Joe Biden turned Thursday night’s presidential debate into a dare.
In a twist, Julián Castro was the one who accepted it.
Hours before he and nine rivals for the Democratic nomination met in Houston, Biden produced a video homage to Barack Obama — a “great president,” he tweeted. “We don’t say that enough.”
Biden does. And his pre-debate message was meant as a warning that Biden, who served two terms as Obama’s vice president, would treat attacks on him as attacks on the still-popular Obama. Many, including some Biden advisers, expected the hits would come from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, sharing a stage with Biden for the first time. But Warren — early on, during a segment on health care meant to tease out her differences with Biden — quickly offered praise for Obama and avoided a hostile confrontation.
Only Castro, who served with Biden in the Obama administration as Housing secretary, plunged into a litigation of the Obama years and of who is the best steward of that legacy.
“I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, and you’re not,” Castro told Biden at one point.
An incredulous Biden volleyed back: “That’d be a surprise to him.”
Obama has not endorsed Biden or any of the other 19 Democrats running to challenge President Donald Trump. Biden, though, has made Obama nostalgia a cornerstone of his campaign. His preemptive strike Thursday was his most explicit attempt yet to use Obama as a shield.
Biden tops the Democratic primary polls. But, thanks to repeated verbal stumbles and a recharged progressive flank of the party that leans further left than he and Obama did on issues such as health care and immigration, he can’t shake doubts from other candidates.
Castro was particularly eager Thursday to exploit those vulnerabilities and to turn Biden, 76, into a caricature: an aging, forgetful has-been unfit for the moment. Just before staking his claim as heir to the Obama mantle, Castro asserted Biden had said patients would have to buy into his plan. It was a confusing exchange in which Castro appeared to mischaracterize Biden’s position.
No matter. “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Castro taunted, prompting an audible, stunned reaction from the audience and an agitated look from Biden. “Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?”
Castro told ABC News afterward that the line was not a shot at Biden’s age.
Biden’s debate performance at times reinforced his tendency to meander and misspeak.
He gave a long-winded and at times confusing answer to a question about Iraq. After Biden raised eyebrows by saying “nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime,” a campaign official told BuzzFeed News he was talking about nonviolent drug offenders, a point that was not totally clear in the context around Biden’s response. And he veered off topic when answering ABC News correspondent Linsey Davis’s question about how to repair the legacy of slavery.
“Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night ... 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,” Biden said at one point, before his reply shifted abruptly into an aside on the Maduro regime in Venezuela.
It was Castro’s turn next. He couldn’t resist a dig.
“Well,” Castro began, “that’s — that’s quite a lot.”
Though a fight with Warren never materialized, Biden and the primary’s other leading liberal, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, mixed it up some. “Let me be clear, Joe,” Sanders, a democratic socialist, wagged at one point. At another, Biden expressed skepticism that Sanders could enforce a health care plan that called for employers to pass savings on to their employees.
“Well, let me tell you something,” Biden said to Sanders. “For a socialist, you’ve got — for a socialist, you’ve got a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do.”
Later in the debate, California Sen. Kamala Harris invoked the old Obama campaign slogan after ABC’s David Muir presented her with Biden’s contention that a president couldn’t ban assault weapons with an executive order — something Harris has said she favors: “Well, I mean, I would just say, hey, Joe, instead of saying, ‘No, we can't,’ let's say, ‘Yes, we can.’”
But it was Castro’s combative approach that had people talking. On Twitter, Biden aides called attention to posts criticizing Castro’s tactics. And senior Biden advisers noted that candidates who attacked Biden at previous debates have little to show for it.
Others were impressed with how Castro handled Biden.
“The surprise story of the evening was Julián Castro’s breakout performance,” Charles Chamberlain, chair of Democracy for Action, a group that has been harsh on Biden, said in an emailed review. “Castro has done well at each debate, but tonight he was on fire.”
Cory Booker said afterward on CNN that Castro’s aggressive posture was justified.
“I think we are at a tough point right now, because there’s a lot of people concerned about Joe Biden’s ability to carry the ball all the way across the end line without fumbling,” Booker said, “and I think that Castro had some really legitimate concerns about can he be someone in a long, grueling campaign that can get the ball over the line, and he has every right to call that out.”
Castro had actually used one of Booker’s lines from the last debate. When Biden downplayed his role in the Obama administration’s record deportations — “I’m the vice president of the United States,” he told Univision’s Jorge Ramos — Castro saw an opportunity.
“But my problem with vice president Biden — and Cory pointed this out last time — is every time something good about Barack Obama comes up, he says, ‘Oh, I was there, I was there, I was there, that’s me, too,’” Castro said. “And then every time somebody questions part of the administration that we were both part of, he says, ‘Well, that was the president.’ I mean, he wants to take credit for Obama’s work, but not have to answer to any questions.”
Biden took exception to that characterization.
“I stand with Barack Obama all eight years. Good, bad, and indifferent,” Biden said on rebuttal. “That’s where I stand. I did not say I did not stand with him.”