Is the Democratic Party Too Extreme for Biden’s Balancing Act?

The Catholic candidate has been willing to depart further from Church teachings on abortion, in order to advance his candidacy, but to date there is little evidence that this is yielding political dividends.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event at Sun City Macdonald Ranch Feb. 14 in Henderson, Nevada.
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event at Sun City Macdonald Ranch Feb. 14 in Henderson, Nevada. (photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden has widely been regarded as the Democratic front-runner in the 2020 U.S. presidential race due to good polling and wide name recognition — but his fourth-place and fifth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire have led to a great deal of uncertainty for his campaign.

In fact, Biden’s long political history, coupled with a changing Democratic Party, has proven a challenge as he aims to regain momentum.

On certain issues, including key moral issues like abortion and religious freedom, Biden has moved far left of center — and away from the teachings of the Church, despite his frequent assertions of his own Catholic faith — and in the weeks ahead, Biden will discover if his leftward shift will sway enough Democratic primary voters to win the party’s presidential nomination.

The Democratic primary field has shifted so much that The Washington Post editorial board recently declared there are no “centrists,” noting that “every major Democratic candidate is running on an agenda to the left of Mr. Obama’s.”

That being said, Biden is not as far left as some of his opponents are on policies like “Medicare for All,” and he has challenged Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont on how they would manage its hefty price tag. Rather than government-run health care that the other front-runners are advocating, Biden described his health-care plan on his campaign website as “a public health-insurance option like Medicare,” building on “Obamacare” (Affordable Care Act) and expanding its subsidies.

This is just one area in which Biden is portraying himself as building off the legacy of the Obama administration rather than making a shift farther left.

In his recently released immigration plan, Biden stopped short of calls for decriminalizing illegal border crossings, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and halting deportations. He focused on strengthening the existing immigration system with a new visa category that allows countries to apply for higher numbers of immigrants, he would end criminal prosecutions that separate families, and he would focus on deporting only those who posed a threat to national security and public safety.

However, in other areas, Biden has increasingly embraced his party’s ideas. His plan to combat climate change, while not as expensive as “The Green New Deal,” would cost a cool $1.7 trillion to achieve 100% clean energy and net-zero emissions by 2050.


Catholicism Highlighted

Alluding to his Catholic faith has been a long-standing feature of Biden’s political career, especially regarding “social justice” issues such as immigration reform, poverty alleviation and protection of the environment.

In a Dec. 29 commentary published by Religion News Service, in which he asserted he is running for president “to restore the soul of our nation,” Biden ascribed his approach to the values he learned “growing up in a Catholic, middle-class family in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Claymont, Delaware. I learned them at my father’s dinner table, at Sunday Mass and at St. Paul’s and Holy Rosary Elementary. The nuns there taught us reading, writing, math and history — as well as core concepts of decency, fair play and virtue. They took as a starting point the teaching from the Gospel of Matthew: ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

The commentary also specifically cited Pope Francis with respect to environmental advocacy.

“My faith teaches me that we should be a nation that not only accepts the truth of the climate crisis, but leads the world in addressing it,” he stated. “Pope Francis is right in Laudato Si: ‘Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.’”

Direct appeals to Catholic voters have been a part of Biden’s strategy, like having the Sisters of St. Francis write letters attesting to his faith in Iowa. Pew polling in January found that Biden, despite contradicting Catholic teaching in areas of abortion and same-sex “marriage,” had the highest support from Catholic and Protestant Democratic voters. And according to earlier EWTN/Real Clear Politics polling, of the Democratic candidates, Biden commanded the support of 29% of Catholic voters, followed by Sanders at 24% and Warren at 9%.

Michael Wear, the former director of faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 campaign, told the Register that, for Biden, his faith is “a source of the familiarity that voters have with him.”

Wear cautioned against drawing “any huge sweeping conclusions regarding how faith has impacted his campaign,” but emphasized that “the main thing here is how tightly woven his Catholic faith and the sort of culture of American Catholicism is to just his identity and how voters view him.”

“There is a respect that the former vice president has for the role that faith plays in communities around this country that is not felt and is not reflected in some of the other campaigns,” Wear said of the 2020 Democratic field.


Progressive Dissent From Church Teachings

But while Biden frequently highlights his faith on the campaign trail, he increasingly has broken with official Church teaching on the issue of abortion over the course of his political career. He has shifted even further left on abortion in the past year, flipping on his past opposition to taxpayer funding of abortion.

He also argued that legislation should be pursued by Congress to codify the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion into federal law.

In the most recent Democratic debate Feb. 7, Biden said of abortion, “I’m the reason why this right wasn’t taken away a long time ago, because I almost single-handedly made sure that Robert Bork did not get on the court.” He was referencing his lead role in 1987, as the then-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in torpedoing the nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court of Bork, whose conservative legal perspectives had made him the target of various progressive political constituencies, especially abortion activists.

That statement stands in stark contrast to one he made as recently as 2006, in an interview with Texas Monthly.

