Unethical Quote of the Week: Vice-President Joe Biden

“With regard to the assault on the Catholic Church, let me make it absolutely clear. No religious institution, Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic Social Services, Georgetown Hospital, Mercy — any hospital — none has to either refer contraception. None has to pay for contraception. None has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact. That is a fact.”

—– Vice-President Joe Biden, in a rare moment during Wednesday’s Vice Presidential candidates debate when he wasn’t interrupting, mocking, shouting, or otherwise setting new lows for national debate civility and decorum, on the topic of the Administration’s contraception and abortion mandate. The problem: it isn’t a fact. In fact, it isn’t true at all.

I was not going to touch on the substance of any of the debates, because I do not want to play the “fact check” game that has already warped the campaign and given partisan journalists the opportunity to misrepresent any the statement of any politician—usually a Republican—whom they disagree with as “a lie.” Perhaps inspired by this trend, the Obama-Biden campaign’s strategy has devolved into calling Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan “liars” when 1) they may be mistaken, they may be inexact, they may be overstating, and they may be wrong, but are not lying, and 2) President Obama and Vice-President Obama, not to mention other Democrats involved in the campaign, have not set their own bars for accuracy, honesty and fairness any higher than the GOP side. But the refrain of “Liar!” has been so emphatic and repetitive that the fans of the Democratic ticket are adopting it as a rallying cry, usually without the slightest idea of whether there have been any actual lies or not. Meanwhile, the tactic demeans the electoral process and our democracy. Columnist Dan Henniger expressed my feelings on this topic well when he wrote, before Wednesday’s debate:

“The election campaign of the 44th U.S. president is now calling another candidate for the American presidency a “liar.” This is a new low. It is amazing and depressing to hear this term being used as a formal strategy by people at the highest level of American politics. “Liar” is a potent and ugly word with a sleazy political pedigree…Explicitly calling someone a “liar” is—or used to be—a serious and rare charge, in or out of politics. It’s a loaded word. It crosses a line. “Liar” suggests bad faith and conscious duplicity—a total, cynical falsity…The Obama campaign’s resurrection of “liar” as a political tool is odious because it has such a repellent pedigree. It dates to the sleazy world of fascist and totalitarian propaganda in the 1930s. It was part of the milieu of stooges, show trials and dupes. These were people willing to say anything to defeat their opposition. Denouncing people as liars was at the center of it. The idea was never to elevate political debate but to debauch it…The purpose of calling someone a liar then was not merely to refute their ideas or arguments. It was to nullify them, to eliminate them from participation in politics….How did it happen that an accusation once confined to the lowest, whiskey-soaked level of politics or rank propaganda campaigns is occurring daily in American politics?…The L-word’s strength is directly proportional to the rarity and appropriateness of its use. Today in our politics it is as skuzzily routine as the F-bomb has become among 15-year-old girls on the New York City subways. This is not progress…”

Were the Vice-President’s misstatements, exaggerations and deceits on Wednesday night more outrageous and inexcusable than Paul Ryan’s? Reasonable people will disagree. I think Joe was sent into the fray with a pre-programmed dodge for the inevitable query about the Administration’s misrepresentations regarding the deadly attack on the Libyan embassy; whether that proves to have been a lie or not depends on the results of the current finger-pointing competition between the White House, State Department and intelligence community, as well as the news media’s diligence in investigating it.  Since the Vice President and his minions at MSNBC and elsewhere  continued the “Ryan is a liar” tactic after the debate, however, and since Biden’s whole schtick on Wednesday consisted of outbursts, chuckles, facial expressions and body language designed to convey the message, “Can you believe what this guy is saying? Come on!! How stupid do you think we are? This is actually funny!” at the cost of robbing the debate of any semblance or respect and civility from his side of the stage, I think it is fair to find Biden’s own factual errors—emphatically stated as the gospel truth, of course—especially offensive. And I do.

Despite saying “that’s a fact” twice, Biden was wrong about what Cath0lic institutions have to do. I happen to agree with the Administration’s policy in this matter, so my objection to Biden’s statement does not stem not from animus to what he was defending.

