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Blowing in the wind

From the Senate in the 1970s to the presidential campaign trail in 2020, Joe Biden has a long record of going where political pressures push him—and right now they’re pushing him aggressively leftward

Blowing in the wind

(Mario Tama/Getty Images; inset from 1972: Bettmann/Getty Images)

A decade before Joe Biden’s first run for the presidency, the young politician critiqued a potential presidential candidate that Biden’s own career trajectory would echo in the years ahead.

Hubert Humphrey had served as a Democratic senator from Minnesota for more than 20 years and as vice president for four years. He was contemplating a third run for the presidency in 1976.

Biden, then a Democratic senator from Delaware, was wary of Humphrey. He feared the former vice president was not “cognizant of the limited, finite ability government has to deal with people’s problems.” He said he wondered whether Humphrey had “the intestinal fortitude to look at some programs and say, ‘No.’”

Four decades later, now-former Vice President Biden, 77, is nearing the last lap of his third bid for the presidency. And he faces some of the same questions he raised about Humphrey early in his own decadeslong senatorial career.

Does Biden realize the government’s “limited, finite ability” to deal with deep-rooted problems transcending massive political intervention? Does he have the “intestinal fortitude” to face intense pressure to move further left than any president in history—and say, “No”? 

Key pieces of Biden’s record—both distant and recent—show a presidential candidate who has positioned himself as a centrist but has been willing to shift in the direction of the prevailing political winds. 

And though Biden has pushed back against some of the most extreme proposals floated by activists and some politicians, the political winds are blowing in a radical direction—and Biden appears willing to bend.

EARLY IN HIS CAREER, the political winds in Biden’s home state of Delaware blew in a notably conservative direction. 

In 1972, the state favored Republican President Richard Nixon, but voters also elected Democrat Joe Biden to the Senate just a few weeks before he turned 30—the age of eligibility for serving.

Biden ran on a mix of ideas, and he won a mix of support: He opposed Nixon’s handling of the Vietnam War and warned labor unions against trusting the GOP. But he also warned against a soft-on-crime approach and spoke of dealing severely with drug dealers. 

In office, he favored expanding some federal programs but swerved right when inflation escalated: Biden sponsored the Federal Spending Control act in 1977.

Showing restraint in the Senate on fiscal issues likely helped him with voters in his conservative-leaning state. (His opposition to busing in the 1970s likely also helped, though he wasn’t the only Northern Democrat to resist busing as a way to desegregate schools.) 

But as Biden tried to carve out a position as a fiscal moderate, a massive reckoning loomed on social issues. The senator first took the oath of office 19 days before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Roe v. Wade decision on Jan. 22, 1973. 

A year later, Biden told the Washingtonian he thought the decision went too far: “When it comes to issues like abortion, amnesty, and acid, I’m about as liberal as your grandmother. … I don’t think a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.” But the senator staked out ground some other Democrats would claim: As a Catholic, he was personally opposed to abortion, but he supported legal access to it. He thought it should be “rare and safe.”

Since 1973, more than 61 million unborn children have died in abortions.

The role of the Supreme Court remained critical, and Biden played a key role in that dynamic as a member and then chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 1986, the year before Biden took over as head of the committee, the U.S. Senate approved Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s nomination by a vote of 98-0.

Biden pondered potential future nominees, particularly Robert Bork, a well-known conservative judge. He said if Reagan nominated Bork for a future opening, and if Bork came through investigations like Scalia, “I’d have to vote for him.”

The next year, the winds shifted. 

Reagan did nominate Bork to the high court, and this time Biden was in charge of the Senate proceedings. He was also launching his first bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. 

On the day Reagan tapped Bork, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., delivered an apocalyptic warning on the Senate floor: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters.” The rallying cry bolstered swarms of activists to oppose Bork’s nomination over the coming weeks.

John Duricka/AP

Biden (left) greets Judge Robert Bork prior to a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in 1987. (John Duricka/AP)

Jeffrey Blattner, an aide to Kennedy at the time, later said one of the reasons Kennedy gave the overwrought speech was to “freeze Biden.” “He’s running for president,” Blattner said. “We didn’t want to leave him any choice.”

The pressure worked, though Biden dropped his presidential bid eight days after the hearing began. News reports revealed he had plagiarized pieces of other politicians’ speeches, including biographical portions. Biden changed the names, but kept the syntax. During a break in the Bork hearing, Biden admitted he had “made some mistakes” and said the “exaggerated shadow” had begun to “obscure the essence of my candidacy.”

Days later, Biden joined Kennedy in opposing Bork’s nomination, and the Senate rejected the nominee 42-58. Bork’s opportunity to exert a conservative influence on the court evaporated. The Senate eventually confirmed Justice Anthony Kennedy to the spot.