“I do not view abortion as a choice and a right,” he said at the time. “I think it’s always a tragedy, and I think that it should be rare and safe, and I think we should be focusing on how to limit the number of abortions. There ought to be able to have a common ground and consensus as to do that.”

Biden also has a mixed history on religious freedom. He was mocked on social media for a campaign advertisement saying “we need a president who respects religious freedom” in relation to the Trump administration’s travel prohibition on certain countries. The tweet received many replies, including one from President Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., referencing the Obama administration’s yearslong legal actions against the Little Sisters of the Poor over their religious objection to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

Despite voting for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993, Biden now supports the “Equality Act,” proposed federal legislation that would largely nullify RFRA by removing the ability under RFRA to cite religious freedom as a defense against discrimination claims. The bill would add sexual orientation and gender identity to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act without religious-freedom exemptions.

In June, Biden declared the Equality Act his No. 1 legislative priority as president. His support for enshrining “LGBT” agendas into federal law via the legislation — which the U.S. bishops have publicly opposed — builds on the lead role he earlier took in pushing the Obama administration to dramatically change direction on the redefinition of marriage, away from Obama’s declaration of support for the marriage of one man and one woman during the 2008 campaign to arguing in favor of same-sex “marriage” before the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Obergefell case that resulted in its legalization nationally in 2015.

The following year, Biden was criticized by Catholic leaders for officiating at a same-sex “marriage” ceremony at his vice-presidential residence.


Vanishing Middle Ground

While Biden’s interpretation of Catholicism may appeal strongly to one section of self-identified Catholic voters, the rebukes he has received from bishops over the years as his stances on moral issues have evolved, and a recent Communion denial over his abortion stance at a Catholic church in South Carolina, have highlighted his deepening break from some foundational Catholic moral teachings of his faith.

On the abortion issue, Wear said of Biden’s stance on Hyde, “Because he flipped, the left has sort of accepted that.” He pointed out that in the most recent debate, his opponents could have pressed him on the issue, “but we haven’t really seen that from the left.”

Marist polling in January found that most Americans (60%) oppose taxpayer funding of abortion, and 65% would limit abortion to the first trimester, including 44% of Democrats.

Despite Biden’s recent movement on the issue, Wear told the Register that Biden remained a moderate on abortion, at least in comparison to the rest of the field. “He speaks with a sense of moral reservation that is more reflective of not just where the American people are, but where broad swathes of the Democratic Party voters are, even if the advocacy groups are increasingly opposed to any expression of moral reservation when it comes to this issue,” Wear said of Biden’s discussion of abortion.

He pointed out that with the exception of Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Biden is the only candidate who would support “some limits” on late-term abortions, according to Politico. However, Politico has acknowledged that Biden’s stance on those limits remains a mystery, as he has avoided questioning on the issue.

The Biden campaign did not respond to the Register’s request for comment regarding where he would place abortion limits.


Political Hazards

As Biden has tacked more sharply toward his opponents over the course of his current presidential campaign, even some of his fellow Catholic Democrats have felt impelled to point out the potential political hazards.

Commenting in a September 2019 Associated Press article, Steven Krueger, president of the Catholic Democrats lobby group that backed the presidential campaigns of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, noted that “the far-left wing of the party has had influence on a number of issues, particularly on the issue of abortion; that is not going to serve candidates well once they’re in the general election.”

Added Kreuger, “And it’s very difficult to kind of tack back to the middle once you take a stand on something as black and white as whether or not you want to repeal” federal restrictions on abortion funding.

And his poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, and subsequent polling that indicates that for the first time since he entered the race he has lost his front-runner status and now trails Sanders nationwide, suggest that tacking left has failed to attract the support of Democratic progressives, who exert an outsize influence during the party’s primaries.

Biden’s underperformance in New Hampshire, where he won the support of less than 10% of Democratic primary voters, has been especially damaging, according to pundits.

“Joe Biden limped away from New Hampshire with a devastating fifth-place finish, zero delegates and the viability of his campaign in question,” Politico commented in a Feb. 12 report on the results. “It’s a precipitous fall for the former vice president, who entered the 2020 race last year with a lead in nearly every national and state poll.”


Pro-Life Perspective

Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser for the Catholic Association and a former lobbyist for National Right to Life, told the Register, “It speaks volumes that Biden is trying to be in the centrist lane in this primary race, and yet even in the centrist lane he has had to adopt the most extreme abortion positions.”

“He’s talking about a litmus test for judges; he has flip-flopped on taxpayer funding of abortion,” Ferguson pointed out. “He talks about codifying Roe v. Wade. He voted multiple times to ban partial-birth abortion; that’s a bill that had criminal penalties for abortion doctors, and I think that he will flip-flop on that, too.”

The Biden campaign also did not respond to the Register’s request for comment regarding his current position on partial-birth abortion bans.

“I would never question the sincerity of anyone’s faith, but the Catholic faith is 100% clear that we must protect innocent life,” Ferguson said, referencing Pope Francis’ recent comment that protecting unborn life was a “preeminent issue” for the Catholic voter. “Joe Biden’s position on abortion is 100% at odds with that teaching.”

Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.