H. L. Mencken, the famed crusty commentator, said one century ago: “A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears on the ground.”
I thought of that quip the other day when former Vice President Joe Biden magically declared that he supports federal Medicaid funding for poor women seeking abortions. Biden had staunchly opposed such funding for decades - and had restated his opposition as recently as last Wednesday. But then, on Thursday, he suddenly announced his support, because, in his words, “circumstances had changed.”
You bet they had.
Biden is a front-running candidate for president, and even though polls show him beating Donald Trump by margins that exceed those of his Democratic rivals, he still needs to hose down liberals who think he’s too much of an old-school moderate. Most urgently, he needed last week to get himself in sync with a party base that supports abortion access for all women regardless of income - especially now, with Roe v. Wade under attack as never before. So, in response, Biden made the decision to speedily flip-flop on federal Medicaid funding. All Democratic presidential nominees since 1992 have supported that funding.
In recent days, liberal activists and pundits long hostile to Biden have been quick to pounce on the guy, painting his policy reversal as a sign of weakness. But all politicians - indeed, often the most successful ones - are wont to be flexible from time to time, recalibrating their views for reasons of political expediency or exigent circumstances.
Some of our biggest flip-floppers are lionized on monuments. Thomas Jefferson hated public debt so much that he called for a constitutional provision that would strip the government of its power to borrow money. Then, as president, he reversed himself. He bought the Louisiana Territory from France with borrowed money, and justified it by saying, “Is it not better that the opposite land of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children than by strangers of another family?”
Abraham Lincoln campaigned for president, and marked his 1861 inaugural, by promising that the feds would not force existing slave states to free their chattel. He initially defended “the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively.” We know what happened to that promise.
One of the most notorious flip-floppers was Franklin D. Roosevelt, known back in the day as a chameleon of no particular fixed convictions. He stumped for the White House in 1932 by promising fiscal conservatism and a balanced budget; after he won, he launched the New Deal. He often shifted leftward only when liberal activists (including the First Lady) pressured him to do so. Frances Perkins, one of his Cabinet members, said that FDR was guided by “his feeling that nothing in human judgment is final. One may courageously take the step that seems right today because it can be modified tomorrow.”
More recently, Barack Obama reversed himself on same-sex marriage. He had opposed it as a senatorial and presidential candidate, but as president he endorsed it and explained his change of mind: “Attitudes evolve, including mine.”
In fact, Obama - the only Democrat since FDR to be elected twice with a majority of the vote - had a string of reversals. He vowed as a candidate to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, but as president he kept it open. He vowed as a candidate that he would not appoint lobbyists to help run his administration, but then he did. He campaigned against extending the Bush tax cuts that favored the rich, but then signed legislation extending the cuts. He said early in his tenure that secret campaign donations were “a threat to democracy,” but his 2012 re-election bid was buoyed by Democratic groups that took secret donations.
But John Kenneth Galbraith, the renowned economist who served four presidents, once said that the best chief executives typically made “pragmatic accommodations to whatever needed to be done.” Joe Biden’s Democratic critics are predictably condemning his reversal on federal abortion funding in a bid to lower his poll standing (much to the Trump team’s delight, because they’d love to run against someone else), framing his pragmatism as rank opportunism, but one can easily view this episode as evidence that he’s willing to be flexible, that he’s responsive to the views of his constituents.
And isn’t that what we want from a politician?
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.