If Joe Biden loses the Democratic Presidential primary, it may very possibly be considered to begin on Thursday, June 6th, when he reversed course on the Hyde Amendment. While most Americans in the Presidential General Election might not make their decisions on an obscure, federal regulation preventing federal monies from subsidizing abortion, you can bet it is set to become a flashpoint in a changing Democratic primary electorate.
Joe Biden’s entire claim to fame in the primary is he is a pragmatic, cautious choice who could appease both centrists and progressives yearning to defeat Trump. But, Biden has run for President twice before. Both times, his campaign was derailed by questions about his competence. And while this decision certainly brings that to mind, Biden’s decision to embrace a policy position unpopular not just among the American electorate, but even among his supporters in the party. is perplexing. It is much more a forward-looking decision than one which benefits the candidate among the primary electorate. To understand why Biden may have irreparably damaged his campaign one must first look at the origins of the Hyde Amendment and where Joe Biden’s Democratic support is coming from.
The Hyde Amendment, so named for its author, Congressman Henry J Hyde (R-IL), was a direct push-back by Congress to Roe vs. Wade. A coalition of Southern Democrats and moderate Republicans pushed the Amendment through in 1976. The Amendment specifically states no federal funds used by the Department of Health and Welfare can go directly to subsidizing abortion. In essence, it ended the practice of forcing Americans to pay for abortions.
Until Donald Trump, the issue was largely ignored by a large segment of the American public, even Democrats. Hillary Clinton did not even make it a campaign plank of her platform until late in the game. But, the party has dramatically lurched leftward and arguably the most on social and cultural issues like abortion. It was an open question, how a member of the establishment like Biden, a white man, would balance his past support for the Amendment with the increasing absolutist leanings of the party faithful. Now we know.
On Thursday, the Democratic front-runner, who has recently flat lined in recent polls after experiencing a bounce after announcing, reversed his position. In his reversal, the nominee unsurprisingly blamed Republicans for the reason for his switch. Right, because Republicans made you decide to go with the more radical elements of your party’s agenda. Case in point; NARAL, the largest pro-choice interest group in the party, dedicated to eliminate all vestiges of any pro-life Democrat in the party, came out and praised the decision.
Joe Biden might have made progressives and NARAL happy, but in reality his campaign really does not have much of their support. Who supports Biden? Well, according to a compilation of polls, self-described moderate and conservative Democrats. The same Democrats who have revolted against the President for his behavior and destruction of norms but also are not comfortable with the increasing leftward tilt of their party on social and economic issues.
Biden has appealed to these voters while also relying on a split Democratic progressive field. In every poll since he announced, Biden has led but with plurality hovering around 30 percent. He has benefited from the fact almost half of his party still identify as moderates or conservatives. Biden’s more moderate play on economic and social issues appeals to such voters. But, on one of the most divisive issues in the country, the party front-runner just announced he is the same as every other progressive.
There are two ways to look at his decision. The first is Biden knows he needs progressive support to navigate a crowded primary where he is well below 50 percent support in national and early state polls. The other though, is Biden just undermined the entire theme for his campaign by backtracking on a divisive issue due to political pressure. In essence, Biden just gave his supporters a reason to assume he is no different than any other progressive in the contest.
It will take time for this news to sink in but the impact it could have could be enormous and might come in state, not national polls. Just take a look at where Biden is struggling and succeeding to see how this might play out. The most recent survey out of Iowa, from the local and highly respected Des Moine Register, finds Biden leading the field with 24 percent, followed by Bernie Sanders at 16 percent, Warren at 15 percent and Buttigieg at 14 percent. That’s not a commanding position to be in. The poll found Biden would be the second choice of about 15 percent of voters. But, most illuminating is the voters who are still deciding and are considering Biden are limited. Only 25 percent of voters are actively considering Biden compared to 36 percent for Cory Booker, 28 percent for Buttigieg, 32 percent for Harris, 33 percent for Beto, 33 percent for Warren and even 29 percent for Sanders.
In New Hampshire, which has not been extensively polled, the last survey in May found Biden with a commanding 18 point lead. But, Biden trails three other rivals for being the second choice of Democrats. If the field narrows Biden could find himself in trouble. Lastly, we come to South Carolina. The initial thinking was Booker and Harris would perform strongly due to the racial component. Such analysis is overly simplistic as over 60 percent of the Democratic electorate in the state is black and a vast majority of these voters identify as moderate or conservative. A Post Courier survey found Biden with a wide 30 percent lead due to his strength with black voters. But, this was back in May. Biden’s lead relies on appealing to a sizeable contingent of voters who are not pro-gay marriage and abortion. They will fall in line in November but not the primary.
Doubtless, Biden felt the need to answer the recent attacks on his candidacy over the issue. But, this ignores the danger for Biden is what makes his candidacy unique is his appeal to a shrinking majority of his party. The sizeable field is benefiting his candidacy but already the cracks in his inevitability are showing. As Biden drifts leftward to poach younger and progressive voters (his base is older and whiter), he endangers his advantage with these voters lest they see little difference between him and his opponents. We may already be seeing early signs of this. But one thing seems clear. By reversing course on Hyde, Biden just inflicted the first wound on his candidacy. Time will tell whether it is mortal or not.