To quote the bowl of petunias from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Oh no, not again.”
Back in May, we reexamined former Senator Joe Biden’s 1987 plagiarism scandal and looked at why, in 2019, shifting climates and views on plagiarism have greatly changed what it means. In 1987 we saw plagiarism sink Biden’s flagging campaign, in 2008 he won the Vice Presidency and in 2019 he’s a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 election.
Times have changed and the political discourse has shifted greatly. Plagiarism scandals are not novel or new anymore, they rarely sink campaigns (the Melania Trump plagiarism scandal was barely a speed bump for President Trump) and the stories themselves usually fade very quickly from memory.
However, if there is one campaign that one would think would have extra incentive to avoid a plagiarism allegation, it would be Biden’s.
Unfortunately for Biden, that has not worked out. Earlier today, stories began to come out saying that Biden’s campaign was involved in yet another plagiarism story, this one involving 22-page climate plan that the Biden campaign released to promote his environmental policies and plans.
So, once again, we find ourselves turning our attention to Biden and examining allegations of plagiarism done in his name. To do that, we have to start where the allegations themselves begin and take a look at what he, or rather his campaign, is accused of plagiarizing.
The Joe Biden Plagiarism Scandal (June 2019 Edition)
The story began yesterday when Joe Biden released his new climate change policy proposal, in which he touts his role as a protector of the environment and his intention to go farther than his previous efforts on the issue.
However, that same day, Josh Nelson, the Vice President at CREDO Mobile, a telecommunications company that supports liberal causes, that verbiage from Biden’s campaign used were very similar to a letter the Blue Green Alliance, a group that unites labor unions to advocate for clean energy, sent to the heads of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in 2017.
This was quickly picked up by conservative media, in particular The Daily Caller, which attacked Biden for the alleged plagiarism.
At issue was a series of about half a dozen passages including this one from Biden’s website:
“Students who participate in high-quality career and technical education are more likely to graduate, earn industry credentials, enroll in college, and have higher rates of employment and higher earnings.”
Which is virtually identical to this XQ education policy paper:
“Students who participate in high-quality career and technical education (CTE) are more likely to graduate, earn industry credentials, enroll in college, and have higher rates of employment and higher earnings.”
And this quote from Biden’s site:
“Biden’s goal is to make CCUS a widely available, cost-effective, and rapidly scalable solution to reduce carbon emissions to meet mid-century climate goals.”
Which is identical to the last sentence of this line from the Carbon Capture Coalition website:
“The Carbon Capture Coalition brings together energy and industrial technology companies, labor unions, and energy and environmental policy organizations. Its goal is to make carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) a widely available, cost-effective, and rapidly scalable solution to reduce carbon emissions to meet mid-century climate goals.”
Though there are other examples, the pattern remains the same. Short passages, usually a few sentences at most, taken from other sources verbatim or near-verbatim.
However, what’s drawing attention isn’t just that there was copying but where the text is copied from. They were taken from a variety of advocacy groups, websites and one passage was taken from a U.S. government website.
Biden’s campaign, in an interview with Business Insider, said that the missing attribution was simply a mistake and that they were working to correct the report. To that end, many have reported that the paper is being updated to add those attributions in.
While that’s certainly better than the alternative, the revisions didn’t stop the criticism of Biden. Most notably President Trump from tweeting about the story, saying:
Still, all of this raises a difficult question, why did the plagiarism happen in the first place?
The Problem with Political Plagiarism
In a vacuum, this plagiarism story really isn’t that big of a scandal. It only deals with a few relatively short passages and, unlike the Melania Trump case, the lines weren’t personal in nature nor taken from a political rival.
The problem is Biden’s history. His 1987 brush with plagiarism already established him as someone with a history of plagiarism. Any plagiarism scandal, no matter how minor, was going to become a large story.
So it would have made sense for his campaign to work double time to avoid any plagiarism incidents. The tools are available to check for plagiarism in-house and experts, such as myself, are available to review works on demand.
Plagiarism scandals such as this are unforced errors. Even if mistakes are made in writing or an errant campaign worker plagiarizes maliciously, there should be checks and balances in the way to prevent it from becoming a public issue. This is doubly true with Biden’s campaign.
To be clear, this isn’t a reflection on Joe Biden personally. No one believes that Biden penned this document himself. It was almost certainly penned by staffers working for him. While that’s is expected and acceptable, it means this story is more a reflection on Biden’s campaign than Biden himself.
It’s also worth noting that, while the elements taken were indeed talking points and none of the places Biden copied from have expressed anger, it is still a notable plagiarism. As we noted when discussing press release plagiarism back in March, every plagiarism has two victims: The person that was lifted from and the audience that was deceived. Just because the former doesn’t feel slighted doesn’t mean it was a victimless plagiarism.
The audience has a right to know where Biden is getting his talking points and information from. These are the sources that clearly have his ear and attention, or at least the attention of his advisors, and not attributing while using their language verbatim seems like an attempt to hide it, even if that was not the intention.
Still, as much of a needless mistake as this is, the end result of this story is likely to be that nothing really changes. As I said last month, plagiarism scandals just don’t move the needle much anymore and this one isn’t likely to be any different.
The Likely Outcome
This story, most likely, will remain hot for a day or two but, pretty soon fall into the background. It will be consumed by other, newer political stories and scandals and they themselves will also likely fall into the background.
We’re in a time where political scandals and missteps are nearly constant and the public’s attention isn’t really that long for any one of them. To make matters worse, in our current political discourse, “plagiarist” is hardly one of the dirtiest words that can be used.
To make matters more complicated, the label of “plagiarist” already applied to Biden. Those that already didn’t care about his past plagiarism (or at least not enough to support a different candidate) aren’t likely to switch now and those that already disliked Biden simply have another reason to add to their list.
During the run-up and the immediate aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election, the Trump campaign survived at least half a dozen plagiarism stories of different shapes and sizes. None of them slowed his campaign nor his eventual victory in the election.
There’s just no reason to think that this story is going to be a landmine for Biden. He’s already connected with plagiarism, he’s a current front-runner in the campaign in spite of that and this new story just doesn’t change the calculus much.
No matter how you feel about Biden as a person or a politician, there’s just no reason to think that this story is going to be the one that stops him.
In the end, as with other political plagiarism scandals, how you feel about this story likely says more about your politics than your views on plagiarism. We’ve already seen the rush by his opponents to demonize this plagiarism and a rush by his supporters to minimize it.
To me, this is a relatively minor plagiarism story but one that paints a worrying picture of a campaign that is not being careful to avoid not only an unforced error, but a mistake that was obviously going to damage Biden more than other candidates.
While this story would be a big story for any candidate, Biden both has the history and front-runner status to make it even larger than most. Whether that attention is justified is another matter.
Still, Biden will likely recover from this and pretty soon it will be largely forgotten other than memes and jabs on Twitter. Though plagiarism scandals can kill flagging campaigns, they don’t even slow down frontrunners, as the President Trump campaign in 2016 and the President Obama campaign in 2008 illustrated.
Biden’s campaign will be fine and its fate will be decided by other issues that are yet to be determined.