Opinion: Joe Biden’s debate performance was a time warp to 1985

Vice President Joe Biden at a Seattle conference to encourage cancer research. He vowed in Thursday's debate not to postpone curing cancer or Alzheimer's.
(Associated Press)

If Joe Biden is trying to shuck the image of the out-of-touch old guy in the Democratic primary race, he didn’t help himself Thursday night.

He rambled. He didn’t always make sense. He reminisced about old glories and long-dead people, and outlined policy prescriptions more suited for a debate in the 1980s.

And did he say “record player”? What century is this?

The moment the former vice president opened his mouth on the debate stage in Houston it felt a little like entering a time warp. “When President Kennedy announced the moon shot, he used a phrase that sticks with me my whole life. He said, we’re doing it because we refuse to postpone,” Biden said.


Nothing against moon shots or dead presidents, but referencing a speech that happened years before the first Generation X baby was born, let alone a millennial, sets a certain tone. In this case, a dial tone from a landline. This impression was only strengthened when he followed up the quote with a vow not to postpone curing cancer (a reference presumably to the Biden Cancer Initiative) or Alzheimer’s.

Not bad things, of course, but if you want to appear hip to the issues facing people under 60 you might want to at least mention the things keeping them up at night, like the fact that their kids might get gunned down at school or die from an opioid overdose, that violent white nationalists are staging a comeback, that the ocean is drowning in plastics, that a few extremely rich men have most of the country’s wealth or that women’s rights are eroded in many states.

Then there was his odd response to the question about the country’s responsibility for the legacy of slavery. Biden started out fine, mentioning the fact that institutional segregation exists, which it does, but then a made a left turn into the outdated and, frankly, racist idea that parents of color are keeping their kids dumb and poor. His solution? “We bring social workers in, to homes and parents, to help them deal with how to raise their children,” he said, so they can learn, among other things, how to “leave the record player on at night” to teach more words.

Yeah, this is your grandfather’s candidate.

There were other examples of Biden showing his age: his non-answer about immigrant deportations under President Obama (really, he should have seen that one coming) and his response to the final question about overcoming setbacks devolving into an incoherent list of his personal tragedies, and he has suffered many. Maybe getting interrupted by the equally incoherent chants of protesters threw Biden off his game, but if that’s all it takes to derail his thought process ...

And before anyone attacks me for being ageist, I will point out that Biden’s contemporaries, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, were on fire Thursday night, exhibiting more energy and than any of the youngsters up there. Sure, Sanders might have sounded a bit croaky, but what do you expect from a guy who yells all the time?