Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) went after former vice president Joe Biden for an op-ed he wrote for the Daily Times in Salisbury, Md., in 1981. The headline was “Congress is subsidizing deterioration of family.” To ensure everyone saw it, her campaign tweeted out the column during the debate, adding “He should explain to America: How does a mom working lead to the deterioration of the family?” In 2019 America, the headline provided the perfect opening of attack for the junior senator from the Empire State, who is trying to break through a crowded field of contenders. And, yet, it was a cheap shot.
The Gillibrand campaign disagrees with my assessment. "She was very specific in asking [Biden] to explain the words he wrote,” a senior adviser to the senator told me, “and he never gave an explanation.” Not surprising since the debate format, with its minuscule rebuttal time, favored confrontation over considered conversation.
Once you read the op-ed, you see that Biden’s argument about the deterioration of the family had nothing to do with “allowing more women to work” and everything to do with the rich gaining on the backs of working families. He was bemoaning a child-care tax credit that was being made available to upper-income Americans. Biden wrote about how he tried to make them ineligible and why.
“What I do not accept as legitimate is social policy that encourages a couple making $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 or more a year to evade full responsibility for their children by granting them a tax credit for day-care expenses,” Biden, then a senator from Delaware, wrote. “I do not believe it fair to ask a family of marginal income, choosing to provide the primary care for their children, to subsidize an upper income family’s day care.” Keep in mind that $30,000 in 1981 is estimated to be the equivalent of $84,000 in 2019 dollars, and $50,000 in 1981 would be worth $140,000 now.
The explanation of the “deterioration of the family” comes at the end of the piece.
I believe this issue is a perfect example of the cancer of materialism that has stricken our society. We do not take care of our own families these days; we want someone else to bear that responsibility.
I think it’s a sad commentary on our society when the Senate of the United States says, as a matter of social policy, that we should make it easier for people who have neither the financial necessity nor personal need to forsake their responsibility to care for their own children.
Biden hammered away at that point during a floor speech on July 28, 1981. “To be personal for a moment, I make a good salary. I am paid some $60,000 to be a Senator. My wife is a schoolteacher and she makes around $15,000. She is a career woman. She is very devoted to her career, and very concerned about it, and she has good reason to be, and I am proud of the fact that she has such a career,” he said in remarks that the Biden campaign told me can be found on Page 17839. “But it is outrageous to make my father, who makes less than $20,000 a year to pay a tax to see to it that I can put my child in a day-care center. I think that’s preposterous.”
Biden was right then, and his argument holds water today. Yet, the Gillibrand attack was tailor-made for the Twitter era. It forced Biden to explain something he didn’t exactly say while defending what sounded indefensible. And it’s why my love-hate with Twitter and modern American politics roils with the intensity of the ocean during a hurricane.
So, I make this plea: If you want to be an informed and intelligent participant in our democracy and the 2020 presidential campaign, please, for the love of God, read before you tweet — or attack.