Biden had been a longtime supporter of the Hyde Amendment, named for the late representative Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican of delightful ideological inconsistency. (He favored gun control, for instance.) Biden had stuck with the amendment, first passed in 1976, even though much of the Democratic Party has become deeply opposed to it. He had to know, going into the campaign, that this sentiment had only hardened.
I am an ardent supporter of abortion rights and have long been opposed to the Hyde Amendment, but I am less than thrilled at Biden’s sudden conversion. It reeks of insincerity and of a decision made simply for political reasons. He was under intense pressure from the party’s liberal wing, particularly the suddenly accelerating Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whose authenticity is not in doubt. He also heard from the actress Alyssa Milano. She called Biden’s campaign manager, urging that Biden reconsider his support of Hyde.
Others made points of heroic banality. The Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere reported last week that one of Biden’s senior advisers, Symone Sanders, confronted him about how his pro-Hyde position “disproportionally affected poor women and women of color without easy access to abortion.” Biden apparently had not previously known this, his 36 years in the Senate and eight as vice president notwithstanding. With a slap to the forehead that would have felled a lesser man, he must have uttered a “zowie!” and realized the error of his ways. Thank you, Symone Sanders.
Abortion is a morally complex issue. A lot depends on the circumstances — how far along the pregnancy may be, etc. For some, though, abortion is simply murder. For others, opposition to abortion is misogyny masked as morality. I always put Biden, who in a 2007 book wrote that he is “personally opposed to abortion,” in the “religion” category — a Roman Catholic with views to match. In that case, his reluctance to have antiabortion taxpayers fund abortions is understandable.
It’s troubling that Biden should so easily abandon what, until the other day, seemed a deeply held position. It is also troubling that a major element of the Democratic Party is so intolerant of an opposing idea that it would doom a candidacy on that basis alone. This lockstep abortion platform seeks to impose a simplistic position on a morally vexing issue and is reminiscent of 1992, when at the Democratic National Convention, the party denied a pro-life Democrat, Gov. Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, a speaking slot. Most Democrats support abortion rights and most Republicans do not, but both parties contain significant minorities of dissenters. Uniformity is nice, but not when it is coerced.
At the moment, Hyde is a huge irrelevancy. The Republican Senate is not going to do without it. And, if by some miracle it did, King Kong Trump would stomp all over the effort. The pressing issue of the moment is not Hyde, but the severe antiabortion legislation being passed in state after state. The question is not who is going to pay for an abortion — nongovernment funds have managed — but whether abortion will be available at all. In several states, nostalgically inclined legislatures seem determined to reconstitute the back alley.
By reversing his position on Hyde, Biden has revived memories of politicians past who did a neat about-face on a matter of principle. Hillary Clinton and her reversal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership comes to mind — a backflip off a very high board that ended in a belly flop. Better a Joe Biden who is wrong, but authentic, on some issues than one who is right only out of political expediency.
This will be an arduous and painful campaign for Biden if he is willing to betray his beliefs. Soon enough, it will be bitterly cold in Iowa — and he will be ideologically naked to the world, not the man he used to be and not, either, the man he wants to be.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.