Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Essay: Abortion—Biden’s ‘Eagleton Moment’

“It’s troubling that [former Vice-President Joe] Biden should so easily abandon what, until the other day, seemed a deeply held position. It is also troubling that a major element of the Democratic Party is so intolerant of an opposing idea that it would doom a candidacy on that basis alone. This lockstep abortion platform seeks to impose a simplistic position on a morally vexing issue and is reminiscent of 1992, when at the Democratic National Convention the party denied a pro-life Democrat, Gov. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, a speaking slot.”—Richard Cohen, “Joe Biden’s Flip-Flop on Abortion Reeks of Insincerity,” The Washington Post, June 10, 2019

Last week’s Presidential debates were enough to make John Kasich, speaking yesterday morning at Chautauqua Institution, issue a warning: “The Democrats have moved so far to the left that they’re going to re-elect Trump if they’re not careful.”

Part of me couldn’t help thinking that, as a lifelong Republican, the two-time Presidential candidate was not exactly a disinterested observer. But part of me couldn’t help agreeing with him, particularly when he went on to say that America was a “center-right and center-left country.” By the end of the two debates, the leftward tilt of his opponents had left little room for front-runner Joe Biden to tack back toward the middle—assuming that he does win the nomination.

You don’t have to go far to see where the new lines of orthodoxy are forming: single-payer health insurance with no role for the private sector; reparations for descendants of African-American slaves; the closing of ICE. But perhaps the greatest danger to the eventual Democratic nominee is taxpayer-funded abortions for all situations.

For the preservation of American democracy and even of world order and peace, there is nothing—nothing—so important as ridding the Oval Office of its current pestilential occupant. That’s what makes so infuriating the Democratic left’s insistence on repealing the Hyde Amendment barring federal funding for abortion except to save the life of the woman, or if the pregnancy arises from incest or rape—and Biden’s abject surrender to that demand only a day after re-asserting his four-decade support of it.

There is a reason for the endurance of this legislation (named for the late Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde) since its enactment in 1976: It’s the closest legislative attempt to take into account so many Americans' ambivalence about abortion. That uncertainty also explains, for instance, why, though sentiment for same-sex marriage has moved decisively in a favorable direction in far less time, this country remains as fundamentally divided about abortion as it was when Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973.

But, whether a product of the Left’s fury at anything associated even peripherally with Donald Trump, punitive new restrictions in states like Alabama, or Biden’s willingness to stretch too far for the Presidential prize that has long eluded him, the narrowed debate among Democrats this past week on this issue consigns what should be a searching discussion of moral ambiguity to a simple bumper sticker: “choice.”

Remarkably, their patent political foolishness matches their moral myopia.

Already, Trump is trotting out a line that will undoubtedly join his jabs about “socialism” a year from now: “Virtually every top Democrat also now supports taxpayer-funded abortion right up to the moment of birth,” he said at his campaign kickoff rally in Orlando two weeks ago.

For any other candidate other than the insult-spewing, managerial disaster in the Oval Office, this would have been the electoral equivalent of a haymaker. It may still be enough to make thousands of former or on-the-fence voters think twice about electing any Democrat.

Just when they can’t afford to lose the vote of any Republicans or independents disgruntled by Trump’s misconduct but sympathetic to some of his policies, the Democratic left has angered and alienated them.

Nice going, people.

I don’t think that terms like “liberal” or “progressive” apply to this group. The one that does is “Jacobin,” named for the extreme radicals who, before they were done, took the French Revolution beyond its initial aims of “liberty, equality, fraternity” to intolerance of other viewpoints, the Reign of Terror—and a reaction that saw a new strongman, Napoleon Bonaparte, rise from the chaos.

And so now, New York, Illinois, Rhode Island and Nevada have liberalized their abortion laws. Increasingly, there are no limits allowed to discourage partial-birth abortion, abortion on the basis of a preferred gender for a child—or, astoundingly for a party that has long championed greater regulation in all sectors of the economy to ensure safety, decriminalizing, in Nevada, supplying abortion-inducing pills without the advice of a doctor.

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson has rightly pointed out the fateful step taken by the Jacobin Democrats: not merely permitting abortion under the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade guidelines, but actively promoting it.

It might be easy for the Left to dismiss this criticism by Gerson, a religious conservative who served as a speechwriter for George W. Bush. But it’s harder to ignore when the same argument is made by two liberals, Gerson’s Post colleague Cohen or PBS pundit Mark Shields, who correctly identify the multiple problems in Biden’s quick-as-a-blink capitulation to the absolutist wing of his party:

*If Biden had to change his position, he had plenty of time to do so before now. All the way down to his formal entrance into the primaries this year, Biden could have adjusted the position on abortion that he first staked out in his 2007 campaign memoir, Promises to Keep: “I’ve stuck to my middle-of-the-road position on abortion for more than 30 years. I still vote against partial birth abortion and federal funding, and I’d like to make it easier for scared young mothers to choose not to have an abortion, but I will also vote against a constitutional amendment that strips a woman of her right to make her own choice.”  By waiting till he was called out on the campaign trail, he furthered the decades-long impression that he is an inept Presidential candidate who can’t survive the primaries.

