The frontrunner in the Democratic nomination contest to challenge President Trump switched his position on the Hyde Amendment on May 6, signalling a willingness to use federal funds for abortion, in a flip-flop that points to the growing power of progressives in the Democratic coalition.
Joe Biden, the senator from Delaware who served as Vice President for both President Barack Obama’s terms, had previously been known as somewhat of a centrist politician, bringing working-class credibility to the Obama ticket. In other words, for a long time he was the sort of politician who was willing to compromise with the pro-life side. But such compromises are not a good way to win a nominating contest in the Democratic Party in 2019.
“On the question of Hyde, I think Biden was an outlier among the major candidates and now they’re all aligned,” Kristen Ford, communications director at NARAL Pro-Choice America, told Vox in a round-table last week.
The Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortion, has increasingly faced criticism from abortion advocates, who see it as a barrier to poor women obtaining abortions. The Amendment is not a law on the books, but is renegotiated every year as a compromise that Congress that has been able to agree upon, and inserted into spending bills. Fifteen states also provide their own funding for poor women who are excluded from public funding for abortion because of the Amendment.
“The Hyde Amendment only hurts low income women, especially women of colour. If you don’t support repeal, you shouldn’t be the Democratic nominee,” New York City mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted recently. De Blasio has been one of the Democratic candidates most willing to criticise the former Vice President for his previous view.
Biden’s flip-flop came after a tough two days inside the campaign, as reported by The Atlantic. Symone Sanders – no relation to Bernie, though she served as his national press secretary during his 2016 campaign – reportedly confronted Biden about how “he was missing how his position disproportionately affected poor women and women of color without easy access to abortion.”
On Wednesday, NBC published a story detailing Biden’s long support for the Hyde Amendment, even voting decades ago against adding rape and incest exceptions to it. The story quoted Planned Parenthood criticising his position and suggested he was out of step with the other 2020 Democratic contenders.
As late as Wednesday night, one of Biden’s surrogates, Cedric Richmond, a congressman from Louisiana, was defending his support for the Hyde Amendment on MSNBC, making reference to Biden’s Catholic faith and saying that he was a “deeply religious man”.
But by Thursday night things had changed. During a speech at a Democratic National Committee event that night, Biden said: “I can’t justify leaving millions of women without access to the care they need and the ability to … exercise their constitutionally protected right.”
The volte-face came following a tough week for the Democratic frontrunner, after instances of alleged plagiarism in his campaign platform were unearthed by The Daily Caller, and he came under harsh criticism for his support of Bill Clinton’s crime bill, which progressives contend contributed to the rise of mass incarceration.
CNN’s Chris Cilizza commented that Biden’s opposition to the Hyde Amendment “can’t have been all that deeply held and based on his personal faith if he abandoned it after 48 hours of moderate pressure from liberal interest groups”. He added: “This wasn’t a principled progression of Biden’s views. This was a kowtowing to the party’s liberal base.”
Abortion has taken on particular prominence in recent months because of new state-level restrictions passed in the hope of provoking a Supreme Court challenge. Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri have all passed new restrictions that pro-lifers wouldn’t have attempted before the confirmations of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. With the court seeming to shift in a more conservative direction, abortion advocates have doubled down, insisting on promises of new protections from Democratic hopefuls.
Biden’s appeal to the leadership of the Democratic Party is that they think he can win back the states that Trump flipped in 2016, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, as a working-class champion who is nevertheless a steady hand on the tiller. But if he shows that he’s willing to capitulate to the liberal base of the party after just two days of criticism, he may not look like such a steady hand at all.
“If Mr Biden can flip on a matter of faith and principle such as abortion,” the New York Sun said in an editorial, “what is he going to do on other questions on which he will come under pressure from his party’s left flank – Israel, say, or taxes or socialism or any of the issues that supposedly separate him out as a moderate?”
Moreover, Biden’s reversal is clarifying for pro-lifers: there is no Democratic presidential candidate who doesn’t want to use tax dollars to fund abortions.
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