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.