Joe Biden can’t change the past. His bad old votes and his bad old opinions exist, and two full stages’ worth of younger rivals want to hold the Democratic front-runner accountable for them. On Wednesday night, much as he did in the first debate, he stumbled when pressed on his record and cut himself off when his time was up, as if relieved to be delivered from the sound of his own voice.
But there was at least one moment where he could have, and should have, seized the occasion to demonstrate the growth and self-knowledge that could inspire more confidence in his future as a would-be presidential nominee. The opportunity came, as most things do for the polling leader, wrapped in a savage burn: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand pushed Biden to answer for an op-ed he wrote in 1981 arguing against expanding child care tax credits, in which he had accused the bill’s supporters of “subsidizing the deterioration of the family.”
Child care, Biden wrote then, was the parents’ “responsibility,” and thus parents who placed children in day care were asking someone else to assume that sacred duty just so they could “acquire material possessions.”
Gillibrand told Biden that she came from a long line of women who worked outside the home. “My second son, Henry, is here, and I had him when I was a member of Congress,” Gillibrand said. “So under Vice President Biden’s analysis, am I serving in Congress resulting in the deterioration of the family, because I had access to quality affordable day care?”
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Biden grasped helplessly for an answer. “The fact of the matter is the situation is one that I don’t know what’s happened,” he said. He went on, and on: He doesn’t want families making $100,000 a year to get a child care tax credit. Both his late wife and his current wife worked while they had children. He wrote the Violence Against Women Act and supported the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. And besides, didn’t Gillibrand praise his initiative to end campus sexual assault?
“You came to Syracuse University with me and said it was wonderful,” Biden said. “I’m passionate about the concern of making sure women are treated equally. I don’t know what’s happened except that you’re now running for president.”
Debates are meant to be contentious. Candidates are judged not just on their ability to explicate their platforms, but on the strength they exhibit when confronted by their opponents. Biden, presented with his own ugly position from long ago, went into panic mode, trying to defend himself against the charge of sexism by rummaging through the decades for all the positive women-related things he could think of (wives! domestic violence! equal pay! sexual assault!), then accusing his accuser of once saying he was a good guy.
Imagine that it had gone a different way. Imagine that Biden had been able to face his own words, acknowledge them, and apologize. That he’d expressed pain and remorse, and told the story of a man who’d learned, from those hardworking wives and brilliant female colleagues, how wrong he’d been to assert that staying home with children was a parent’s—and, let’s be real, a mother’s—supreme responsibility. Imagine that Biden had firmly rejected the right-wing family values messaging he’d once adopted, thanked Gillibrand for bringing up the issue, and explained how and why his views have changed since 1981. Maybe he’s heard from a female constituent who took umbrage at his words. Maybe he’s met women who’ve told him working outside the home is essential to their personal fulfillment and their family’s finances. (I’m sure an aide could rustle up a good heartwarming anecdote!) Maybe he’s talked to feminists and social scientists who showed him how all the building blocks of gender inequity link up. Maybe he realized, after leading the Anita Hill circus, that when women must stay home with their kids, women aren’t in the workplace to make sure men like Joe Biden don’t screw up Anita Hill hearings.
In this alternate universe, Biden comes out looking like a thoughtful, humble leader who is able to admit his mistakes and learn from them—and, more importantly, male viewers get an example of a guy who used to be more sexist than he is now and somehow managed to change his ways. Instead, Biden came off defensive, angry, and unwilling to square his belief in his own goodness with the admission that a clearly wrong thing from 1981 was wrong.
“I never believed it,” he finally said, after Gillibrand pressed him a third time about the “deterioration” line. That was what he left voters with: a man falling all over himself to defend and distract from a line of text he never truly believed in the first place.