Issues & Insights

Candidates’ Consciences For Sale

I&I Editorial

The current frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for President, former Vice President Joe Biden, just reversed his position on the Hyde Amendment, which has prohibited federal funding for almost all abortions since it was first passed in 1976, then partially weakened in 1993 under Bill Clinton and a Democrat-controlled House and Senate.

But this is only one of an array of flip flops by Democrats in the top tier of the contest for the White House.

Biden had supported the Hyde Amendment since at least 1977, but now says “circumstances have changed. I’ve been working through the final details of my health care plan like others in this race and I’ve been struggling with the problems that Hyde now presents” as he seeks an expansion of Medicaid and enactment of the public option President Obama ultimately abandoned in the final version of ObamaCare.

“Folks, the times have changed,” Biden said – something he’s more or less also said regarding his unwelcome touching of women. The public turnaround comes after video surfaced of Biden telling an ACLU operative in South Carolina last month that he would support repeal of the Hyde Amendment, followed by his campaign sending out the mixed signal of claiming he continued to support Hyde.

As his support for legal abortion solidified during his climb to becoming more and more of a national figure, the Catholic former Delaware senator was forbidden from receiving Holy Communion by the bishop of his childhood hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Biden continued to receive when attending Mass in Delaware, however.

What is the price of a politician’s soul? As Shakespeare might have put it, “the campaign’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the would-be President.”

From Adoring To Reviling The NRA

Biden is far from the only Democrat seeking the great prize whose principles have been negotiable. Kirsten Gillibrand, before being handed Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate seat in 2009 as the former first lady became Barack Obama’s secretary of state, was a congresswoman for mostly-rural Dutchess County, two hours north of Manhattan and filled with hunters who like their guns.

Today, running for President, Gillibrand blames the National Rifle Association for opposing gun control measures, and pledged she would “make sure we ban the bump stock, the large magazines, the assault rifles, the military-style weapons.” But previously, Gillibrand was so pro-gun rights that the Sept., 2008 letter she wrote in lavish praise of the NRA now makes for a side-splitting read.

In it, she sounds like one of the furthest-to-the-right Republican members of Congress from the South.

Public housing authorities shouldn’t have the right to ban guns, she declared; “one-gun-a-month” and similar legal limits on firearm purchases “will only curtain [sic] the Constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” Gillibrand wrote; she warned of “the slippery slope of government confiscation of people’s firearms based on the arbitrary whims of politics and public opinion.”

Mandating smart guns “will harm consumers’ ability to use their guns in emergency situations”; Gillibrand touted co-signing the Heller brief in the Supreme Court case that finally confirmed the individual gun ownership right of the Second Amendment; she sponsored a bill to stop Washington DC from enacting further gun control laws; she supported legislation “to prevent disclosure of firearms trace data for non-law enforcement purposes”; and she supported allowing hunting on federal lands, adding: “we need to do all we can to create more hunting lands.”

The senator closed by writing, “I appreciate the work that the NRA does to protect gun owner rights and I look forward to working with you for many years in Congress.”

These days, Gillibrand explains, “I didn’t do the right thing,” but she insists that it “makes me a better candidate for President” and “I think it makes me a better person. Because if you don’t have an ounce of humility to know when you are wrong, how are you going to possibly govern all of America?”

How did her epiphany come about? “Ten years ago when I became a U.S. senator, I recognized that I was only focused on the needs of my upstate district. But I really should’ve been focused on the needs of everyone.” To cap it all, she said, “The truth is I have a very proud rating of F by the NRA now.”

Cash, Cops & Cannabis

In April, Sound Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg changed his position on taking campaign contributions from lobbyists, adding that he won’t let lobbyists use a possible loophole by acting as bundlers for his campaign.

In 2014 as California attorney general, Sen. Kamala Harris, who had previously been San Francisco’s Attorney General, said of police shootings where misconduct is suspected, or even possible racist motives, “I don’t think it would be good public policy to take the discretion from elected district attorneys … I don’t think there’s an inherent conflict …Where there are abuses, we have designed the system to address them.”

But today Harris says, “I believe the best approach is to have independent investigations” conducted from the “first moments of the incident so that we can be certain and sure there’s been a thorough investigation that is not informed by bias and so that there will be justice for all of the people concerned.” Politifact’s “Flip-O-Meter” awarded Harris a “full flop.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, meanwhile, was just caught out by the New York Times on her claim that she always supported the legalization of recreational marijuana. It turns out in a 2011 debate amongst Democrat Senate candidates she supported its medical applications but not its use for pleasure.

Abortion, gun rights, being financially beholden to powerful interests, how best to scrutinize police use of deadly force, drug use – these are all issues with moral dimensions. They’re not the same as compromising, say, a few cents on the exact level of the gas tax.

President Obama similarly “evolved” on the issue of same-sex marriage, from opposing it on moral principle to supporting it when public opinion had shifted significantly in its favor.

Are these switcheroos instances of “humility to know when you are wrong,” as Sen. Gillibrand argues, that make each of the flip-floppers “a better candidate for President” and “a better person”? Are these ambitious politicians obeying their consciences, or selling them off for a shot at reaching the highest office in the land, the most powerful position in the world?

There’s an easy answer. Where are the Democratic candidates for President whose conscience has demanded that they change their views in ways that lessen their chances to get the votes of the ever-more radicalized base of their party? We don’t, for instance, see Sen. Bernie Sanders revealing any newfound fondness for capitalism that emerged from his conscience.

It seems that the only “humility to know when you are wrong” the Democratic hopefuls exhibit is in ways designed to give them a better chance of winning.

— Written by Thomas McArdle

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