Julian Castro may have earned himself a viral moment with his jabs at Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden, but it could prove costly.
In the sharpest salvo of Thursday night’s debate, the former Housing and Urban Development Secretary struck hard in the most blatant shot at Biden’s age by a fellow Democratic contender since he entered the race.
Castro accused Biden of forgetting that he had said people would have to opt in to get Medicare-like insurance under his health care plan.
“You just said that two minutes ago. You just said two minutes ago they would have to buy in,” Castro jabbed at Biden, who at the age of 78 on Inauguration Day 2021 would be the oldest president ever to serve should he win. “Are you forgetting what you said just two minutes ago?”
Castro, 44, insisted after the debate that he wasn’t taking a shot at Biden’s age. But by the tenor of the shot he might as well have asked the former vice president for recommendations for early-bird specials. Many political analysts viewed it as a low blow. And it also appeared Castro misrepresented the former vice president's stance.
“I wouldn’t do it differently. That was not a personal attack," Castro said in his defense Friday morning on CNN. "This was about a disagreement over what the vice president said regarding health care policy."
It’s certainly true that Biden’s age has been an issue from the moment he pondered entering the 2020 presidential race.
But until Thursday night debate in Houston, the issue had been dealt with a healthy dose of politeness from his rival Democrats. They might see that while the electorate may be getting younger, the most reliable voters often have at least a tinge of silver in their hair. In the 2016 presidential election, for example, 71% of Americans over 65 voted, compared with 46% among 18- to 29-year-olds, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, 38, of California, who exited the presidential race in July, was far more subtle than Castro in raising the age issue at the first Democratic debate. He recalled how as a young politician Biden had paraphrased John F. Kennedy and nudged an older generation of Democrats to “pass the torch.”
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has waxed about the need for generational change in leadership at a moment when the world needs to confront the existential crisis of climate change.
But with Castro’s shot at Biden early in the debate, Democratic strategists, friends of both Biden and Castro from their shared time in the Obama administration, and political analysts cringed.
“That was not my favorite version of Castro,” Jen Psaki, a former State Department spokeswoman and longtime aide to President Barack Obama, tweeted.
That was not my favorite version of Castro.— Jen Psaki (@jrpsaki) September 13, 2019
Paul Begala, a former senior aide to President Bill Clinton turned CNN political pundit, gave points to Biden for not giving the attack oxygen.
“.@JulianCastro with a cheap shot on @JoeBiden,” Begala said. “Joe fights back, then pulls up, knowing better than to punch down. Castro looks desperate; Biden ends the fight with a smile. #ABCDemDebate"
Even veteran Republican political consultant Frank Luntz questioned the wisdom of the hit for Castro, who has lingered for months at single digits in the polls.
"Democratic voters are not going to like Julian Castro's badgering of Joe Biden," Lutz observed. "#DemDebate That might play well with parts of Dem Twitter, but not the rest of the Dem electorate."
Democratic voters are not going to like Julian Castro's badgering of Joe Biden. #DemDebate— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) September 13, 2019
That might play well with parts of Dem Twitter, but not the rest of the Dem electorate. https://t.co/i3SKQap6Ub
There’s no doubt Biden’s age has and will continue to be a central issue in the campaign. But Castro went after Biden’s age and fitness for duty in a way that mirrored the tenor of Trump — who has dubbed his fellow 70-something rival as “Sleepy Joe.”
It seems certain that Trump will continue to try to cast Biden as a doddering, elderly politician lacking the vigor to run for president. Should Biden win the nomination, Castro provided the president with footage for an attack ad
Biden said in his first television interview after entering the race in April that it was legitimate for voters to question whether he had the stamina required for the job. He urged voters to watch him closely on the trail and make a judgement on whether he showed the “energy and capacity” for the job.
It's an issue that voters — who also are weighing the candidacies of 78-year-old Sen. Bernie Sanders and 70-year-old Sen. Elizabeth Warren — appear to have at the top of their mind.
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In Iowa, 46% of voters planning to attend the first-in-nation Democratic caucuses in February said it would be a disadvantage for a candidate to be older than 70, while 50% say it would make no difference, according to a Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll published in June. Three percent said they are unsure and 1% said it would be an advantage.
“The age thing is going to be a factor,” Bryce Smith, 27, the Dallas County, Iowa, Democratic Party chairman, told USA TODAY earlier this summer. “It’s going to be a top consideration for voters who are asking themselves, ‘Where do we see this country going six years or eight years from now?’”
Castro has earned praise from Democratic voters for leading the pack in raising issues such as the disproportionate number of police shootings involving black men and women and the need to address the nation’s homelessness problem more aggressively.
But he might learn something from rivals Buttigieg or Sen. Cory Booker in how they address age.
As the youngest candidate in the race, Buttigieg has repeatedly made the case that the country needs generational change, because the politics of the moment will decide how the next 30 or 40 years will go.
Buttigieg, 37, has also frequently reminded voters that he’s 35 years junior to Trump, and likely be alive to see the impact of the big policy decisions. Left unsaid by Buttigieg is that both Biden, 76, and Sanders, 77, are even older than Trump.
After the debate, Booker came to the defense of Castro. But he also made clear that concerns about Biden shouldn’t be seen through the prism of age but by his long record as a gaffe-prone politician with propensity for meandering. Booker more precisely questioned whether Biden has the unique skills necessary to beat Trump.
“I’ve listened to Joe Biden over the years and often felt like there were times that he is going on or meandering in his speech,” Booker said in an interview with CNN following the debate. “Look, I want someone that can excite and energize and call us to a campaign like we saw back in ’08, in ’12 where we saw record turnouts and somebody who can speak to the fullness of the Democratic Party. If I believed Joe Biden was that person, I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
With that framing, Booker demonstrated there is a subtle way for Biden’s rivals to effectively raise this issue without alienating older Americans and people who like Biden.
Whether the younger and more progressive crowd in the Democratic Party likes Biden or not, they’ll need that older — and historically dependable — crowd of voters to show up to the polls if they’re going to beat Trump come November.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Democratic debate: Why Julian Castro's attack on Joe Biden fell flat