Once upon a time, in the long ago pre-social media days, it took a day or so for the full impact of a debate answer to emerge. When President Gerald R. Ford declared in 1976, “there is no Soviet domination of Poland,” it took a day’s worth of analysis for the firestorm of ridicule to ignite.
You’d think in an age of instant communication that would no longer be true. But the next day or so will tell us whether an answer Joe Biden gave in Houston mioght come back to haunt him.
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Biden had been performing effectively throughout the first half of the debate, pushing back vigorously on the high costs of the “Medicare for All” plans proposed by his nearest opponents—Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who bookended him on stage. He took a body shot from Julián Castro, who (inaccurately) accused him of forgetting what he’d said a moment earlier, but didn’t crumple. He had a bad moment trying to explain his strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan, but overall it was shaping up as his best debate night so far.
Then the subject turned to the matter of race and inequality, and moderator Linsey Davis posed this question to Biden:
“In a conversation about how to deal with segregation in schools back in 1975, you told a reporter, ‘I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather, I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.’ You said that some 40 years ago. But as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?”
There was a smile (some called it a “smirk”) on Biden’s face as he listened to the question. And he answered her this way:
“Well, they have to deal with the—look, there’s institutional segregation in this country. From the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining banks, making sure we are in a position where—look, you talk about education. I propose is we take the very poor schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise to the $60,000 level. Number two, make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home, we have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy. The teachers are—I’m married to a teacher, my deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. Make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds go to school. Not day care, school. Social workers help parents deal with how to raise their children. It’s not like they don’t want to help, they don’t know what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television—excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the—make sure that kids hear words, a kid coming from a very poor school, a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time we get there.”
The post-debate commentariat pounced on the “record player” comment, noting that it suggested a lack of familiarity with more modern-day devices, like the eight-track tape or Walkman. It was viewed mostly as a proxy for his age, a self-inflicted wound from a candidate stuck somewhere in the 1970s technologically.But by Friday morning, attention had begun to shift to the broader and far more culturally fraught implications of what Biden was saying: Did he mean that black parents depended on an army of white people with degrees to help them raise their kids?
Anand Giridharadas, an author and editor-at-large at TIME magazine, helped trigger a Twitterstorm about the nature of Biden’s comments. “Right now, somewhere, in some newsroom, some brilliant journalist ought to be pitching a big analytical story parsing Joe Biden’s statement and explaining why it was so troubling—and ignored by so many people. It is a textbook example of the racism that is still respectable.”
There’s some anecdotal evidence that other journalists are already on the case.New Yorkmagazine writer Rebecca Traister wrote:
“Yes. Syntactically this reminded me of the viral Miss Teen USA answer from years ago. But the substance of what he was trying to say was much worse.” Journalist David Rothkopf wrote: “This is an important and accurate thread. I don’t believe Joe Biden is a bad person. I just think this once again reveals that he is not of this era or suited to lead for nearly the decade ahead.”New York Timescolumnist Jamelle Bouie joined the thread as well, while also noting the meandering nature of Biden’s words.
At the risk of stating the obvious: Biden’s lead in the polling rests in substantial measure on his enormous strength in the African-American community. It is why he is far ahead in South Carolina (where black people cast the majority of Democratic primary votes), while doing much less well in Iowa and New Hampshire. It is why sustaining that strength is crucial to his nomination chances; over the past decades, no Democrat has won the prize without winning the lion’s share of the African-American vote. Eroding that support is crucial to the hope of his rivals, which is why Kamala Harris went after him back in June on his self-proclaimed ability to work with Southern segregationists.
And it suggests that if the Twitterstorm gains salience over the next several days—if his comments are interpreted as cluelessly condescending at best—it poses a serious danger to his prospects.
Biden has some resources to deploy here. His embrace of Barack Obama, and the former president’s obvious affection for him, may insulate him from the criticism. And he has an army of African-American allies, who see him as a fighter for racial justice going back decades. Whether they jump to his defense, or begin to create distance, will be an early sign of whether this is a passing firestorm or something much, much worse.