Updated at 1:12 p.m. ET on June 7, 2019.
Joe Biden’s aides knew that the 2020 front-runner was going to get ripped apart over his support of the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortion procedures. They were frustrated that the former vice president wouldn’t change his stance, and that he wasn’t initially receptive to their concerns. Now that Biden has come out against Hyde, his aides are trying to prevent him from being labeled a flip-flopper.
This was a tense two days in Biden’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. The candidate was caught off guard after an NBC News story published Wednesday morning attempted to nail down where he stands on abortion policy—specifically Hyde. Symone Sanders, one of Biden’s senior advisers, confronted him, she confirmed to me Thursday night, telling Biden that he was missing how his position disproportionately affected poor women and women of color without easy access to abortion. Alyssa Milano, the actor who’s become a major online presence on issues of women’s rights as well as a friend of the Biden team, spoke by phone Wednesday with Biden’s campaign manager, Greg Schultz, telling him that the candidate needed to change. More calls came in, more tough conversations.
On Wednesday night, Biden’s campaign co-chair Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana went on CNN to play defense, saying Biden’s “position on the Hyde Amendment has been consistent.” Sort of. Biden supported Hyde until just a few weeks ago, when he seemed to say he was against it when responding to a woman’s question while shaking hands after an event. Then, according to his campaign, he was always for it as a matter of consistency and principle (and supposedly had said he was against it only because he’d misheard the question). When Biden stepped onstage in Atlanta to speak at a Democratic National Committee event last night, he brought a few pages with him to the podium to add to what had already been fed into the teleprompter. He told the audience he’d been thinking about the Hyde Amendment as he worked on the health-care-policy plan for his campaign, adding, “I can’t justify leaving millions of women without access to the care they need and the ability to constitute—exercise their constitutionally protected right.”
That may be true, but everything Biden attributed the change to had been apparent long before he pivoted. The only thing that had changed was that he was now under attack from almost all of his 2020 rivals, from other major Democratic players, and from people within his campaign.
Biden’s aides say they want this to be seen not as a political move, but as a thoughtful evolution squeezed into a frantic Wednesday and Thursday. The official Biden-campaign line is that changing his position proves he’s acting on principle. “Vice President Biden’s honesty and candor are big reasons why his candidacy is resonating all across the country. Voters respond to his authenticity, and want a president with values that are nothing like the current occupant of the White House,” said the Biden-campaign press secretary TJ Ducklo in a prepared statement. “This is about health care, not politics. We’re in an unprecedented moment of crisis for choice in this country, and Vice President Biden believes he can no longer support an amendment that blocks access to health care that women need. That’s why he made this decision yesterday.”
Changing positions on core issues, though, is one of the hardest things to pull off in presidential politics. In the 2004 race, John Kerry never lived down saying of Iraq War funding, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” Mitt Romney, running from his more liberal record in Massachusetts, was mocked for months during the 2012 campaign for calling himself “severely conservative,” whatever that meant. In both 2008 and 2016, Hillary Clinton never overcame the perception among many voters and pundits that she was chasing focus-group approval every time she hesitated or changed her mind on an issue.
In the months before Biden formally entered the race, and ever since, the 76-year-old has been slammed for being out of sync with today’s Democratic Party. Both the candidate and his advisers have widely dismissed those complaints as being drummed up by a sliver of Democrats, and Biden believes that he’s the one with a real handle on where the party is at. Then came the abortion questions this week, with Biden clearly out of step with most of the party’s leading activists, and almost every other 2020 candidate, on perhaps the most visceral issue in politics, at a moment when state legislatures are implementing new abortion restrictions and many believe the Supreme Court will soon overturn Roe v. Wade.
For 2016 Clinton-campaign alumni, this Biden episode feels familiar. Clinton came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal she had helped negotiate while serving as secretary of state—a switch in positions, as it happens, she made in part because of worries that Biden was going to enter that year’s primary and sap her union support. “Hillary coming out against TPP—after having championed it … as a necessary counterbalance to China for years—was a microcosm of our fatal flaws,” an aide who worked on the Clinton campaign told me, comparing the candidacies. “I actually think the perception of inauthenticity poses a similarly existential threat to Biden, albeit from the opposite direction: For Hillary, it reinforced the most detrimental narratives about her, whereas for Biden, it undermines his core appeal as the deeply principled straight talker.” The Clinton aide added, “Hillary and Biden suffer from the same contradictory impulses—you can give an impassioned defense of your record or you can convince people you’ve legitimately evolved on an issue, but it’s pretty hard to do them simultaneously.”
A Biden adviser I spoke with late Thursday, after the former vice president appeared in Atlanta, argued that there’s no comparison to be made to Clinton’s or Kerry’s waffling. Those were issues of government policy, the aide said. This is “a decision that is tied up in his faith and is made in an environment that is an unprecedented assault on a woman’s right to choose, which is why this is fundamentally different,” said the adviser, speaking anonymously to more openly discuss Biden’s personal feelings.
The Hyde fight is a nuance of the national abortion-rights debate, and a fight that even committed activists acknowledge is largely symbolic, since the votes aren’t in Congress to actually repeal the amendment anytime soon. A wedge issue like this is more likely to matter once the Democratic primary field shrinks to a much smaller number and candidates’ policies are more closely examined. Biden aides have said privately that they always knew they were going to be caught in a pincer throughout the campaign: Biden can’t run from his record for fear of seeming inauthentic, but his record is full of positions that are destined to be problematic in a primary to voters who’ve moved past the culture wars of the 1990s and embraced more progressive politics. His advisers were wary of the candidate apologizing or shifting on any topic, convinced that if he started apologizing for one thing, he’d never stop saying sorry.
Biden was hit from the left on Wednesday for sticking by Hyde. Then on Thursday, his reversal earned him a “Biden caves to the left” from the Republican super PAC America Rising and an “Embrace of radical left complete” by the Republican National Committee, while some of his Democratic opponents attacked him for the shift. “‘Always’ means ‘always,’” tweeted Lily Adams, the communications director for Kamala Harris, attaching a video clip of the senator from California saying she’d stand up for women’s reproductive rights. “I opposed the Hyde Amendment in 1993. I oppose it today. I will never back down,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee tweeted in response to Biden’s speech. Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts offered a backhanded compliment. “Bravo to @JoeBiden for doing the right thing and reversing his longstanding support for the Hyde Amendment. It takes courage to admit when you’re wrong, especially when those decisions affect millions of people,” Moulton tweeted on Friday morning. “Now do the Iraq War.”
(None of this, of course, matches up to how President Donald Trump changes positions, on everything from tariffs to war with Iran and North Korea—though these issues typically get shrugged off as expected of the president.)
Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, who was one of the first and loudest voices to condemn Biden on Wednesday morning for his support of Hyde, told me Thursday night that she was glad to see where he had landed. “He’s been really open that these are challenging issues for him, but his willingness to listen and learn at this moment from thousands of women who spoke up goes to his credit and makes me think that he is still evolving,” Hogue said.
Like many political observers, Hogue thinks this is probably the first of many times Biden is going to have to deal with his 47-year record running up against 2019 progressive politics. “Things are changing and things have changed, and he’s going to be hit with that reality in a new way now that he’s a candidate again, and his ability to understand those experiences is going to matter a lot,” she said.
This weekend, 19 candidates will head to Iowa for the state’s first major event of the year, which Biden is skipping. He’ll arrive two days later, after his competitors have already solidified their responses to Hyde and other questions.