Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has made women’s issues the centerpiece of her struggling presidential campaign, confronted frontrunner Joe Biden during Wednesday’s Democratic debate in Detroit over his complicated history — personal and political — with women.
Gillibrand read from an op-ed that the former vice president wrote in 1981, when he was still a senator from Delaware and the lone vote against a bill expanding the childcare tax credit. (It passed 94-1.) Gillibrand said Biden’s view was that encouraging women to work outside the home would lead to the “deterioration of the American family.”
Noting that she herself was a member of Congress when her son was young, Gillibrand said, “Under the vice president’s analysis, my serving in Congress contributed to the deterioration of the family.” Turning to Biden, she asked: “I just want to know what he meant when he said that.”
“That was a long time ago,” Biden responded, adding that he objected to the bill because “it would have given people making today $100,000 a year a tax break. … I wanted the childcare to go to people making less than $100,000.”
Biden has proven vulnerable in recent months to accusations that he has been on the wrong side of a number of women’s issues over his long career. As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was publicly skeptical of the sexual harassment allegations Anita Hill brought against Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court nomination hearings. (Biden apologized to Hill by telephone before he declared his candidacy last fall.) Until very recently he supported the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds to pay for most abortions, but he has now reversed that position and says he opposes the amendment. And he has been called out for his habit of hugging, rubbing and otherwise touching women in ways that look overly familiar through a #MeToo-era lens. (He has apologized for this behavior too.)
In response to Gillibrand’s question, Biden expressed frustration that his opponents did not see him as he sees himself, as a champion of women. He has long been a supporter of equal-pay legislation and an advocate for victims of sexual abuse. He has said the behavior for which he is now being criticized took place in a different era under a different set of social norms.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said to Gillibrand. “I wrote the Violence Against Women Act, I was deeply involved in making sure there were equal-pay amendments, I came up with the ‘It’s on Us’ proposal to see to it that women were treated more decently on college campuses.”
Reminding Gillibrand that she had only praise for him when the two shared a stage in 2015 at Syracuse University at an event to raise awareness about campus sexual assault, he said, “You said it was wonderful. I don’t know what’s happened, except that you’re now running for president.”
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