On Thursday, I suggested we wait to hear from Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on what his actual position is on the Hyde Amendment, a 40-year-old law that bans federal taxpayer dollars from funding abortions for people who rely on Medicaid. His campaign’s prior affirmation that the former senator and vice president supported it, but was open to changing his view if abortion access was threatened, sparked outrage among abortion-rights activists, other candidates and progressives more generally. Sure enough, on Thursday night, Biden got in line with the rest of his party.
Biden’s explanation was less than compelling. He insisted he wasn’t apologizing for his past position and argued that his support for the Hyde Amendment had been justified because there were “sufficient monies and circumstances” to allow poor women to access abortion. Now that abortion rights are under attack, he said, he thinks differently. Moreover, when considering Medicaid expansion and a public option for Medicare, he now supports doing away with the Hyde Amendment. (If everyone is going to have access to some sort of government subsidized health care, then the Hyde Amendment would wind up outlawing most abortions.)
It is not clear why Biden felt comfortable denying Medicaid benefits previously (or why he thought the Hyde Amendment was not a burden on women). It’s even less clear why he didn’t recognize this issue when formulating his position in favor of the public option. In short, you have to wonder how he got tangled on an issue of such pressing concern to women, a group that is a critical part of the Democratic base.
The incident is likely to set off more political discussion as to whether his campaign is not as well-oiled a machine as it should be, and/or whether his instincts are not sufficiently progressive. When you flip on an issue such as this, both sides have reason to doubt your sincerity.
NARAL Pro-Choice America put out a statement grudgingly accepting his about-face. “We’re glad that Joe Biden listened to the voices of millions of women and further clarified his position on the Hyde Amendment,” the statement read. “Let’s be clear, the Hyde Amendment discriminates against all women but particularly poor women and women of color. At a time where the fundamental freedoms enshrined in Roe are under attack, we need full throated allies in our leaders.” It continued, “Leadership is often about listening and learning. We’re pleased that Joe Biden has joined the rest of the 2020 Democratic field in coalescing around the Party’s core values — support for abortion rights, and the basic truth that reproductive freedom is fundamental to the pursuit of equality and economic security in this country.”
The real question is whether this issue is an insiders’ fight that may rage on Twitter and among activists, or whether it will permeate to the wider electorate, suggesting Biden has either lost a step or is not sufficiently in tune with the progressive wing. Will voters be upset that he changed position, or will they simply accept that his current position is in line with their own?
There is another, more fundamental issue. Biden seems to be playing by the “never apologize” playbook. He didn’t really apologize for his touchy-feely conduct and, now, he does not acknowledge error in supporting the Hyde Amendment all the way up to Thursday night. The refuse-to-apologize tactic may work for a time, but as the NARAL statement suggested, there is nothing wrong with saying when you’ve seen the light. Far better to say “I know better now” than to fight about what exactly his policy was, or whether his rationale makes sense. Refusing to admit error inevitably leads to endless media inquiries and more criticism from opponents.
Biden is lucky that this comes early in the race, well before the first debate (for which he better have a succinct answer to explain his switch). Perhaps less focus on the general election and more serious attention to gaining support from all factions in the Democratic Party is in order. This was a stumble to be sure; how badly it will hurt him remains to be seen.