The Old (Young) Biden vs. The New (Old) Biden I

An Irish-Catholic politician, born in Scranton, Pa., blessed with the gift of gab, an influential leader of his party with a very progressive record but someone with a strong appeal to Reagan Democrats, union members, blue collar workers…. You might think I’m describing Joe Biden — selected as Obama’s VP, according to the Los Angeles Times and others, because of his “potential appeal to white, blue-collar Democrats” — but I’m not. I was actually describing someone with whom it is quite useful to compare both the old (young) and the new (old) Biden: Bob Casey, the former governor of Pennsylvania.

Here is an affectionate description of Casey written by the liberal journalist Nat Hentoff in The New Republic shortly after Casey’s death in 2000:

As governor of Pennsylvania from 1987 to 1994, Casey created model school-based child-care programs that offered infants and preschoolers–including poor children–full-day services and before- and after-school programs. That way, teenage parents could stay in school and poor adults could go to work knowing their children were safe. He lobbied unsuccessfully for universal health care in his state, but, failing that, as The New York Times reported in its May 31 obituary, “he did sign a bill providing health insurance for children whose families were too poor to pay for it but whose incomes were too high to be eligible for public assistance.” Before breast cancer became a political cliche, Casey invested $1 million in awareness and screening for the disease and required HMOs to pay for annual mammograms for women over 40. Harvard University pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton described Casey’s multidimensional health care programs for women and children as “a model for the rest of the country.”

The son of a coal-miner-turned-lawyer, Casey believed in the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he doggedly rebuilt it in Pennsylvania….

Biden and Casey have much more in common than their birth in Scranton, their Irish Catholic identity, and their successful careers as progressive Democrats. They shared, at least for a while, a principled, even passionate, opposition to abortion. A big difference between them, however, is that Casey never abandoned his opposition, and as a result he was shunned by his party.

The Democratic Party, writes Hentoff, treated Casey “with disdain.”

As the 1992 Democratic Convention in New York approached, Casey told me he expected, in light of his policy accomplishments and political loyalty, to be a speaker, maybe even the keynote speaker. But he wasn’t the keynote speaker. The honor of nominating Clinton went to New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who ignited the crowd by declaring, “Bill Clinton believes, as we all here do, in the first principle of our Democratic commitment: the politics of inclusion.”

Casey was not asked to speak. In fact, he and his Pennsylvania delegation were exiled to the farthest reaches of Madison Square Garden — because Casey was pro-life. It didn’t matter that, under his leadership, state contracts to minority- and women-owned firms had increased more than 1,500 percent in five years, or that he had appointed more female Cabinet members than any Democratic governor in the country, or that he had appointed the first black woman ever to sit on a state Supreme Court. Ron Brown, chief convention organizer and the Democratic Party’s symbol of minority inclusion, told Casey, “Your views are out of line with those of most Americans.”

Casey had the misfortune of being present during a great shift in the Democratic Party. A mere six years earlier, on September 26, 1986, then-Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas had assured the head of his state’s chapter of the National Right to Life Committee, “I am opposed to abortion and to government funding of abortion.” But, by the early ‘90s, the Democrats, seeking the votes of upper-middle-class Republican women, were de-emphasizing economic protection and stressing cultural libertarianism. And, just to make sure everyone got the message, Democratic strategists invited Kathy Taylor, a pro-choice Pennsylvania Republican who had helped defeat Casey’s progressive tax reforms, to the New York convention. She appeared onstage pledging the National Abortion Rights Action League’s allegiance to the Clinton-Gore team. Then DNC officials sent Taylor, with a camera crew in tow, to find Casey in “Outer Mongolia,” as he put it, to further humiliate him. Tipped off, he declined the national exposure. Shortly before Casey left the convention, Al Gore called him to apologize for any embarrassment. The governor told me dryly that he doubted Gore was speaking from the heart.

…. Casey’s politics were simple, but they were so heretical that in the language of ’90s American politics they quite literally didn’t have a name. And so last week, in a final slap, the Washington Post, New York Times, and CNN obituaries identified the former governor as a “conservative Democrat.”

