Former vice president Joe Biden has been campaigning with the confidence of a man who currently holds a 16.8 percent lead in the Real Clear Politics average of polls for the Democratic presidential nomination. He has mostly avoided venues where he might have a hostile audience — like the California Democratic Convention last week where John Hickenlooper was booed for criticizing socialism and praising pragmatism — and tried to avoid being entangled in questions of impeachment or the details of his proposals on health care.
His lead is built on three elements. One is name recognition. The second is his status as the stand-in for President Barack Obama, whom he served for eight years and whose presidency is now viewed as a lost golden age by despairing Democrats who are still coming to grips with the fact that Donald Trump is president of the United States. The third is the belief that Biden’s moderation compared to his competition in the primaries and his ability to connect with the working-class voters who helped elect Trump makes him the Democrat most likely to beat Trump in 2020.
But the problem with the latter is that while Biden would like to act as if the nomination is in the bag in order to concentrate on winning back Trump defectors, the Democratic primary race’s tone and issues are still being set by the party’s left-wing base. In a party increasingly intolerant of any deviations from leftist orthodoxy on any number of topics, that means even frontrunners dare not try to defy the activists who have a disproportionate say in determining the nomination.
Length of Career a Liability as Democrats Get Extreme
Given that Biden has been a reliable lefty for most of his career, that ought not be too much of a problem. But the length of that career — dating back a staggering 47 years ago to when he was first elected to the U.S. Senate from Delaware — has provided Biden an equally staggering amount of baggage from various stands and controversies he has dealt with over the course of five decades.
The includes his alleged responsibility for abusing Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, his role in passing the 1995 crime bill that is blamed for incarcerating a disproportionate number of African Americans, and his opposition to forced busing to integrate schools. The latest piece of his legacy to jump up and bite him is his support for the Hyde Amendment.
That measure, named for the late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and which forbids federal funding for abortions, has been on the books since 1976. Biden has always supported it. That was consistent with his longstanding efforts to represent the views of moderate and conservative Democrats who may have made their peace with the Roe v. Wade decision but didn’t want to be compelled to pay for abortions.
But the days of being able to reach out to that key constituency are over for Biden. Faced with a tremendous backlash after he recently reaffirmed his support for Hyde, Biden backed down this week and said he no longer supported the measure.
It was an act of sheer political expediency that showed Biden and his handlers know they cannot allow him to be vulnerable on issues on which the base will tolerate no dissent. Abortion is probably the one issue that motivates that base more than any other. That means the difficult balancing act that moderate Catholic Democrats have been forced into, during which they state they will not impose their personal support for life on others, is probably no longer viable.
The pro-abortion lobby’s dominance within the Democratic Party is nothing new. But the passage of more restrictive abortion laws in some conservative states as well as the adoption of measures in liberal states that allow children born after an unsuccessful abortion to be killed has fired up the left in way that eclipses their past efforts.
Without full and enthusiastic support for abortion, no Democratic nominee next year can hope to win the votes of the liberal activists and women — especially minority women — who will have an outsized say in determining the outcomes in early primary states. Biden might have preferred to retain some ambiguity about his pro-choice stance in order to appeal to socially conservative general election voters who like Democrats’ message on entitlements and economics. But he knew the only way to get to the general election was to cut his losses and reverse himself on Hyde. Will that be enough to satisfy the left?
Joe Biden’s Flip-Flop Puts Blood in the Water
The problem with Biden’s decision is that it was so blatantly political in nature that it still leaves his opponents plenty of room to outflank him on the left on abortion. Although his campaign has gone smoothly until now, its handling of Hyde was a mess. This should have been done before, or at least have been shown as the result of a process. But his abrupt and awkward decision to “evolve” on federal funding for abortion makes it clear that he was only doing it because he feared sticking to the position he had held for many years.
While a Sister Souljah moment in which he can show his independence from the party base would be the best thing he could do to wrong-foot Trump next year, Biden clearly feels it isn’t possible yet. Given the swiftness of his decision to succumb to the left-wing mob, it may never come.
The problem here is not just that this reminded political veterans of the Biden whose previous attempts to run for president were amateurish flops. It’s that this won’t be the last time Biden will feel he has no choice but to run harder to the left to fend off his Democratic rivals.
Just as important is that this demonstration of weakness will only embolden other Democrats to hit him harder on other points of vulnerability, such as Anita Hill and the crime bill. He’s already repented of his past “sins” on those points, but that doesn’t mean anyone on the left will let him forget them.
With eight months to go until the first votes are cast in Iowa, Biden would prefer to think about how he can run out the clock on his left-wing rivals. But in addition to demonstrating the kind of weakness that will already encourage his opponents to start banging away at his record, Biden has also just handed Republicans another cudgel with which to attack him if he does eventually succeed in securing the nomination.
Biden needs to confront Trump as a confident moderate, even if his moderation is only credible in comparison to his left-wing Democratic rivals. But a weak Biden who is afraid to cross those angry and ideological Democrats who don’t like the idea of nominating a compromise is a man who just began to exude fear.
Unless he steadies himself, it won’t be just other Democrats who will smell the uncertainty on him. Biden’s flip-flopping will provide Trump with exactly the kind of target that will give him a chance to defeat the Democratic frontrunner.