Mark Gitenstein, chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Bork hearing, told The New York Times last fall he thinks Biden should draw more attention to his role in Bork’s defeat: “I don’t think that he or anyone else makes enough of the fact that, but for Biden, Roe would be dead 30 years ago, and, but for Biden, we wouldn’t have the gay marriage decision.”

WHETHER BIDEN DESERVES that much credit or blame, he does now call for codifying Roe v. Wade as part of his campaign platform. He also calls for restoring Title X funding for Planned Parenthood and repealing the Hyde Amendment. 

Biden, along with other Democratic senators, supported the Hyde Amendment for decades. The measure prohibits direct federal funding for most abortions. For years, Biden said he didn’t think the federal government should pay for abortions.

On most other votes, Biden was reliably pro-abortion. Planned Parenthood and NARAL endorsed him when he ran as vice president with Barack Obama in 2008. Planned Parenthood endorsed him for his 2020 bid in June, noting that when Biden left the Senate, he “had a 100 percent voting record from Planned Parenthood Action Fund.”

In a 1994 letter to constituents, Biden underscored a carve-out: He said “on no fewer than 50 occasions” he had voted against funding abortion directly: “I will continue to abide by the same principle that has guided me throughout my 21 years in the Senate: those of us who are opposed to abortions should not be compelled to pay for them.”

The winds shifted last year.

Months after he launched his presidential bid in 2019, Biden expressed support for Hyde, though the Democratic Party had abandoned the measure during Hillary Clinton’s presidential run in 2016. 

Biden’s Democratic competitors pounced. Symone Sanders, an adviser to Biden, told The Atlantic she confronted the candidate: Sanders said she argued opposition to Hyde disproportionately harms poor women and women of color looking for easier access to abortion. (The irony: Abortion disproportionately harms black women and their unborn children.) 

Alyssa Milano, an actress and activist, also reportedly told Biden’s campaign manager he needed to shift positions. Pressure mounted. Biden caved.

“I make no apologies for my last position, and I make no apologies for what I’m about to say,” he told a Democratic gathering in Atlanta last June. He told the group he now supports repealing the Hyde Amendment because of laws in some states restricting abortion: “If I believe healthcare is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s zip code.”

In a 2006 interview with Texas Monthly, Biden said abortion should be legal, but, “I do not view abortion as a choice and a right. I think it’s always a tragedy.”

POLITICIANS DO CHANGE THEIR MINDS.

Shifting positions isn’t uncommon for elected officials, particularly over a decadeslong career. And it’s not always wrong—realizing a true mistake and changing course is commendable and good.

But the Hyde flap exposed Biden flipping on an issue he once called a guiding principle, after facing intense pressure from activists and from a party moving further left. The inevitable reality: If the party moves left, the center moves too.

How far left will Biden let the current wind take him? 

Earlier in his presidential bid, Biden spoke of his hopes to become a “transitional” president—presumably serving as a bridge to a newer generation of Democrats. As he battled Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the Democratic primary, Biden distanced himself from Sanders’ democratic socialism: “People are looking for results, not a revolution.” 

A few months later, he declared on his podcast, “We need some revolutionary institutional changes.” 

The havoc wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic certainly calls for more than politics-as-usual. Both candidates will have to grapple with how a country and an economy reeling from massive losses will move ahead, even after a possible vaccine or an ebbing of the virus.

Biden has outlined an economic platform some pundits say looks similar to the kind of economic populism Trump won with in 2016—including a “buy American” priority and an emphasis on infrastructure and job creation. But it’s not clear how Biden would pay for all his proposals without raising taxes beyond wealthy Americans—a question he’ll face over the coming weeks.

(Trump will continue to face questions as well, as he’s struggled to outline a second-term agenda in recent interviews.)

Meanwhile, the concern at the beginning of Biden’s career for having the intestinal fortitude to show fiscal restraint doesn’t bleed through to his proposals on other issues.

For example, while he doesn’t embrace the Green New Deal on climate change, he does propose spending some $2 trillion over four years on a climate plan that includes outfitting 4 million buildings and 2 million homes for energy efficiency and creating an office of environmental and climate justice within the Justice Department. 

His campaign tapped the Green New Deal’s originator, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., to co-chair a committee to make climate change recommendations. The effort was part of a “unity task force” between Biden and Bernie Sanders and included advisers and activists tapped by both camps to give policy recommendations in six areas.

M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico via AP

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stands with Bernie Sanders at a Feb. 10 campaign rally in Durham, N.H. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico via AP)

The results: not as far left as some of Sanders’ supporters might have hoped, but further left than they thought they might end up. Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ presidential campaign manager, said the report “goes beyond a status quo and goes beyond where Biden had campaigned in the primary.”

Shakir told the Vox news website that “phase two” would be “continuing to shape and alter the Biden campaign’s positions.”

