Julián Castro on Friday defended his testy exchange with Joe Biden at Thursday night’s debate over health care that seemed to jab at the former vice president’s age, saying he would not do anything differently.
“I mean, he has been around for a long time, OK,” Castro said on CNN Friday morning after he was hit with strong criticism from pundits and on social media. “When we are up there, we are up there to debate.”
The two former Obama administration officials -- Castro served as Housing and Urban Development secretary while Biden was Obama’s vice president -- had one of the sharpest exchanges on the Democratic debate stage in Houston.
Castro had flashed his aggressive style before, using an attack on Beto O’Rourke at the first debate in June to boost his campaign. But Castro struggled to build momentum heading into the third debate on Thursday.
If he was looking for another breakout moment, it was unclear whether he got it.
The exchange with Biden came early in the night as the candidates were discussing their health care plans. Castro said his plan would automatically enroll anyone without health coverage in Medicare while he said Biden would force people to buy into the program, potentially leaving them uncovered.
Biden shot back that he did not require people without health coverage to buy in. At that point, Castro pounced.
“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?” said Castro. “I mean, I can’t believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in and now you’re saying they don’t have to buy in. You’re forgetting that.”
The barb drew a strong reaction from the audience because it implied that the 76-year-old Biden, whose advanced age has been an underlying concern for some Democrats, has a bad memory.
Politifact rated Castro’s statement “mostly false,” finding it had an element of truth but that the distinctions between the plans were far less than Castro suggested.
“The differences would likely amount to the nature or timing of paperwork, rather than being significant barriers to access,” it said. “Castro used this questionable distinction to charge that Biden had said opposing things within two minutes, but that’s an exaggeration at best.”
The explosive moment between the two candidates drew a quick reaction from Democrats that seemed to break down along ideological and generational lines. Some young Latino policy leaders argued Castro was unfairly criticized as “mean,” and said they were grateful that Castro has not shied away from aggressive questioning of Biden on the role he played in former President Barack Obama’s deportation policies.
“I’m feeling very triggered by the notion that @JulianCastro was somehow disrespectful or had a tone during his exchange with VP Biden,” said Mayra Maciás, executive director of the progressive political organization, Latino Victory. “It reminds me of when ppl in college said I was too emotional when I was debating policy issues that were personal to me.”
But comedian Stephen Colbert joked that Castro should rethink his slogan, drawing up a fake mock-up: “Julián Castro 2020: Shove the elderly onto an ice floe.”
Many others saw it as a cheap shot and low blow, and other presidential candidates were mostly critical of what they saw as a personal attack. On stage, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg cut in between Castro and Biden, saying, “This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable. This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington, scoring points against each other.”
Senator Amy Klobuchar repeated the sentiment on stage and later on CNN, saying Castro’s comment was “so personal and so unnecessary.”
Only Senator Cory Booker echoed Castro’s concerns on Biden’s age, albeit insisting tone and tenor were important. “Castro has some really legitimate concerns about, can [Biden] be someone in a long grueling campaign that can get the ball over the line?” Booker told CNN shortly after the debate. “And he has every right to call that out.”
Castro was asked more pointed questions on CNN early this morning and denied it was a cheap shot and a crack about Biden having a bad memory, saying his questioning “was not intended as a personal attack or affront.”
“This was a disagreement about health care policy,” he said. “I respect the vice president . . . I was pointing out a disagreement.”
Asked if he thinks Biden is too old to be president, Castro said he did not. “I believe he’s a fantastic candidate, but I have my disagreements with vice president Biden,” Castro said.