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Joe Biden’s Soft Center

With every course correction, the 2020 front-runner reminds voters that beneath the polished image lies a politician searching for a sweet spot.

Drew Angerer/Getty

Earlier this month, Joe Biden made a major change to his political platform—and no one noticed.

Extrapolating on his criminal justice position—which, given his pivotal role in the drafting of the 1994 crime bill, is considered by many to be his biggest liability—Biden “gave a long-winded answer,” at a town hall in New Hampshire, per Politico. “He defended his crime bill, advocated for reforms to the criminal justice system involving nonviolent and drug offenders, and said he was proud of his work with President Barack Obama to cut the federal prison population by 3,800. Then, unprompted, Biden added: ‘By the way, congratulations to ya’ll ending the death penalty here.’”

It was, as Politico noted, an ambiguous answer. But it seems to signal a significant change in Biden’s thinking, one that would move him more into the mainstream of Democratic presidential contenders (right now, Biden and Montana Governor Steve Bullock are the only Democratic candidates who support the continued use of the death penalty). The New Hampshire anecdote also just happened to surface (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not) immediately in the wake of the uproar over Biden’s praise of two segregationist former Senate colleagues.

Biden’s campaign is built, in part, on his well-manicured authenticity. His avuncular persona, the fact that he was for much of his career (by Senate standards) middle-class, even his personal, often creepy interactions with voters are meant to communicate an intimacy and down-to-earth quality that most politicians lack. But when it comes to communicating what he actually believes, Biden often stumbles. His quasi-endorsement of abolishing the death penalty is a case in point: It reads like a politician putting his finger to the wind, trying to guess where public sentiment lies.

The Biden campaign wouldn’t comment on his New Hampshire remark, so it’s not clear if this apparently newfound opposition to the death penalty will make it into his larger campaign platform. But it’s a shift that is reminiscent of his change in attitude on the Hyde Amendment, which blocks government funding for most abortions, earlier in the campaign. That change happened even more abruptly. Biden first affirmed his decades-long support for the restriction, sparking a massive outcry from the party’s base; then, days later, in a move that reeked of damage control, he reversed his position, citing the wave of anti-abortion laws passed by states across the country. (Symone Sanders, a strategist who worked on the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign and currently advises Biden, appears to have also played a role. The Atlantic’s Edward Isaac-Devore reported that she confronted Biden, pointing out the Hyde Amendment “disproportionally affected poor women and women of color without easy access to abortion.”) “Circumstances have changed,” said Biden, keeping with his general refusal to admit that he’d made mistakes.

Biden’s late-in-life metamorphoses are not unwelcome—they return him to a place within the mainstream of his party, and mark a retreat from many of the indefensible positions he once took on social issues and crime. But these shifts also reek of insincerity, the kinds of deathbed conversions meant to put out the fires started by Biden’s own stated policy preferences. They are reflections of a cautious political career in which Biden has endeavored to do everything in his power to remain the party’s center. With a couple of years out of electoral politics, he is now stumbling to figure out where that is.

There is little explanation from Biden on why he would have shifted his thinking on either issue. Although “circumstances” may “have changed” on Roe recently, abortion rights have been under threat for decades. Biden’s position on criminal justice seems to have evolved somewhat—he and President Obama worked to slightly reduce the federal inmate population—from where he was in the 1980s and 1990s, when he was proud to consider himself one of the most aggressive “anti-crime” politicians in the Senate. But, as the 1994 crime bill has become a political issue once again, thanks to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 candidacy and now his own, Biden has mounted a full-throated defense, arguing that the bill is misunderstood and that many of its contributions, including the hiring of tens of thousands of police officers, are being undervalued.

These abrupt shifts also undercut Biden’s core argument: That his experience is what makes him the best candidate to return America to a mythical pre-Trump period where Democrats and Republicans held hands and sang kumbaya. Instead, the course corrections are tacit acknowledgments—even if Biden’s incoherence means it’s never made explicit—that the past he pines for was often a horrible and dangerous one, particularly for women and people of color. And, with every revision, voters are reminded that Biden’s legislative history—whether on abortion, crime, finance, or Iraq—doesn’t match where many Democratic voters are today.

“The former vice president has no choice but to change almost every position he’s ever taken,” Democratic strategist Colin Strother told Politico. “We’ve seen it with a couple positions and we’re going to see it more.” The question will be, reaching back to another of Biden’s past lives, is that change we can believe in?