In a dramatic reversal, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said Thursday he no longer supports a ban on federal funding for abortions, known as the Hyde Amendment, a move he announced after a day of sharp criticism from campaign rivals and key Democratic interest groups.
The former vice president announced the change during a speech at the Democratic National Committee’s African American Leadership Council summit in Atlanta, telling the crowd that, in an environment where the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion is under attack in Republican-held states, he could no longer support a policy that limits funding.
“We’ve seen state after state including Georgia passing extreme laws,” Biden said. “It’s clear that these folks are going to stop at nothing to get rid of Roe.
“Circumstances have changed,” he said.
You could not ask for a better case study in how presidential campaigns define and refine party ideology than this one. While it all revolved around Joe Biden, he was really just a vehicle for the process to play itself out, the net result being a Democratic Party that is more unified than it was at the beginning of the week in both its general commitment to abortion rights and its intention to pursue specific policy changes to put its beliefs into action.
First, a word about Biden’s justification for his change in position.
Circumstances haven’t actually changed at all with regard to the Hyde Amendment. The amendment has made it difficult for poor women to get abortions since it was passed in 1976, and that difficulty is no more acute now than it was a year or 10 years ago. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, eliminating the amendment won’t do more to help women in states run by Republicans where abortion is outlawed, because there wouldn’t be anyplace to get one even if Medicaid did cover it.
That said, this shows, as I have argued, that flip-flopping is actually good. It doesn’t indicate an inherent weakness of character or make a candidate untrustworthy. That’s because once a candidate changes their position on some important issue, they never change back. And those changes almost always happen in one direction: from a position that was out of step with their party to a position that is in step with their party.
Often, it is because they go from representing a state or district where their party is in the minority — and so they had to appear more moderate — to trying to represent the national party, which means they have to bring themselves more into alignment with their comrades. The classic example of this is Mitt Romney (now a senator from Utah) going from being a Republican governor in decidedly blue Massachusetts to running for the GOP presidential nomination a few years later in 2012.
At other times, it’s because circumstances have indeed changed and so has the party. Hillary Clinton, who was part of the “Third Way” movement during the 1990s, ran as a much more liberal candidate in 2016 because the Democratic Party had moved to the left.
But in either type of case, the shift never reverses. This is especially true on the specific issues that politicians have shifted on, because those politicians know they’re viewed with suspicion on that issue, so they must reassure their party that they’re still on the team.
When a presidential primary campaign produces those flips, it’s a sign that the system is working: The party is figuring out exactly what it stands for and where it has fallen short in putting its beliefs into practice. In some cases, as with the Hyde Amendment, it means the party is moving from a diversity of opinion that isn’t discussed very much toward a clear consensus that will lead to action if it manages to take power.
In this case, it just happened to have occurred with remarkable speed. Here’s how it went down:
- On Wednesday morning, NBC News published an article on Biden’s record on abortion which discussed his long support of the Hyde Amendment.
- Seeing an opportunity to distinguish themselves from the front-runner, Biden’s opponents immediately began loudly proclaiming their opposition to the amendment, a position they had held before but which hadn’t been a campaign issue to that point.
- Some folks looked around and realized that Biden was the only one of the 23 Democratic presidential candidates who supports the amendment.
- Facing increasing pressure from both his opponents and the abortion-rights activists who are a key constituency within his party, Biden made the decision to change his position, only 36 hours or so after the whole thing started.
Maybe you think Biden’s decision was cynical and opportunistic, and maybe it was. Candidates do cynical and opportunistic things all the time. Before the controversy, most people probably didn’t know where the former vice president stood on abortion, and it’s not unreasonable for voters who support abortion rights to worry about how reliable he would be in supporting reproductive rights if he becomes president.
But one of the results of this episode is that if he does win, not only is Biden guaranteed to sign legislation to repeal the Hyde Amendment if it passes Congress, he’ll probably be more firm in his support of abortion rights in general than he otherwise would have been. He has now made a commitment to his party that will be impossible to go back on.
If you’re a voter who supports abortion rights, that’s just the outcome you wanted. You shouldn’t care whether, deep in a politician’s heart, he agrees with you and always has. You should care whether he’ll do what you want if he is elected.
This affair has benefits for the whole electorate, too. There is now less doubt about what the Democratic Party stands for on abortion, and its governing agenda is clearer than it was a couple of days ago. For all the petty distractions and manufactured scandals that weigh down the campaign, sometimes the process actually does what it’s supposed to.