Where’s Joe Biden’s Backbone?
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Vice President Biden’s betrayal of the Hyde Amendment strikes us as an important moment in the Democratic campaign. In a season in which our politics has increasingly focused on the character of the candidates, it raises the question of what the Democratic frontrunner is really made. After years of supporting the law that bans federal Medicaid spending on nearly all abortions, he suddenly does an about-face. Is this how he’s going to save the national soul?
We don’t mind saying that the Sun supports the Hyde Amendment. We see it as an article of classical liberalism. It acknowledges how profoundly Americans are divided in respect of abortion. So the Hyde Amendment doesn’t seek to outlaw abortion (nor could it, given the Supreme Court’s current holdings). It simply recognizes how abusive it would be to require Americans who oppose abortion to pay for abortions for others.
It was the Solomonic nature of the Hyde Amendment that allowed the measure to pass a 94th Congress controlled by the Democrats. The representatives, in 1976, passed Hyde by a vote of 207 to 167. The measure has been renewed annually ever since. A bid to make it permanent passed the House when it was led by Speaker Ryan. Like so much good law, though, it evaporated in the saucer of the Senate. Nonetheless, Hyde has saved thousands of lives.
Mr. Biden himself, in his book “Promises To Keep,” writes about his support for Hyde. It was one of his early votes. He recalls being pressed on it by the liberal lion from Connecticut, Senator Ribicoff, and telling him: “I will not vote to curtail a woman’s right to choose abortion. But I will also not vote to use federal funds to fund abortion.” Everybody,” he added, “will be upset with me, except me. But I’m intellectually and morally comfortable with my position.”
What vainglory. It’s not that Mr. Biden didn’t hew to his position for decades. As recently as Wednesday, NBC reported today, the ex-veep was sticking by his support for the Hyde Amendment. This week, though, the issue suddenly lit up his challengers for the Democratic nomination — and other party ideologues, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who declared one’s record “is important because it shows a consistency in values and beliefs.”
So Mr. Biden flipped. Just like that. He claimed to be suddenly worried about the access to abortion by minority women. He simply tossed overboard what for decades he had maintained was a deeply held conviction. People can change their view of things, of course — even on deeply held matters. It’s hard to credit, though, when it happens, as is so evident with Mr. Biden, for purely political reasons and in the face of a brief attack from one’s adversaries.
Nor does it take a pro-life person to see how horrifying that is. If Mr. Biden can flip on a matter of faith and principle such as abortion, what is he going to do on other questions on which he will come under pressure from his party’s left flank — Israel, say, or taxes or socialism or any of the issues that supposedly separate him out as a moderate? If he’s just tacking to the left for the primaries, he may discover that come the general election the moderates will be looking for someone with more backbone.