Joe Biden’s easy glide through the early stages of the Democratic presidential race came to an end last week with two unforced errors that played directly into the hands of his critics in both parties.
Biden entered the nomination contest as the front-runner and he’s solidified that position with a risk-averse campaign of limited appearances heavy on set-piece speeches. That’s curtailed chances of missteps or gaffes, but the mistakes last week raised questions about whether he can adapt to a changing party and a fast-paced 2020 campaign.
The missteps also put a dent in the image of a smoothly running Biden campaign machine.
Within hours of Tuesday’s release of his plan to address climate change, a litmus test issue for Democratic candidates, the head of a progressive group pointed out that it lifted passages from the work of activist groups.
Biden’s campaign said it “inadvertently left out” some citations and corrected the error. But it only served to revive accounts of the plagiarism scandal that brought an early end to his first presidential campaign in 1987.
The next day, his campaign bungled an answer on another key issue for Democrats — abortion — while trying to clear up his position on the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal programs like Medicaid from covering abortion. His campaign released a statement saying at he has not, “at this point changed his position on the Hyde Amendment.”
That came the next day, when Biden said at a Democratic National Committee event in Atlanta that he no longer supports the decades-old provision routinely attached to spending bills.
“I can’t justify leaving millions of women without access to care they need and the ability to exercise their constitutionally protected right.” Biden said. “Times have changed.”
Biden’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, who’ve begun to take indirect jabs at the front-runner, avoided jumping on him over the climate plan. Not so for Republicans, led by President Donald Trump, who has focused his attention on Biden as a potential 2020 challenger and has been highlighting attack lines that could be used in a general election campaign. Trump tweeted that the “Plagiarism charge against Sleepy Joe Biden on his ridiculous Climate Change Plan is a big problem.”
Biden’s change of heart on the Hyde Amendment should have be a positive in the Democratic primaries, where abortion rights have become a hot button issue with the recent passage of laws in many Republican-led states that would virtually ban the procedure. But the advantage was mitigated by the confusion surrounding his position.
Biden previously had indicated to an American Civil Liberties Union volunteer on a rope-line that he supports abolishing the amendment, saying that “it can’t stay,” as seen in a video posted by the group last month. On Wednesday, his campaign said he “misheard the woman” and maintains support for the Hyde restrictions, even as he favors legal abortion. Reproductive rights groups and some of his competitors lit into him, even if they didn’t mentioned him by name.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, speaking Wednesday in Fort Wayne, Indiana, said Biden was wrong on Hyde. “We do not pass laws that take away that freedom from the women who are most vulnerable,” she said at a town hall hosted by MSNBC.
Biden spokesman Jamal Brown said the candidate “has for many years as a United States senator — as have many people — supported the Hyde Amendment” but that “circumstances have changed” as providers like Planned Parenthood are under assault and states pass laws to restrict access to abortion.
The missteps paint a picture of a candidate who’s struggling to keep up with his changing party even as he comfortably leads the Democratic pack six weeks into his bid. At 76, Biden faces a natural demographic challenge appealing to a party base that is increasingly made of women, millennials and non-white voters. But ideologically, the progressive wing has flexed its muscle and reshaped the intra-party debate on momentous issues.
Matt Gorman, a Republican consultant who worked on Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign, said Biden’s reversal on Hyde “gives some very keen insights into how he fundamentally misunderstands not only the electorate, but his own political instincts.”
Much like Biden today, Gorman’s former boss struggled on an issue where the political winds had shifted: the Iraq war. Bush sought to articulate a position and changed his view several times in a week before finally saying he wouldn’t have invaded the country with the benefit of hindsight. It was the first major stumble of Bush’s bid for his party’s nomination and revealed flaws in the onetime front-runner’s candidacy that would prove to be fatal.
For now, Biden continues to dominate early surveys, helped by near-universal name recognition, a nostalgia for the Barack Obama presidency, and a perception among many Democrats that he’s the safest choice to defeat Trump. A CNN poll conducted last week found Biden leading the pack with 32%, ahead of nearest rival Sanders, who had 18%.
“This is a hard decision a lot of us are facing. We know everything we need to know about Joe Biden — he’s fantastic,” Kris Schultz, a member of the New Hampshire house of representatives, said after a recent Biden rally in Manchester. “I’m not sure everyone in the progressive caucus would agree with me.”