2020 Democratic front-runner Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE is trying to recover from the biggest stumble of his presidential campaign so far — a U-turn on the abortion-related Hyde Amendment.
The controversy has stunned people close to the former vice president because it took place at warp-speed.
“It all happened really fast,” one Biden ally said.
The central issue is the former vice president’s long-standing — but now abandoned — support for the amendment, which prohibits the use of federal money for abortion services.
One big effect of the Hyde Amendment is a significant limitation on abortions for Medicaid recipients.
Biden’s past position was a matter of public record, but it had not been a prominent issue in this campaign until the publication of an NBC News report early on Wednesday morning.
The report, by Heidi Przybyla, noted not only that Biden had supported Hyde in the past, but that his campaign reaffirmed that he continued to do so.
A firestorm of criticism from advocates of reproductive rights followed — along with some of the sharpest attacks on Biden so far from his Democratic rivals.
When Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.) was asked at a Wednesday evening MSNBC town hall event whether Biden was wrong, she replied firmly “yes” before going on to describe how women would be hurt by his position.
By the next day, it was clear Biden’s stance was unsustainable — and that the controversy was taking its toll on the candidate himself.
Sources close to Biden said he was out-of-sorts as he traveled around the Atlanta area on Thursday. The former vice president, normally known for his garrulousness, was disengaged from the people around him, these sources said, a pensive mood supplanting his usual ebullience.
Behind the scenes, even some of his own team grumbled that they were uncomfortable with his position. “It was a real problem,” one close ally said. “I think a lot of people felt like it wasn’t going well.”
By the time he was preparing his remarks for a Democratic Party fundraising event that night, even Biden realized there was no plausible way forward beside switching his previous position.
“I can’t justify leaving millions of women without the care they need,” he said Thursday night. “I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s ZIP code.”
Outside of Biden’s orbit, Democrats were left scratching their heads about what had happened — and pondering whether the former vice president had suffered any lasting political damage.
“I suspect that his campaign realized very quickly that this is an issue that is non-negotiable in a Democratic primary,” said Karen Finney, a senior advisor to 2016 nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE’s campaign.
Finney, who is not affiliated with any candidate in this cycle, noted that Clinton had pledged in 2016 to repeal the Hyde Amendment and that doing so had also been in the party platform that year.
The other major candidates in this year’s race are also in favor of repeal.
Referring to the Biden campaign, Finney said, “Perhaps they didn’t fully recognize the shift. This is not just in the purview of the ‘far left,’ quote-unquote, this is in the party platform.”
People close to Biden note that abortion has long been a vexing issue for him. A practicing Catholic, Biden is personally opposed to abortion. But he has emphasized that he does not believe his religious beliefs should drive legislation.
Wednesday’s NBC News report noted a recent email to supporters in which Biden said he would “refuse to impose my religious beliefs on other people,” as well as passages from his 2007 book “Promises to Keep” in which he described his views on abortion as “middle of the road” and acknowledged that he did not have “a right to impose my view on the rest of society.”
A source familiar with Biden’s thinking said it was a complicated issue, inextricably intertwined with the former vice president’s Catholicism. “The Biden ethos is family and faith,” the source said. “Always has been, always will be.”
Such explanations beg the question of what justification — other than cold-eyed political calculation — could be offered for such a rapid U-turn on an issue that is fundamentally the same as it ever was.
“I think he realized very quickly that the world has changed, even since a year ago. Abortion clinics are closing, Planned Parenthood is in trouble and there aren’t a lot of options for underprivileged folks. The climate has completely changed,” said another Biden ally.
The broader danger for Biden may be the way in which the change on the Hyde Amendment invites scrutiny of other parts of his past record that sit uneasily with today’s Democratic Party, where progressives are widely seen as ascendant.
Bakari Sellers, a commentator and former member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, who is supporting Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook McEnany says Juneteenth is a very ‘meaningful’ day to Trump MORE (D-Calif.), described Biden’s contortions this week as a “clusterf—.”
Sellers added, “Since he has recognized that his position for 30 years has been incorrect and he is now changing that, I think it is only fair he now does that with his position on the Iraq War and his position on the ’94 crime bill — and the ’88 crime bill and the ’86 crime bill.”
Biden’s support for the Iraq War and draconian crime legislation has long been seen as a vulnerability.
Others on the left look askance at Biden’s attempted explanation for his flip-flop.
“The Hyde Amendment is a racist, classist and sexist law,” said progressive strategist Rebecca Katz, the founder of New Deal Strategies. “It didn’t just become terrible in 2019. It’s always been terrible.”
On the other hand, some progressives saw Biden’s shift as evidence of the left’s growing power — and therefore something to be commended, rather than met with churlishness.
Jonathan Tasini, a veteran progressive organizer and writer in New York, sought to put Biden’s shift in a much broader context. He highlighted the changes wrought, particularly by female activists, in recent years.
“If the Women’s March had not happened, if the ‘Me Too’ movement had not mushroomed, I’m not sure that Joe Biden would have felt the pressure to change his position,” Tasini said. “I think progressives are well-advised to not just look at this in the stark, political-horserace calculation but in terms of, we are moving the conversation.”
Beyond that, the question of potential damage to Biden’s bid for the nomination remains open.
People in his camp argue that voters will forgive the change of tack.
But others said that, at a minimum, the former vice president would need to be crystal-clear in his pro-choice positions from now on.
“He needs to find ways to demonstrate his commitment to abortion rights whenever his flip-flop on the Hyde Amendment comes up. It’s almost as bad to have two positions on an issue [as] it is to have one bad stance,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.
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