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.”
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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.