*Biden did not have to see himself cornered as the sole Democratic candidate who had voted for the Hyde Amendment. In fact, every single Democrat now running for the Presidency has cast a vote for the various spending bills that have included the amendment, according to this report by Carter Sherman of Vice. To be sure, they have said they have not voted for that specifically, but merely to maintain the mechanism to keep the government running. But the overall impact is about the same as those on Capitol Hill who said they opposed the Vietnam War but kept funding it.

*It will be far easier for Trump to cast Biden as an ideological weathervane. Think John Kerry looked bad after those windsurfing commercials in the 2004 election? Think what the President can do all by himself to Biden, without any TV ads. If he hasn’t cast about for a suitable nickname to match, rest assured it’s coming soon.

*The party that prides itself on “diversity” means that in terms of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation, not ideology. This weekend, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof took many of the paper’s readers—and, more widely speaking, college student activists—for demonizing conservatives and evangelicals. “Too often, we liberals embrace people who don’t look like us, but only if they think like us,” he pointed out.

Over the last couple of years, centrist voters—of both Democratic and Republican stripes—have been searching for a “Sister Souljah” moment, similar to Bill Clinton’s 1992 primary season repudiation of an extremist member of an otherwise traditional and loyal element of his party.

Instead, this past month centrists got Biden’s “Eagleton moment”—a sudden, undignified abandonment of what had seemed like absolute support for a person or position. That reference might mean little or nothing to the under-30s voters that Democrats keep touting as the electoral wave of the future, but it will strike a chord among the Baby Boomers who gave Trump his margin of victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

They will remember how George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee for President, said, after the news broke of Thomas Eagleton’s electroshock therapy for treating depression, that he would back his running mate “1000 percent”; that he went back on his word just a couple of days later; and that an electorate already regarding McGovern quizzically now saw him as a weak, incompetent mess.

Biden’s abrupt about-face holds the potential for similar damage to Biden. It could even come from the left: On occasion, Garry Trudeau has neatly summed up the essence of certain politicos with an object rather than a face: a lit bomb for Newt Gingrich (referencing his destructive impact), a waffle for Bill Clinton (for his ideological dexterity). If he ever gets around to treating Biden in the same fashion, the object could be a humble piece of beach footwear: a flip-flop.

The split-the-difference posture that Biden jettisoned after a landslide of pressure was the party’s last nod in the direction of abortion being “safe, legal but rare”—Clinton’s rhetorically shrewd gesture to the uneasiness so many Americans feel about the procedure. You can take it to the bank that the last adjective goes by the wayside through the easier access desired by the Jacobin Democrats—and enacted into law in places like New York and Illinois.

Among the worst offenders is New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. She didn’t make much of an impression in the debates, but she represents a useful barometer of the worrisome new direction of her party as it relates to abortion: the equation of qualms about abortion to anti-Semitism and homophobia.

 “Imagine saying that it’s OK to appoint a judge who’s racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic,” she said in a Des Moines Register interview a couple of weeks ago. “Asking someone to appoint someone who takes away basic human rights of any group of people in America ... I don’t think those are political issues anymore.”

“All these efforts by President Trump and other ultra-radical conservative judges and justices to impose their faith on Americans is contrary to our Constitution, and that’s what this is,” she continued, adding: “There is no moral equivalency when you come to racism. And I do not believe that there is a moral equivalency when it comes to changing laws that deny women reproductive freedom.”

By this newly heightened rhetoric, the Jacobin left is not just imposing a litmus test but also a religious one. They effectively foreclose any appointment of a Catholic, for instance, who, in all other particulars about racial and economic justice and foreign policy, sides with the party, except for abortion.

The Democratic hierarchy has been struggling mightily to bring back to the fold voters in the Rust Belt who left the party in 2016. Do they really think Biden’s change will lure them back now, given the high proportion of Catholic voters in those states?

Once more, the Jacobin wing of the party has changed the conversation from the economic issues that are winners to the social ones that have kept them out of the White House these past 2½ years. They have just made the obstacles to winning it back that much harder to clear.

A Democratic path to victory will be assured as much by softening GOP support as by turning out their own hardcore supporters, but you’d better believe it will be far closer than the pollsters and pundits are forecasting now. Remember: not only did few foresee a Trump victory, but a number even foresaw a punishing landslide against the GOP.

In November 2020, in the not-unlikely event of another Trump victory, the Jacobin left would be well-advised to stop casting around for forces to blame, domestic or foreign, but instead take a long, hard look in their own mirrors. In their game of idiot’s delight, they’re already doing everything they can to hand re-election to Trump—and nowhere with as much moral obtuseness as in the abortion issue.

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