Take a good look at the polls today. According to the RCP average, Joe Biden holds a 16.8 point lead over his closest rival Bernie Sanders. By this time next week, that lead could be significantly reduced, if not completely gone. That’s because Biden, in a move that can only be described as inexplicable, reversed a long-standing position of his and came out in favor of repealing the Hyde Amendment.
In a speech he gave yesterday in Atlanta, Biden cited the litany of anti-abortion laws that are being passed in Republican-controlled states as the reason for what was clearly a flip flop on his part. “If I believe health care is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s zip code,” the former Vice President said.
For those of you who don’t know, the Hyde Amendment restricts abortion providers from using federal funds to perform the procedure. That’s all it does. With or without the amendment, states like Missouri, Georgia and Utah would still have passed their draconian laws that are nothing more than an end around the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, a ruling that conservatives have been trying to reverse ever since the Supreme Court handed it down in 1973. The “zip code” of a woman is completely irrelevant when it comes to this amendment. Biden knows that, and so does every constitutional scholar in the country.
There’s only one reason why Biden did this: he finally succumbed to the pressure being exerted from his left flank. It was a panic move on his part, one which might well cost him the nomination, and even if doesn’t, will weaken him in the general election. The strength of Biden’s appeal is that he leads with his chin and follows his gut. Apart from South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, he’s the least polished candidate in the field. And unlike most of the other candidates, he doesn’t seem all that afraid to take positions that buck his party’s base. Until now, that is.
Frankly, I’m aghast. There was no need for this unforced error. He had a huge lead, a lead that was fueled in large part by the centrist coalition of the party; the same coalition, mind you, that got Bill Clinton elected in ’92. While Sanders and Elizabeth Warren continue to split the progressive vote, Biden was cruising along without nary a care in the world. All he had to do was not shoot himself in the foot like he did in ’88 and ’08.
But, alas, the man can’t help himself. It’s as though he can’t stand prosperity. Not only will he not get any credit from the left for his “come to Jesus” moment, he will catch bloody hell from both the center and the right. That’s because almost a third of the people who support a woman’s right to choose also support a federal ban on funding for abortions. One of the oldest rules in politics – one that a seasoned veteran like Biden should know all too well – is that if there’s no upside for taking a position, or in this case reversing one, don’t take it. Politics 101: Do no harm. His ignoring of that rule is a giant red flag.
The sad part about all this is that had Biden just held firm to his original stance, he would’ve continued to get pummeled by the left, but he would’ve gained considerably more respect from the center. In short, it would’ve been a wash. Now he ends up looking like all the other politicians vying for the Democratic nomination, all 23 of them.
The good news, if there is any, is that it’s still early. The Iowa Caucus isn’t for another eight months. Biden might well survive this, but in the event he doesn’t, he’ll at least have the satisfaction of proving an age-old idiom right.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Originally, I wrote that the Hyde Amendment could only be repealed by two-thirds of both Houses of Congress and three-fourths of the states. This is not true. Since the amendment was passed as just a simple piece of legislation, it can be repealed by a simple majority in both Houses.