The 10 candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination met on stage today for their first debate in more than a month.
It ran for three whole hours — which is way too long for a political debate, by the way — but a single two-minute exchange is dominating the fallout.
It involved two candidates. The first, former vice president Joe Biden, is currently the runaway frontrunner in the polls. The other, former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, is stuck at about 1 per cent.
Mr Castro needed to make something happen and quite obviously came into today’s debate with a plan to attack Mr Biden.
He pulled the trigger during a discussion about healthcare, claiming his plan would automatically enrol uninsured Americans in a Medicare-like program, while Mr Biden’s would not.
“The difference between what I support and what you support, vice president Biden, is that you require them to opt in. And I would not require them to opt in. They would automatically be enrolled, they would not need to buy in,” Mr Castro said.
“That’s a big difference, because Barack Obama’s vision was not to leave 10 million people uncovered. He wanted every single person in this country covered. My plan would do that, your plan would not.”
Mr Castro appeared to be wrong. A couple of minutes earlier, Mr Biden had said that under his own healthcare plan, anyone who could not afford insurance would be “automatically enrolled in the Medicare-type option”.
Naturally then, Mr Biden took exception to Mr Castro’s argument.
“They do not have to buy in. They do not have to buy in,” he interjected.
But Mr Castro did not back down.
“You just said that. You just said that two minutes ago. You just said two minutes ago that they would have to buy in. Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?” he said.
“I can’t believe that you said just two minutes ago that they had to buy in, now you’re saying they don’t have to — you’re forgetting that!
“I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, and you’re not.”
“That’ll be a surprise to him,” Mr Biden quipped in response.
There are two major elements of subtext here.
First, Mr Biden has faced suggestions that he is too old to be running for president, or at the very least, past his mental peak. His gaffes and memory failures on the campaign trail have fed that line of attack.
For example, last month Mr Biden said he had met with students who survived the Parkland mass shooting when he was vice president. But the Parkland shooting happened more than a year after he left office.
By accusing Mr Biden of forgetting what he had said “two minutes ago”, Mr Castro was making a less-than-subtle reference to his age.
Second, Mr Biden has relied heavily on his friendship and working relationship with Mr Obama to bolster his popularity with Democratic primary voters.
In that context, telling him he was not fulfilling Mr Obama’s legacy was quite the insult.
Later in the debate, Mr Castro said Mr Biden wanted to “take credit” for the positives of Mr Obama’s administration but avoid accountability for the negatives.
Mr Castro’s attack seemed to backfire. He was immediately criticised by viewers online, and in their post-debate analysis, political pundits said he had only managed to damage himself.
Even his fellow candidates, all of whom had every incentive to join him in trying to take down Mr Biden, were mostly scathing.
“This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable. This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington. Scoring points against each other, poking at each other,” South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said on stage.
“Yeah, that’s called a Democratic primary election, Pete. That’s called an election. That’s an election. That is what we’re here for,” Mr Castro shot back.
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar said Mr Castro’s attack was “not cool” and “felt like something Donald Trump might tweet out”.
ABC News analyst Jon Karl checked the transcript of the exchange and concluded Mr Castro was “just flatly wrong”.
“It seemed to me that Biden was right and that Castro mischaracterised what he said,” Karl said after the debate ended.
“He could have made the point, he had a legitimate point, but it’s a disqualifier the way he handled it,” said former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
“It will come across as mean and vindictive. That’s not who he is.”
“That was a really low blow and I don’t think that’s going to help him,” former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm told CNN.
“I think that was a cheap shot. The fact is, he got his facts wrong,” said MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.
Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was even more brutal.
“He would have lost a lot of support if he had a lot of support to lose,” Robinson said, referencing Mr Castro’s struggles in the polls.
“It’s basically over. He took a shot. It was not a good shot. And it just really went over like a lead balloon. That was a bad, bad moment for him.”
Looks like Castro was the one who suffered a senior moment, one he’s unlikely to recover from.
— Rick Tyler (@rickwtyler) September 13, 2019
It’d mean more to say Castro’s attack was “disqualifying” if anyone thought he had any chance to begin with
— Rich Lowry (@RichLowry) September 13, 2019
Julián Castro had a jaw-droppingly awful moment. It was a callow, nasty moment in a race in which many Democrats have been pleading with candidates not to attack one another. Everyone else seems to get it, but not Castro. https://t.co/6xqn4mDg9Z
— Jennifer Rubin (@JRubinBlogger) September 13, 2019
People keep saying that Castro made a tragic mistake tonight. Puh. This is politics. Rough and tumble. He took a swing. It may not have landed, but who cares. Image the incoming the nominee is going to take from Trump, repubs, Russia, who knows who…
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) September 13, 2019
Look, Castro was trying to save Democrats from themselves by pointing out how Biden can’t beat Trump. If he takes himself out, I consider that a noble sacrifice for the greater good. Sorry Biden is struggling, but we need someone who can win. https://t.co/iNQTf8UxU8
— Amanda Marcotte (@AmandaMarcotte) September 13, 2019
The weakest candidate on that stage tonight BY FAR was @JoeBiden. If after watching that debate you still think he’s our best chance to beat Trump then I have no idea what you were watching. He couldn’t even defend a punch from @JulianCastro. Trump would eat him alive. #DemDebate
— Ryan Knight 🗽 (@ProudResister) September 13, 2019
Not everyone slammed Mr Castro. One pundit, Yvette Simpson, told ABC News Mr Biden needed to be tested on stage if he expected to take on Donald Trump next year.
“This is not a game. This is a presidential campaign,” she said.
“What would Trump do if he caught your nominee literally reversing what he said two minutes ago?”
One of Mr Castro’s fellow candidates, Cory Booker, stuck up for him as well, to an extent.
“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, and I think that Castro had some really legitimate concerns about … can he be someone in a long, gruelling campaign that can get the ball over the line?” Mr Booker said.
“I do think tone and tenor is really important. We can respect vice president Biden and disagree with him.
“I’ve listened to Joe Biden over the years and often felt like there are times where he’s going on or meandering in his speech. I want someone that can excite and energise.”
Mr Castro, meanwhile, claimed he was not “taking a shot at (Biden’s) age”.
“It’s about the healthcare policy,” he insisted.
Originally published as ‘Jaw-droppingly awful’ debate moment