Joe Biden had to know the question was coming.
In each Democratic debate so far, the former vice president has faced tough questions about his position on desegregating schools via busing, and tonight in Houston was no different. The moderator Linsey Davis noted that Biden had told a reporter in 1975 that he did not feel responsible for what people did 300 years ago. “As you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?” Davis asked.
That phrasing was actually a gift—a chance for Biden to pivot away from the sticky specifics of busing and make a lofty statement about race. But Biden didn’t take it.
Instead, he offered a bizarre, rambling, and incoherent answer that barely responded to Davis, mixing racial justice, education policy, and a healthy dose of who-knows-what. The dizzying nature of the reply can only be grasped by reading it in full:
Look, there’s institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Red lining, banks, making sure we are in a position where—look, you talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title I schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise to the equal raise of getting out of 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 need, 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. We have to make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds go to school—school, not day care, school. We bring social workers into homes with parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help; they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television— excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the phone—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 they get there.
That’s a word salad even Sarah Palin would have hesitated to serve. Each individual component made some sense in isolation, even the line about playing the radio or TV: Experts say it’s useful for children to hear spoken language to help them develop their own. But the way Biden phrased it, complete with an archaic mention of record players, just reinforced the overall incoherence and randomness of his response.