, the story is different. Though it’s debatable how accurate it is, Biden’s plagiarism scandal is widely credited as being the cause his 1987 Presidential run faltered. At the time, he was way behind in the polls and was seen as a longshot candidate, but the plagiarism scandal was ultimately the final straw.
Though Biden has had a very successful political career since then, including serving eight years as the Vice President, that failure has always followed him. Any time he is accused of copying or mirroring other’s words, it gets brought up. In fact, both of the news articles I linked to make reference to the 1987 scandal.
The reason is simple: Though President Trump (and other politicians) have had their share of plagiarism scandals and missteps, Biden’s issue with plagiarism was one of the few facts people knew about him before he was picked as Obama’s VP candidate in 2008. It remains one of the most commonly known pieces of trivia about Biden today, especially among his political opponents.
As such, any misstep in that direction is seen not just as a plagiarism story, but a sign that Biden hasn’t learned his lesson or moved on from what sank his campaign nearly 35 years ago.
But that isn’t always the case, as the two stories above highlight.
What Should Biden Do?
It’s easy to say that Biden and his campaign should focus on avoiding plagiarism at any and all costs. Though all political campaigns should be careful, Biden’s history makes it doubly important to avoid issues.
While that certainly is true, it is far from a complete solution. As the two stories above highlight, it’s clear Biden’s political opponents will accuse him of plagiarism even when he hasn’t done anything wrong.
Yes, there was language copied from the Bernie Sanders campaign, but that campaign was literally a co-author on the project. Yes, it can be argued that the language he pitched his “Build Back Better” proposal was similar to President Trump in tone, but changing language and tone to make a proposal more palatable is an old political tradition.
Yes, Biden has a lengthy history of actual plagiarism with varying degrees of severity. These include his days in law school, the stump speech incident in 1987 and his policy proposals last year. However, these new stories aren’t part of that list.
However, this raises two simple questions: If Biden is going to be accused of plagiarism no matter what, why bother taking steps to avoid it? Second, if a serious Biden plagiarism story does emerge, could it get drowned out by the chorus of non-stories?
Given the number of politicians that have faced plagiarism scandals, it seems odd that the specter has continued to haunt Biden, even after more than 30 years. Though he hasn’t necessarily done himself any favors here, it’s clear that it wouldn’t go away even if he were perfect.
In general, I am loathed to discuss political plagiarism scandals. The reason is simple: They’re more about the politics and the plagiarism. I’ve watched as people attack one politician for one act of plagiarism but excuse another for a nearly identical one based solely on their political views.
As someone who is interested in attribution and content misuse issues, these cases are frustrating and I try my best to stay out of the political element of it. Still, this site gets a lot of traffic from people across the political spectrum using my old posts to attack someone else.
In the end, these two new Biden plagiarism stories are non-issues. Yes, Biden has much more serious stories in his past but those don’t make non-plagiarisms suddenly unethical.
Obviously, we are gearing up for a very long campaign season when it comes to plagiarism. Even in the midst of everything else going on in the world, plagiarism will still find a way to be a front-burner issue. Let’s hope that, this year, it fuels an actual conversation about plagiarism and citation rather than just being a tool for easy attacks.
However, I’m not optimistic that will be the case.