James Carville worked on Casey’s 1986 and 1990 reelection campaigns. In a June 1 interview with National Review Online, Carville said of his former boss: “You have no idea what a deep sense of probity he had…. He was just the kind of person that made the whole Washington establishment completely uncomfortable…. They could never understand him.” Carville also called his former partner, Begala, … “a Casey protégé.” I wonder how they felt, and what they did, while Casey was being humiliated in 1992. As Bob Casey was being driven from the Democratic Party because he refused to sacrifice his beliefs, they ascended further up the party ladder, going to work for a politician who didn’t have such problems. And, when Casey died, President Clinton said he admired the governor’s “commitment to principle.”

I’m not in a position to say that Sen. Biden sacrificed his beliefs, but it is clear that not very long after he arrived in Washington and began his own ascent up the party ladder he did, unlike Bob Casey, abandon at least his political and legal opposition to abortion.

He has had to explain his evolving position a number of times, and has done so with varying degrees of success. Here is a typical attempt, from a Meet The Press appearance on April 29, 2007:

Q: You have changed your position on abortion. When you came to the Senate, you believed that Roe v. Wade was not correctly decided and that you also believed the right of abortion was not secured by the Constitution. Why did you change your mind?

A: Well, I was 29 years old when I came to the US Senate, and I have learned a lot. Look, I’m a practicing Catholic, and it is the biggest dilemma for me in terms of comporting my religious and cultural views with my political responsibility.

Q: Do you believe that life begins at conception?

A: I am prepared to accept my church’s view. I think it’s a tough one. I have to accept that on faith. That’s why the late-term abortion ban, where there’s clearly viability.

He now “strongly support[s] Roe v. Wade,” but his opposition to partial-birth abortion may leave some voters confused. From that same Meet The Press appearance:

Q: You supported the ban on partial-birth abortions or late-term abortions.

A: I did and I do.

Q. And the Supreme Court came and basically upheld that ban, and you criticized the Supreme Court. [JSR: The case in question was Gonzales v. Carhart, decided April 18, 2007]

A: They upheld the ban, and then they engaged in what we lawyers call dicta that is frightening. You had an intellectually dishonest rationale for an honest justification for upholding the ban. I know this is going to sound arcane–they blurred the distinction between the government’s role in being involved in the first day and the ninth month. They became paternalistic, talking about the court could consider the impact on the mother and keeping her from making a mistake. This is all code for saying, “Here we come to undo Roe v. Wade.” What they did is not so much the decision, the actual outcome of the decision, it’s what attended the decision that portends for a real hard move on the court to undo the right of privacy. That’s what I’m criticizing about the court’s decision.

Well, that clears that up.

In Promises to Keep, a campaign autobiography written for his current run for president (and, as it turned out, now for vice president), Biden described his predicament as follows (pp. 104-105):

I remember vividly the first time, in 1973, I had to go to the floor to vote on abortion. A fellow Senator asked how I would vote. “My position is that I am personally opposed to abortion, but I don’t think I have a right to impose my [view] on the rest of society. I’ve thought a lot about it, and my position probably doesn’t please anyone. I think the government should stay out completely. I will not vote to overturn the Court’s decision. I will not vote to curtail a woman’s right to choose abortion. But I will also not vote to use federal funds to fund abortion.”

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.

That “middle of the road” position on abortion has not prevented Biden from voting NO on legislation that would have required the SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) to define the term “‘targeted low-income child’ to provide that such term includes the period from conception to birth, for eligibility for child health assistance,” or from voting NO against legislation

To increase funding for the vigorous enforcement of a prohibition against taking minors across State lines in circumvention of laws requiring the involvement of parents in abortion decisions consistent with the Child Custody Protection Act

or from voting NO on legislation that would have required “notifying parents of minors who get out-of-state abortions,” or from voting NO on legislation requiring a “criminal penalty for harming unborn fetus during other crime,” or from voting NO “on maintaining ban on Military Base Abortions,” to give a few examples (all listed here). Biden’s “middle of the road” position has earned him a current rating of 0% from the National Right to Life Committee.

