Julian Castro is no ageist, he's just practicing presidential politics while Hispanic

Ruben Navarrette Jr., Opinion columnist

SAN DIEGO — In NASCAR, they say: “If you ain’t rubbin’, you ain’t racin’.” In last week’s Democratic debate in Houston, Julian Castro rubbed against Joe Biden. Now some think Castro ought to have his license pulled. 

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., got in the former vice president’s face in the first debate in Miami, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., did the same in the second debate from Detroit. 

This isn’t just about going after the front-runner. It is significant that Harris and Booker are black and that Castro is Latino. 

A lot of people of color are fed up with the old school white liberalism that Biden represents. It’s not just his past opposition to forced busing in the 1970s because, as he said then, he didn’t feel “responsible for the sins” of past generations. It’s also recent gaffes. During last week's debate, Biden answered a question about atoning for slavery with a condescending stemwinder about “problems that come from home” and social workers showing parents how to parent by having “the record player on at night” so kids pick up vocabulary. 

Harris and Booker got a pass for going after Biden, yet Castro is being walloped. White pundits know better than to scold African Americans about race, but they’re not afraid of Latinos, whom they often treat like their gardeners. 

Did Biden forget or did Castro get it wrong?

While discussing competing health care plans, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development mischievously poked at Biden by asking — repeatedly — whether the 76-year-old was forgetting what he said two minutes earlier.

Critics — including the news media and Biden supporters — are calling it “ageism” and a “cheap shot” by Castro. They say the 45-year-old should have shown more “respect” to his elder. 

That’s a thing in politics? Since when?

In 1992, George H.W. Bush, a member of the World War II Generation, squared off against Bill Clinton, a baby boomer. The Democrats’ campaign song was “Don’t Stop" (thinking about tomorrow) by Fleetwood Mac. A Newsweek cover featured Clinton and Al Gore with the headline “Young Guns.” Inside the Clinton-Gore war room, the generation gap was a constant theme. 

In 1996, Clinton-Gore campaigned for reelection against another World War II veteran — Sen. Bob Dole. The Democrats made cracks about Dole's age (73 at the time) as they pushed the narrative that he was past his prime and offered nothing new to the debate. 

From left, Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden, Julian Castro and Andrew Yang talk on Sept. 12, 2019, after the debate in Houston.

Those campaigns were not pretty. The debates were contentious. There was no respect for one’s elders. 

And no one got called out. Because, it’s 72 million baby boomers who decide who gets called out. In the 1990s, most of the boomers were in their 40s and getting impatient with an older generation that wouldn’t move on. Today, now that boomers are aging into their 70s, suddenly it’s not cool to imply that a septuagenarian is too old, too senile or too fragile to do the job. 

The Woodstock generation once warned: “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Now they plead: “Don’t pick on anyone over 70!”

Nor was there much civility among Democrats in 2008, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton pulled out the long knives. Tempers flared in the Rust Belt states over trade and Clinton’s previous support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which many union workers vehemently opposed as a job killer. Obama reminded voters of Clinton’s stance on the trade pact with flyers, and she hit the roof. At a news conference, she waved one such flyer and shouted: “Shame on you, Barack Obama!” 

Tough politics isn't an ageist hate crime

The bad blood hit a boiling point in January 2008 during a debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Obama said he worked in inner-city Chicago while Clinton was “a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Walmart.” Clinton fired back that Obama once represented a slum landlord. Obama claimed that Clinton campaign surrogates — including former President Bill Clinton — were spreading lies. Clinton shrugged off that accusation and insisted that Obama was slippery and never gave a straight answer. And so on.

Where's the respect? I don’t remember the news media calling out a “cheap shot.” Back then, it was just politics. Now it’s an ageist hate crime?

Castro’s critics insist that, besides the fact that the whippersnapper came across as arrogant and rude, he was wrong on the facts. 

Here’s what that is about: Castro claimed that Biden had, in explaining his health care plan just a few minutes earlier, said people could opt in while, under Castro’s plan, they would be automatically enrolled. 

First, it may be that Castro got confused about what Biden said. But he's not the only one. When candidates talk about their health care plans, there’s too much spin and vagueness. They all need to speak more plainly.

Here’s what Biden said: “The option I'm proposing is Medicare for all — Medicare for choice. If you want Medicare, if you lose the job from your insurance — from your employer, you automatically can buy into this. You don't have — no preexisting condition can stop you from buying in.”

Castro appears to have zeroed in on the phrase “you can automatically buy into this” (which is itself a bit of an oxymoron because one doesn’t have to buy into things that are automatic).

Despite what many in the news media are saying, Castro wasn’t wrong when he insisted that Biden said people had to buy into his program to get coverage. 

Still, even if Castro was right and Biden did flip-flop, it wouldn't matter to the critics. The issue is disrespect to an elder, incivility, etc. 

What Democrats should be focused on is whether Biden is the right candidate to take on Trump. Is he lucid enough to battle a loudmouth?

Biden is a gaffe machine

Biden garbles his words, says "poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids," thinks he’s in Vermont when he’s in New Hampshire, calls a debate opponent "president," misremembers what a combat veteran told him, responds to a request about health records by challenging a reporter to a wrestling match, and offers condolences to Houston for a massacre in El Paso.

This what Democrats should be worried about. They need to back off Castro and stop policing his tone. White liberals scolding a person of color is a bad look. It seems as if they’re trying to put the uppity Latino in his place. 

Besides, they ain’t seen nothing yet. Democrats should save the tape of that exchange in Houston. If Biden is the Democratic nominee and goes up against Trump, on the day after their first debate, let’s pull the tape and take a look. By comparison, what Castro did to Biden will seem like a love tap. 

Ruben Navarrette Jr., a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors, is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.” Follow him on Twitter: @RubenNavarrette

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Julian Castro was right to go after Joe Biden for his gaffes