From Jonathan Adler:

“In February HHS finalized the regulations mandating the inclusion of contraception in employer-provided health plans and exempting houses of worship, but not religious universities, hospitals and charities. At the time the Administration announced its intent to accommodate other religious employers, but no such accommodation has been forthcoming. This is because creating such an accommodation is difficult. Some religious institutions self-insure, so shifting the obligation to insurers would not do the trick (and it’s not clear HHS has the authority to impose such a requirement anyway). In March, HHS issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and postponed enforcement of the existing rules against religious employers, but did not detail any regulatory change that would effectively relieve objecting religious institutions from paying for contraception. This is one reason why there are over two-dozen lawsuits against the contraception mandate pending in federal court…Contrary to Biden’s claim, the regulation on the books — promulgated by his administration — does apply the contraception mandate to “Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital,” and other objecting religious institutions.”

Was Biden really “lying?” I don’t think so. He was mistaken, he was wrong, be was imprecise, he was misleading, he was loose with his facts, he was technically incorrect —but he was not lying. Biden believed what he said was true. Was he lying by the definition of the word currently being employed by his boss, his party, his party hacks and acolytes against Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan? Absolutely.

The Vice-President’s quote was not unethical because it was intentionally dishonest and was intended to deceive. It was unethical because 1) he publicly asserted certainty about a statement that was not true, which is incompetent and irresponsible;  2) he engaged in the same conduct he and his team have been attacking the Republican ticket for engaging in, which is untrustworthy and hypocritical, and 3) he should be held to his own standard, as a matter of integrity.



Graphic: Patient Practice Liability

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

18 thoughts on “Unethical Quote of the Week: Vice-President Joe Biden

  1. Two questions… At what point must civility and decorum give way to the need to hold someone accountable for their statements, and how far from the “truth” must a statement be before it can be considered a lie and therefor called such?

    • Two answers:
      1. It is never necessary to be rude and uncivil to correct a misstatement.
      2. It is only a lie when the speaker knows what he saying is a falsehood, and says it intentionally to deceive others. Opinions are not lies. Mistakes are not lies. Presumptions of bad faith do not make a statement a lie. How far a statement is from the truth is not relevant. Someone who says, “FACT: Barack Obama is one of the greatest Presidents in US history!” may be mistaken, ignorant, stupid, deluded, and jaw-droppingly wrong; his standards may be warped and his perception bizarre; he may be biased beyond hope and in denial, but if he believes it, he’s not lying.

  2. I would point to any of a number of youtube video’s of Milton Freedman in a debate setting if you want to see how to behave civilly while tearing someone’s opinions apart. Keep in mind, often the point of debating someone is not too change their mind, but to inform and influence the other people who are listening. Being rude and uncivil will undercut the strength of your argument for those people.

  3. I am an Independent who has real problems with the untruth and hatred spewed by candidates in the name of God. I think the viciousness is about equal on both sides but the Democrats are a lot less self-righteous about it. That is why I am anti-Republican (maybe I should say anti-Conservative) even though I am a Christian.

    I am, however, always open to facts and I want to base my opinions on truth, not propaganda. Do you honestly think that when Paul Ryan’s statements are rated pants-on-fire by fact checkers that he really believes those things? I’m not singling him out in particular; I’m just asking about him because you are defending him in the debates. By no means do I believe that President Obama or Joe Biden are being particularly honest either. But I have trouble believing that either side is in a state of believing the precise facts they spew out. Yes, if you’re saying ‘If we are elected the country will be better off’ or ‘Barack Obama/Mitt Romney will drive the economy in the ground’ those are opinions that you can really believe. But precise numbers are a different story. Shouldn’t the candidates educate themselves enough before these speeches and/or debates to know what they’re talking about? If they are doing so and they still make false statements then they are lying! I know for a fact that people can believe things are untrue while looking straight at the proof. But the people I know who can do that are not fit to be President.

    I honestly want to know your rationale. I am not criticizing, but asking questions in an attempt to understand. I just found this site today and it is a refreshing thing to see that there are other people who believe civility does not automatically equal weakness.

    • I did not defend Paul Ryan in the debate. I didn’t say anything about him at all, except, I think, that he was civil and polite compared to Giggling Joe.

      “Do you honestly think that when Paul Ryan’s statements are rated pants-on-fire by fact checkers that he really believes those things?”

      Which “things”? Which factcheckers? Your question gives a lot of credit to reporters, which they do not deserve. Do I think Ryan, Obama, Romney and Biden have over the years and during the campaign made statements they knew were not 100% accurate? Yes. Does that make it fair to call then “liars”? No. Do I think most of the statements that both adversaries and “fact-checkers” call “lies” are really mistakes, misstatements, exaggerations, sloppy, lazy statements made off the cuff, refusals to admit gaffes, spin, and mostly differences of opinion? Absolutely.