I’ve discussed the “I’m personally opposed, but…” rationale offered by Biden and other pro-choice Catholic Democrats several times, at length and, I hope, depth — here, here, and here — and I urge you to read (or better yet, re-read) those posts now. Here’s a small taste (more like distaste) of my view of that argument from the most recent of those posts, back in 2004:

I have already said quite a bit … about the tension — and I believe ultimate incoherence — of liberal Catholics’ attempt to have their cake and eat it too on the abortion question, an attempt that rests on the device of stressing their “personal” opposition but their refusal, ostensibly because of their respect for the wall of separation between church and state, to impose their personal religious belief on others. Now Kerry, speaking last weekend to editors in Dubuque, joins Cuomo and Califano with, characteristically, a rather blunt, unsubtle version of that argument that goes farther than they did, affirming that he believes life begins at conception.

I oppose abortion, personally. I don’t like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception. But I can’t take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist . . . who doesn’t share it. We have separation of church and state in the United States of America.

Astute readers will have noticed that I haven’t myself taken any position on abortion itself. It is a wrenching issue, and I believe reasonable, principled people can disagree about it. I am also not unsympathetic to the bind pro-abortion Catholics find themselves in. Still, I believe that trumpeting both “personal” opposition but active political support is an unsuccessful, pusillanimous, straddling cop-out, reminiscent as I argued in my earlier posts of Stephen A. Douglas’s “personal” opposition to slavery while working as hard as he could politically to enable its expansion. Can you imagine Cuomo/Califano/Kerry saying they “personally” don’t like slavery, would never themselves own a slave, but don’t feel they have the right to legislate that belief “on” an actual or would-be slaveholder?

Biden, to repeat, stated on his April 2007 Meet The Press appearance that

I’m a practicing Catholic, and it is the biggest dilemma for me in terms of comporting my religious and cultural views with my political responsibility.

Biden followed a different path from Bob Casey. Where Casey never compromised or attenuated his pro-life principles, Biden “comported” his religious views to his view of his political responsibility by, like most ambitions Democratic Catholic politicians, creating what might be termed a “wall of separation” — not between church and state, but between his “personal” views and his political positions.

That compromise, if that’s what it was, worked, and now Biden has ascended to the pinnacle of his party, or only one step (or, possibly later, one heartbeat) away from the pinnacle. So now the question is, will this work politically for the party? That is, can a functionally pro-choice Irish Catholic Democrat successfully appeal to Catholic, blue collar voters?

So far, apparently not. The most recent Zogby poll finds McCain-Palin leading Obama-Biden by just under 4%, and according to John Zogby “[t]he striking thing here in this poll is that McCain has pulled ahead among Catholics by double-digits.”

That finding must have caused a shock in the Obama campaign. I wonder if that’s why an article appeared in the New York Times yesterday under the headline, “As a Matter of Faith, Biden Says Life Begins at Conception.” It begins:

WASHINGTON — Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee for vice president, departed Sunday from party doctrine on abortion rights, declaring that as a Catholic, he believes life begins at conception. But the Delaware senator added that he would not impose his personal views on others, and had indeed voted against curtailing abortion rights and against criminalizing abortion.

The position Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. gave Sunday differs from party doctrine.

While Mr. Biden’s views may not be new to Democrats in his circle, his comments, in an interview on “Meet the Press” on NBC, came at a time when his party is confronted with a new face: Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, whose anti-abortion stance and decision to give birth just five months ago to a baby with Down syndrome have revved up the conservative base of her party.

In the interview Sunday, Mr. Biden tried to walk the line between the staunch abortion-rights advocates in his party and his own religious beliefs. While he said he did not often talk about his faith, he said of those who disagree with him: “They believe in their faith and they believe in human life, and they have differing views as to when life — I’m prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception.”

Given the new threat represented by Sarah Palin’s appeal to Catholic voters, maybe the new (old) Biden is now finding it necessary to return to his roots (how many times has Scranton been mentioned lately?) in an attempt to recapture some of the appeal of the old (young) Biden, channeling the politically ex-communicated Bob Casey in the process.