On education, Biden recently told Trevor Noah of The Daily Show: “I believe there has to be more debt forgiveness for college loans, … more opportunity to go to college for free. For free.” (He said he would pay for free college and other priorities by rolling back President Donald Trump’s $2 trillion tax cut.)

Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur who ran for the Democratic nomination, said in a recent podcast he predicted Biden would be open to universal basic income (sending monthly checks to every American), if the wind blew strongly enough:

“One thing you know about Joe is that he’s not that ideological. He’s actually fairly pragmatic. And he will certainly get on board with universal basic income if there’s a groundswell of popular support and Democratic legislators and leaders are heading in that direction.”

Biden hasn’t proposed universal basic income, but Yang’s musings underscore what some see as Biden’s willingness to move with the prevailing sentiment.

Less predictable: How much of these proposals could reach fruition, even if Democrats win the U.S. Senate by a narrow majority in November? It usually takes overcoming a 60-vote threshold in the Senate to pass major legislation.

Some Democratic senators have floated employing “the nuclear option” to require only a simple majority to pass most legislation. Other Democrats—including Biden—have long resisted that impulse.

Until recently.

Biden told reporters in mid-July that he was now open to the idea. He said he was hopeful about reaching common ground with Republicans without eliminating the filibuster: “But I think you’re going to just have to take a look at it.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Wed, 07/29/2020 10:46 pm

    A good article that documents Biden's move to the left. It only highlights the need of Christians to vote for Trump, if we are serious about abortion and the radical agenda of the left, such as defunding the police. 
     

    Another point that the article should have made is that Biden is a Trojan horse candidate since his VP will be president if he is elected. The left believes this is a way to get a radical woman of color elected to office without her having to go through the vetting processes of our election process. God help us if a radical is elected for Christians will see persecution follow with vengeance. For years now we have seen the propaganda flow out of Hollywood portraying Christians as the personification of evil. Many today are hostile to America and our Christian heritage as we see the masses in the protests tear down our heritage and openly call for a revolution. All thinking Christians need to be aware what is happening and stand against it. If we don't our churches will be fined and shut down and we will see ourselves jailed for our Christian beliefs.

    If Christians are serious about taking back America, they not only need to work in the political arena with wisdom, but they need to work for revival and to take back our culture. How exactly do we do this? We need to fight back by taking back the institutions and companies that lead culture. Rather than working for liberal organizations bent on our destruction, these Christians need to step out in faith and make new companies and organizations. Rather than letting the left define our identity to our culture, we need to take control by forming companies with a pro-Christian bent where we remove the leftist PC environment and replace it with a Christian one where we promote a positive view of our faith. We fight back presenting the Christian world view and contrasting it with the secular one which leads to death. We need to make companies to challenge Google, Amazon, Twitter and the many others. With the politicization of sports, now is the perfect time to make a new baseball league, football league, and basketball league where kneeling for our anthem is not tolerated and politics is left out of sports like it used to be. Will we have a renewed resolve to push for school choice? We need it! How do we regain control of the public schools? The left has done a good job of taking it over! How can we take it back? How about the universities? Are we serious in remaking America as the light to the world? 
     

    How about pushing for revival? Are we losing because we have failed to be holy people, praying to a powerful God, and limiting our vision for what is possible? Let us each decide to be vessels of revival. Let us pray for the Holy Spirit and step out in faith with great vision! Carpe Diem!

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sun, 08/02/2020 08:46 pm

    For a moment there, it sounded like you thought it would be a bad thing to have a woman of color as our president. I hope the emphasis was on the "radical" part. But I agree that we should watch the VP pick closely, since there's a reasonably high chance that whoever it is may end up in office.

  • HANNAH.
    Posted: Thu, 07/30/2020 11:56 pm

    The title of this article sends me down Memory Lane regarding the 1960s song "Blowin' in the Wind" by Bob Dylan: 

    "[Joe Biden] opposed Nixon’s handling of the Vietnam War ... he also warned against a soft-on-crime approach"
    "Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly before they're forever banned? ...
    Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see?
    The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind ..." regarding the riots throughout our country.

    "[A year after Roe v Wade in 1973], Biden ... thought the decision went too far ... . As a Catholic, he was personally opposed to abortion, but he supported legal access to it. He thought it should be 'rare and safe.' "
    "Yes, and how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry? ...
    Yes, and how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died? 
    The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind ..." regarding more than 61 million unborn children that have died in abortions -- plus the post-abortion complications and even deaths of the mothers. 

    Joe Biden has moved along many paths in his life. 
    However, as Dylan asks at the beginning of his song:
    "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? ...
    The answer is blowin' in the wind ..." regarding how pressure from political advisors and activists are emasculating him.

    I'm saddened by what has become of a man who began with so much potential.