  4. Biden got away with this:

    “And, by the way, they talk about this Great Recession if it fell out of the sky, like, ‘Oh, my goodness, where did it come from?’ it came from this man voting to put two wars on a credit card, to at the same time put a prescription drug benefit on the credit card, a trillion-dollar tax cut for the very wealthy. I was there. I voted against them. I said, no, we can’t afford that.”

    Voted against “them”?

    Biden voted for both wars, as well as the prescription benefit for seniors. Martha let him slide– and cut off Ryan before he drilled Biden on his history re-write.

    • Yes…if you are looking for likely lies, Biden saying that he didn’t vote for two wars he absolutely did vote for is as good a starting point as any. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Joe really does believe what he said—he’s been acting like this was true for a long, long time. This is the wonderful defense a boob has to accusations of lying.

      Ryan also could have pounced when Biden said he “means what he says.” Like when he said he understood the Chinese one child policy? Like when he said that Romney wanted to put blacks “back in chains”? Both sides can play gotcha all day and night.

      • Yes…if you are looking for likely lies, Biden saying that he didn’t vote for two wars he absolutely did vote for is as good a starting point as any. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Joe really does believe what he said—he’s been acting like this was true for a long, long time. This is the wonderful defense a boob has to accusations of lying.

        The moderator cutting off Ryan before he could ask Biden about that was unethical.

        • Nothing stopped Ryan from insisting. That’s debating—if he had an important point to make, he should have made it. He had that and other chances. Don’t blame Martha. For THAT, anyway.

  5. Debate prep means spending a lot of time crafting statements that are intended to be technically truthful, but intentionally misleading. This is also what campaign speeches and political advertising is intended to do. If lying is in the intent, then these things are lies are they not?

    • Political campaign speech is like advertising and negotiation, in the ethics nether world of puffery, advocacy and persuasion. Culturally, we do not treat it as lying, except in its most extreme forms. You can feign naivete and argue otherwise, but the culture has known and accepted this for two centuries and more. Technically they are lies—in context they are not.

      • No wonder politics is considered to be an unsavory occupation. It may be feigned naïveté to define parsing and twisting facts as cultural truth, but it has real consequences, whether it’s common or accepted or not, in fact, the more common it is the more the culture is degraded.

  6. I do read the “fact-checking” websites, and they are more or less worthless, if not with their data, with their conclusions. I don’t see a lot of candidates lying- they mostly just use statistics that are debatable, or quote sources who are debatable. That’s not lying. Most things are debatable. That’s why you have a debate.
    The partisan fact-checkers basically just point out that there’s another side to the story, and then give out “Pinocchios” or whatever because the point that the candidate made isn’t so iron-clad that it’s agreed upon by absolutely everyone.
    It’s super-annoying because instead of smart people hashing out the finer points and details of an issue, you get idiots playing “gotcha” and accusing one another of being evil liars.

  7. Joe Biden embodies the lying, outrageous defense the Obama administration is undertaking. He’s also a total moron. “One heartbeat away?”

    And off the subject, if Obama and his ilk are reduced to attacking Romney for cutting funding to Sesame Street (which makes more money in marketing products than imaginable) — and all this while the Middle East is on fire — what’s the choice? What’s the strategy? Bottom line: the Obama administration thinks we’re all idiots, and if he’s re-elected he’ll be proved right. Next Step: Obama, like Putin, will try to declare himself “president for life.” The Russians electing Putin was more stupid than re-electing Obama will be.

  8. Is Biden’s “playing loose with the facts” different from lying in any significant manner? The intent (to deceive) remains the same, whether one tells a half-truth or a bare faced lie. Politicians (like lawyers- which they generally are as well) tend to be adept in expressing untruths in such a manner that an opponent cannot often call it a lie without time for qualification. Therefore, the tactic in debates is to quickly shunt off the question and go on the attack with a fast, rehearsed litany of near-lie allegations, thus making it impossible for the other to answer them all and still address the moderator’s question in turn. It’s a cheap trick, but it can work on those who don’t understand what’s in play. And it’s still, in its essence, no better than lying through one’s teeth. It also expresses a mentality that debates are not a matter of a sober, respectful and fair discussion of the issues, but an opportunity to play tricks on the voters, thus exposing an inherent disrespect for them and the concept of a free republic. This is but a bare step removed from demagoguery- a traditional Democrat forte.

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