For the first six weeks of his campaign, Joe Biden largely drifted above the fray, a front-runner beyond the reach of the masses of the Democratic presidential field. His rivals publicly welcomed him into the race, and not a cross word was said about his record.
Things are different now.
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The hits started coming last week, in thinly veiled references to Biden’s center-left record, his Washington insiderdom, his advanced age.
“We cannot go back to the old ways,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, the candidate polling closest to Biden in the Democratic presidential primary, said in California this past weekend.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren criticized “some Democrats in Washington” who “believe the only changes we can get are tweaks and nudges,” while South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg warned Democrats that “the riskiest thing we could do is try too hard to play it safe.”
Then came a full week of Biden fumbling.
First, the former vice president appeared to lift passages from previously published documents for his own climate plan, recalling the plagiarism scandal that marred his failed presidential campaign in 1987. Next, after infuriating whole swaths of the Democratic Party by reaffirming his support for the Hyde Amendment — a measure banning federal funding for most abortions — Biden on Thursday reversed himself, saying he no longer supports the measure.
“It’s not just a flip-flop. It’s like a double axel flip-flop, and he’s not even nailing the landing,” said Democracy for America Chairman Charles Chamberlain, whose group has supported Warren and Sanders in the past.
For Biden, Chamberlain said, “It does seem like we’re hurtling ever and ever closer to the fateful day when the train completely goes off the tracks.”
Before Biden’s reversal on the Hyde Amendment, top-tier Democrats took to social media and television audiences to reassert their opposition to the measure — then watched as longer-shot candidates attempted to draft off the controversy, as well.
“Bravo to @JoeBiden for doing the right thing and reversing his longstanding support for the Hyde Amendment. It takes courage to admit when you’re wrong, especially when those decisions affect millions of people,” Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), wrote on Twitter.
Moulton, a Marine veteran who is running for president, then broadened his target to include Biden’s 2003 vote supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“Now do the Iraq War,” Moulton wrote.
The tweet, though popular, was inaccurate — the former vice president said as far back as 2005 that he regretted his vote authorizing the invasion. Still, the effortless pairing of criticisms on abortion rights and military intervention served as a reminder of the liabilities saddling a candidate who has held public office for decades — casting votes on myriad issues on which the Democratic Party has since shifted left.
“This ain’t bean bag,” said Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way. “He knew this was going to come, and he knew there would be moments when things got screwed up. … I think they had a rough couple of days, but no campaign can go wire to wire without rough days.”
By addressing the Hyde Amendment now, Bennett said, Biden has “nipped it in the bud.”
But Biden’s setback did open a new fissure in the campaign — as Biden’s competitors begin to draw more explicit distinctions with him and leverage his stumbles for a turn in the spotlight.
“Look. He’s running for president,” Marianne Williamson, the self-help author running in the Democratic primary, said of Biden’s changing position on the Hyde Amendment on CNN on Friday. “People came up to him and said you’re really behind the times on this, Joe. You’ve already got a problem with women, all of that, and so he changed his mind.”
For low-polling candidates such as Moulton or Williamson, there is almost no downside to engaging directly with the leading candidate in the polls. But higher-profile contenders face a more difficult calculation. Republicans who confronted Donald Trump during the Republican primary in 2016 were not rewarded — and in some cases were hurt — by confronting the front-runner. And candidates are aware that even if Democrats disagree with Biden on policy, their opinion of him is overwhelmingly favorable.
But Biden’s stumble on the Hyde Amendment offered Democrats a significant, policy-focused issue on which to challenge him. Sanders said on Twitter that “there is #NoMiddleGround on women’s rights.” And when asked at an MSNBC town hall whether Biden was wrong to support the Hyde Amendment, Warren answered, “Yes.”
Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman from Texas, told CBS News before Biden’s reversal on the Hyde Amendment, “I hope that Joe Biden rethinks his position on this issue. … Perhaps he doesn’t have all the facts. Perhaps he doesn’t understand who the Hyde Amendment hurts most. And again, it’s lower income communities, communities of color. I would ask that he rethink his position on this.”
After he did, Democrats were left to measure the wreckage.
“He’s having to settle into the reality that things have changed, that the topography has shifted,” said Colin Strother, a veteran Democratic strategist in Texas. “That’s not to denigrate his age or his experience, but it’s not 1995 anymore, and there are things like the Hyde Amendment, to use the most recent example, that don’t fit in the values of our party.”
Biden can take solace in the fact that one bad week eight months before the Iowa caucuses may not leave a lasting mark — attention will soon turn to the next spate of candidate appearances, to the first Democratic primary debates and to the next fundraising deadline at the end of the month. In any case, the days when his rivals treated him with kid gloves are likely gone for good.
“If you want to survive, and you want to get the nomination, you have to kill the bear,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic strategist based in New York. “He’s the biggest bear in the woods. … If he survives and he gets to Iowa, he’s going to be tough to stop.”
Pia Deshpande contributed to this report.