New Biden Plagiarism Scandal

While mildly embarrassing, it's unlikely to have much impact on the race.

Joe Biden’s 1988 campaign was derailed by charges that he lifted whole passages from a Neil Kinnock speech. This time around, his campaign has lifted passages from other plans for its climate policy.


Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign came under fire on Tuesday for putting out a $1.7 trillion climate change plan that appeared to copy a handful of passages from previously published documents.

The incident recalled the plagiarism incident that helped drive Biden from the 1988 presidential race, though Biden’s campaign team called the latest episode an error that was corrected.

“Several citations, some from sources cited in other parts of the plan, were inadvertently left out of the final version of the 22 page document,” a Biden spokesperson said in an email. “As soon as we were made aware of it, we updated to include the proper citations.”

Josh Nelson, vice president at the progressive group CREDO, first flagged the similarities on Twitter. The text contained the same language about technology designed to capture and store power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions as documents previously released by the nongovernmental organization Center for Climate and Energy Solutions as well as the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of environmental and labor groups.

Center for Climate and Energy Solutions spokesperson Alec Gerlach said his group doesn’t coordinate with campaigns but that “carbon capture should be an essential element in any comprehensive strategy to eliminate carbon emissions.” BlueGreen Alliance interim co-executive director Mike Williams said in a statement that the portion Biden’s campaign used was “publicly available.”

“We’re fine with any of the candidates utilizing our policies and publicly available documents in their climate, infrastructure, or jobs plans,” Williams said. “The important thing is that candidates live up to their words and implement these important policies and investments.”

Plagiarism charge hits Biden climate change plan


Joe Biden’s presidential campaign lifted language without credit, at times word for word, when crafting its education and climate plans, incidents the campaign acknowledged and said were inadvertent.

The incidents appeared to be staff errors when detailing Biden’s policies, and they underscored how hastily his campaign was attempting to put out specific proposals. But the issue was a particularly sensitive one for Biden, whose 1988 campaign was derailed after he plagiarized, in speeches, rhetoric used by British politician Neil Kinnock.

Reports also emerged that he used lines from two Democrats, Robert F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey, without attribution. Biden had also been cited for plagiarism in a paper during law school, an error he blamed on not knowing how to properly cite sources. He quit the campaign shortly after the flurry of uses was reported.

Biden’s campaign said Tuesday that it would update his policy plans online to properly attribute the sources of information, which in the case of his environmental plan included a coal industry entity. But the controversy nonetheless threatened to overshadow the policies themselves — and, for some liberal advocates, it was a sign that the policies were not taken seriously by the campaign or the candidate.

“Biden appears to be taking ideas from other people and not giving credit. You can’t do that,” said Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California Santa Barbara who specializes in climate issues. “It speaks of pulling an all-nighter and reading off of your friend’s essay.”

Other campaigns have used unattributed language similar to that crafted by primary sources. A policy plan by Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) includes a line that “black women are three to four times more likely to die from ­pregnancy-related causes than white women.” That is identical to a reference in an American Heart Association document, which attributes the statistic to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It’s a statistic,” campaign spokesman Ian Sams said when asked for comment.

In the case of his education policy, Biden used a sentence word for word from an education policy publication from the group XQ Institute.
“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,” the sentence read.

—“Joe Biden’s campaign acknowledges lifting language from other groups for its policy plans

As scandals go, this is pretty minor.

I’m an academic and take plagiarism seriously. Even in blogging and social media, I try to identify my sources. But this incidence barely qualifies as plagiarism.

First, we all know that these policy statements—and various speeches—are written by staffers, not the candidate.

Second, we know the candidate seldom has detailed knowledge of more than an issue or two. We not only expect but rather hope they’re drawing from think tank and other expert analysis. And, unless they’re published in a quasi-academic white paper format, we don’t expect footnoting.

That said, they should have taken the trouble to put things in their own words. Still, as noted in the WaPo piece, this sort of thing is rather common. Kamala Harris’ team also got sloppy in lifting language directly.

Of the various plagiarism charges surrounding Biden, the only one that bothers me is his conduct as a law student. He double-majored in political science and history at a flagship university; he damn well knew that he wasn’t allowed to dump in five pages of uncited text in a fifteen-page article.

I used the Kinnoch episode for years to illustrate to students the real-life consequences of plagiarism and demonstrate that it’s not merely an academic nicety but something that can ruin your reputation. It turns out, though, that Biden got something of a bad rap.

Years later, I learned that, in most versions of the stump speech in question, Biden admiringly cited Kinnock by name and drew parallels with his own experience. On at least two occasions, though, he omitted the references and it seemed as though he had lifted not only Kinnock’s words but his life story. Unfortunately for Biden, two senior staffers for eventual nominee Michael Dukakis caught the speech on tape and distributed it to the press pointing out the plagiarism. (Dukakis later fired them over it.)

The problem for Biden wasn’t the plagiarism per se, which could have been attributed to fatigue and the mind-numbingness of giving the same speech over and over. Rather, it was because his angry defense of his actions contained half-truths about his academic prowess (he was a lousy student) and his up-by-his-bootstraps rise (he wasn’t the first Biden to go to college, for example). It also invited investigations into his past, which brought to light the law school plagiarism incident.

Biden has been in public life a long, long time. He was elected to the Senate in 1973 a few days shy of his 30th birthday. He’s 76 now. We know who he is and he’s basically a decent, honorable guy with a tendency to step in it from time to time. This latest incident won’t make a dent in his reputation. Nor should it.

FILED UNDER: 2020 Election, Climate Change, Science & Technology, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. This is minor and, as you note, a staffer’s fault. I don’t expect huge fallout.

    But gee whiz, it is still dumb on a number of levels.

    Biden needs, at a minimum, to avoid being handsy and to avoid plagiarism charges.

  2. Pylon says:

    It’s only raising any eyebrows because of the previous incidents. But I just don’t think this one warrants any ink whatsoever. The thing for me is that I can’t for the life of me figure our how Biden was supposed to catch this.

  3. @Pylon:

    The thing for me is that I can’t for the life of me figure our how Biden was supposed to catch this.

    He couldn’t. This is absolutely the case.

  4. Kathy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It’s minor, and Dennison will keep harping on it until 2044.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    You can’t plagiarize platitudes or boilerplate. It’s like if I read a book contract and accused the publisher of plagiarizing language on rights and permissions.

  6. Hal_10000 says:

    A pity since Biden’s climate plan is by far the better of any of the candidates.

  7. rachel says:


    A pity since Biden’s climate plan is by far the better of any of the candidates.

    Did you mean “…any of the other candidates,” or do you know something we don’t.