Joe Biden’s Old-Fashioned Pro-Choice Message Still Works

Earlier this month, Joe Biden committed a gaffe by blurting out, at a fundraising event, “I’m a practicing Catholic. I don’t want abortion on demand, but I thought Roe v. Wade was right.” The line became the immediate subject of mockery on the left, woefully out of the step with the style of rhetoric employed by pro-choice activists.

That harsh judgment appears to have congealed into conventional wisdom. Recently, the following passage appeared in the New York Times — not as an op-ed, but as a news story:

“The vice president may be a more natural messenger on abortion than Mr. Biden, an 81-year-old practicing Catholic. Mr. Biden has sometimes expressed discomfort in talking about the issue, even as it has helped power Democrats to unexpected victories since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

At a fund-raiser this month, he used the language of the anti-abortion movement — saying that he opposed “abortion on demand” — while expressing support for abortion rights. The comment was noted with concern by some progressives.”

At this point in his career, with his muffled speaking voice, Biden is not an especially effective messenger for any issue. But the notion that he has a special vulnerability on abortion, because he’s a Catholic who has personal reservations, has little to back it up and is probably closer to the opposite of reality.

Polls show abortion is the issue where Biden commands his strongest advantage over Donald Trump. Pro-choice advocates presumably think he could have an even stronger advantage if he talked about the issue the way they do.

But there’s not much evidence for that belief. One poll testing different pro-choice messages found a candidate who is “personally opposed” to abortion but wishes to reestablish Roe v. Wade outperforms an anti-abortion candidate by 26 points, while a candidate who believes abortion is “a fundamental human right” — the formulation preferred by pro-choice groups — enjoys a margin of just 14 points.

That would, indeed, fit with polling that shows that the public is broadly pro-choice, but only a small minority favors abortion without limits (or, as Biden put it, “on demand”).

Now, it is true that pro-choice advocates have waged a broadly successful campaign to get Democrats to stop talking about abortion the way Biden did and start adopting more positive framing. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton used to routinely call for abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare.” Barack Obama gave a commencement address at Notre Dame largely dedicated to abortion, in which he urged the audience, “let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let’s reduce unintended pregnancies,” and promised to “honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion.”

Why did pro-choice activists get Democrats to abandon this kind of message? Not because the message didn’t work. Activist groups, especially on the left, see it as their job to push politicians to their side. These groups often set out to get politicians to adopt their chosen positions and rhetoric without regard to the political effect. They got Biden to renounce his support for the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortion, even though most polls show the amendment is popular and, more importantly, there was never any realistic prospect Biden could repeal it.

Other progressive groups have likewise pushed Democrats to the left of their Obama-era positions on subjects like immigration, climate, and more. This is one reason why the “emerging Democratic majority” that appeared to be imminent during the Obama era disappeared: Rather than consolidate their majority, Democrats moved to the left.

There’s a certain logic to this activist strategy, especially if you accept the premise that more strident rhetoric shapes can shape the terms of public debate and drive underlying opinion trends to one side or another over the long run. Activist groups also tend to believe that, left to their own devices, politicians will drift toward the most popular stance and need to be nailed down to public commitments they can’t easily renounce.

Notably, social-conservative activists have avoided this. They’ve given Trump a lot of leeway to position himself in public as a moderate on abortion, even though he has presumably given private commitments to advance their agenda by appointing likeminded reactionaries to administrative and judicial positions. Trump himself will be term-limited if he wins, and won’t have to worry much about a backlash.

I am not Catholic, nor do I have any personal moral opposition to abortion. But I very much do want Biden to defeat Donald Trump in the election. One of Biden’s remaining advantages as a candidate is an ability to reach culturally moderate Democrats and independents and emphasize points of agreement, such as “Roe v. Wade was good.” If pro-choice activists want Biden to win the election and advance abortion rights, they’ll let him talk like Joe Biden.

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