There were two other items in this Times story that I found odd. First, in acknowledging that his answer to Rick Warren’s question about when life begins — “above my pay grade,” he had said — “was a little too flip,” Obama went on to say:

“All I meant to communicate was that I don’t presume to be able to answer these kinds of theological questions.

“What I do know is that abortion is a moral issue,” Mr. Obama continued, “that it’s one that families struggle with all the time, and that in wrestling with those issues, I don’t think that the government criminalizing the choices that families make is the best answer for reducing abortions. I think the better answer — and this was reflected in the Democratic platform — is to figure out, how do we make sure that young mothers, or women who have a pregnancy that’s unexpected or difficult, have the kind of support they need to make a whole range of choices, including adoption and keeping the child.”

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that in constructions like the above usually the least-preferred options, the ones you’re trying to de-emphasize or disguise, are listed last, after the “including.” The admissions committee considers a whole array of qualifications, including race. Etc.

Second, there may be another example of the Times itself simply serving as an Obama echo chamber. Consider this sentence, which follows the above passage:

At the Democratic convention in Denver, the party’s platform was indeed expanded to embrace anti-abortion views.

Was it really? I haven’t read the whole thing, and don’t plan to, so perhaps Kate Phillips (the Times reporter) is right. But here is the entire section on “Choice” from the final 2008 Democratic Platform:

The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.

The Democratic Party also strongly supports access to comprehensive affordable family planning services and age-appropriate sex education which empower people to make informed choices and live healthy lives. We also recognize that such health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions.

The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre- and post-natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs.

If the Democratic Platform “was indeed expanded to embrace anti-abortion views,” as the Times asserts, it certainly wasn’t in the section on Choice, where one would expect to find it. Indeed, the only places I could find the word “abortion” by searching the whole Platform was in the Choice section quoted above.

I wonder if anyone has told Joe Biden that the Platform he’s running on advocates what he claims to oppose — government funding of abortions.

[The more astute among you will have noticed a “I” following the title of this post. Yes, that does indeed imply there will be a “II” coming along presently, featuring a similar conflict between the old (young) and new (old) Bidens.]

UPDATE

The Catholic Church, speaking through Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, was not pleased with Sen. Biden’s foray into theology.

The statement from Cardinal Justin Rigali and Bishop William Lori said Biden, who appeared Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” is the latest case of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy correcting a Catholic politician.

Asked on the program about when life begins, Biden said: “Look, I know when it begins for me. It’s a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I am prepared to accept the teachings in my church.”

He added that while he believes life begins “at the moment of conception,” it would inappropriate to impose that view on others in a pluralistic society.

The bishops said Biden was right to say human life begins at conception. But the church “does not teach this as matter of faith; it acknowledges it as a matter of objective fact,” they said.

“Protection of innocent human life is not an imposition of personal religious conviction but a demand of justice,” they added.

Say What? (2)

  1. David September 9, 2008 at 10:32 am | | Reply

    I don’t understand the importance attached to abortion as a political issue, but the reminiscences of Nat Hentoff Re the 1992 convention remind us that it has long assumed singular importance, with Roe v. Wade as holiest of holies for both sides. Pro-life Democrats could reconcile their conflicting personal views and political reality within their party by re-federalizing the issue by the overturning of Roe v Wade, returning to state legislatures the power to make abortion laws. State legislators would thus be accountable for their votes on abortion legislation (same thing too for gay marriage), freeing the Democrats from their view that the presidency is the only means to protect abortion rights by way of its power to nominate federal judges. I would also encourage pro-life Democrats who are loathe to impose their personal beliefs on others to apply the same standard to the rest of their legislative and governing program, e.g., “I believe strongly that hedge fund managers make too much money, but I understand that this belief may not be shared by everyone so I won’t tax some people just because I think they have too much.”

  2. Mario Cuomo, R.I.P. July 28, 2016 at 3:09 pm |

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