For the last several years, a wave of Republican-led state legislatures have passed bans on transgender athletes participating in school sports teams that align with their gender indentity, including high school and college. Until now, Democrats were surprisingly united against these restrictions — but the Biden administration has apparently decided that maybe some of these anti-trans activists have a good point.
Under a new rule that the Education Department proposed Thursday, schools that receive federal funding wouldn’t be able to institute blanket bans on trans people — especially trans girls and women — participating in sports. But schools would be able to choose which sports get to ban trans kids from playing on certain teams. The administration is framing it as a compromise that allows for “flexibility.” It sounds to me more like an attempt to play to the center at the expense of trans rights.
It sounds to me more like an attempt to play to the center at the expense of trans rights.
As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern noted, the new rule is a sharp reversal from when President Joe Biden took office. On the first day of his term, he signed an executive order that declared that children “should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports.” And an Education Department policy directive issued in June 2021 promised the administration would take action if students are denied equal chances to take part in “academic or extracurricular opportunities.”
What changed between now and then? This rule has been in the works for a long time, but the only major shift inside the administration has been the elevation of White House chief of staff Jeff Zients. Unlike his predecessor, Ron Klain, Zients is a known centrist whose accession in early February has coincided with a rightward turn from Biden.
In the last two months, we’ve seen Biden make U-turns on a number of issues and that’s left progressives and allies in the House reeling. First, after initially opposing a GOP-sponsored bill overruling the D.C. Council’s changes to the city’s crime laws, Biden blindsided congressional Democrats by saying he wouldn’t veto the bill. Then his administration approved the Willow Project, a major oil drilling expedition in Alaska — breaking his 2020 campaign pledge that no new drilling would be approved on federal land.
We’ve also seen the administration consider detaining migrant families who cross the border illegally. That would be a shift from the previous practice of releasing families ahead of court dates while tracking them using ankle bracelets and traceable cellphones. In many of these situations, like the proposed Education Department rule, the administration isn’t fully adopting Republican positions. But the new stances are still jarring compared to the first two years of the administration when the White House was often championing fully progressive policies.
Given the staunch support House Democrats in particular have provided in defiance of Republican attacks on trans rights, this decision is likely going to exacerbate tensions with the White House.
“There’s a transition going on in the administration,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair, told Politico last month. “We were looking forward to developing a good relationship with Jeff Zients, but at this point, we’re not in that place yet. So we’re still working on it.”
Pivoting to the center only feels like a betrayal to some of the voters who are going to be crucial for a Biden re-election campaign.
The political atmosphere under Zients feels reminiscent of the “triangulation” that took place in the White House following the 1994 midterms and resulting Republican takeover of Congress. Under that strategy, President Bill Clinton moved to co-opt GOP talking points, like welfare reform, deficit reduction and deregulation. Clinton cruised to re-election in 1996, possibly offering a model for Biden to follow.
But there are a few key differences. Democrats overperformed in last year’s midterms, based in large part on unabashedly progressive stances on abortion and climate, while the GOP’s “soft on crime” and anti-trans attacks fell flat. In an even more polarized political environment, it feels less likely than ever that conservative voters will look favorably upon outreach from the Biden administration. Pivoting to the center only feels like a betrayal to some of the voters who are going to be crucial for a Biden re-election campaign.
In this particular case, the betrayal is all the more visceral because of whom it affects. In allowing the justification of some trans athletic bans, Biden is giving his imprimatur for the logic behind many of the broader assaults on trans rights. In attempting to introduce a spectrum to what had been a binary discussion, Biden has slid further away from the acceptance that he’s championed.