Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden, abandoning a position he held for decades, now supports taxpayer-funded abortion. Moreover, as flip-flops go, this one was executed almost as clumsily as could be imagined, given the sensitivity of the issue. But Biden’s flip does not mean his campaign is about to flop, as the conventional wisdom suggests.
The immediately accepted line on Biden’s newfound opposition to the Hyde Amendment (language included in spending bills to ban taxpayer-funded abortion) was well-stated by Jonathan S. Tobin here at The Federalist: “[W]hile 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.”
In addition, Biden’s switch is said to undermine two of the pillars of his candidacy. What good is Biden’s experience if he distances himself from it? (This is a point I argued even before Biden entered the race.) And what value is Biden’s “authenticity” if he flips on a long-held position on one of the most important moral issues of our time?
But however morally objectionable Biden’s flip-flop is, there is a political case to be made for it. Granted, the Hyde Amendment is popular in a general election. Yet pro-life voters were never going to pull the lever for the already pro-choice Biden in November 2020.
Conversely, Democrats have not cared about their leadership making even larger flips to support abortion since the days of Ted Kennedy and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. To the contrary, people generally approve when a candidate flips in their direction; the left’s continuing attacks are the tell that something more is at play.
Biden will not be the general election candidate if he does not win the primary. Opposing the Hyde Amendment is popular with Democrats (although the margin varies from poll to poll). As Josh Krashuaar observes: “this was the worst possible issue for Biden to break with the base of his party,” adding that “[u]nlike other policy priorities on the Left—from the Green New Deal to government-run health insurance—support for abortion rights is a bedrock principle for most Democrats, liberal and moderate alike.”
From this perspective, Biden’s flip reflects the left’s weakness as much as its strength. Biden is not offering the left a single-payer “Medicare for all” plan. He is not offering them Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s version of the Green New Deal, caring precisely enough about the environment to cut-and-paste together a cut-rate proposal from special interest groups.
As a general election candidate, Biden would have to offer the left something to unify his party. What he is offering them is only something every Democratic nominee since Bill Clinton has offered them (and neither Clinton nor Barack Obama fought for once in office). He is offering them something that Planned Parenthood Federation of America and NARAL Pro-Choice America are not pushing to get from a Democrat-controlled House, where the proposal has little support.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is likely to allow a vote on the issue only if she is sure it would lose. The last thing Pelosi wants is for Democrats to be seen shutting down the government over something as unpopular as taxpayer-funded abortion. It is simply not the hill on which Democrats want to abort themselves.
The intensity of the response to Biden’s flip is due in part to the intensity of the emotions on both sides of the issue. But the response also says something about the desire to impose a particular narrative on the Democratic primaries.
Before Biden entered the race, there was a significant effort on the left and its friendly media to scare him out of the race. The conventional wisdom was that Biden would collapse upon entry. Although his support has dropped a few points under sustained attacks, he remains in the lead and roughly five points ahead of when he entered.
Accordingly, the conventional wisdom shifted to grudgingly accepting Biden was not going away, but predicting and hoping he might destroy himself. The coverage and commentary regarding Biden’s abortion flip (and the kerfuffle about his staff plagiarizing policy positions) represents an attempt to will this new conventional wisdom into reality.
The “Crazy Uncle Joe destroys himself” narrative would please left-wing activists for whom Biden’s success is a crushing reminder of the limits of their influence. It is also a narrative that pleases the right, who would much prefer Democrats repeat the colossal blunder of 1972 by nominating a more radical candidate to run against President Trump.
Having largely proven the conventional wisdom wrong so far, no one should be shocked if Biden resists the pressure to comprehensively capitulate to the left and destroy his own campaign.