Castro attack shines spotlight on Biden's age

Julián Castro’s attack on Joe BidenJoe BidenJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE’s memory during Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate thrust questions about the former vice president’s age and mental acuity into the spotlight, forcing his fellow 2020 rivals to weigh in.

The clash between Castro and Biden was perhaps the most contentious of the debate. During an otherwise policy-driven discussion, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary insisted that Biden had contradicted himself minutes earlier on whether some people would have to buy into a health care plan under his proposed system.

“Are you forgetting what you said just two minutes ago?” Castro asked Biden. In fact, a review of the debate transcript appears to prove that Biden did not contradict himself in describing his health care proposal.

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Castro denied that his remarks were intended as a swipe at Biden’s age or mental faculties, saying that he simply wanted to press the former vice president on an issue of national importance.

But the attack was perceived by many as a high-profile attempt to elevate concerns about Biden’s fitness to serve in the White House and his viability as a general election candidate — a sensitive subject that other Democratic presidential candidates have for months sought to avoid.

“I think it was clear what he was implying and I think it was unfortunate,” Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager and communications director, said on MSNBC on Friday. As Democrats we are all focused and united on beating Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE, and I think those kinds of personal attacks are exactly the kind of thing that's going to lead to Donald Trump's reelection.”

Now 76, if elected, Biden would be 78 years old by the time of his swearing in 2021, making him the oldest person to occupy the White House.

Castro’s remarks rankled the former vice president’s advisers, who saw the attack as disingenuous and all too personal. A handful of aides came out in force on Friday to knock the former HUD secretary’s attack as a poor — and deeply personal — attempt to bolster his own standing in the primary field.

“I think Castro, who likes to talk about learning from history, clearly didn’t learn from the first two debates that taking personal cheap shots at Vice President Biden actually doesn’t work out that well for the candidate who throws the shot,” Anita Dunn, a Biden campaign adviser, told reporters after the debate.

Questions about Biden’s age have been a thorn in his side for months. His aides are quick to note that his verbal gaffes, and often-freewheeling speaking style, have always been part of his public persona, and bristle at the suggestion that his age or mental health is to blame.

Most of Biden’s fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls defended the former vice president in the hours after the debate. Castro’s attack, they said, strayed into unnecessarily personal territory and echoed the divisive rhetoric that the party wants to avoid.

After Castro’s exchange with Biden on Thursday, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul Buttigieg2020 Democrats defend climate priorities in MSNBC forum MSNBC Climate Change Forum draws 1.3M viewers in 8 pm timeslot Iowa Steak Fry to draw record crowds for Democrats MORE chided the former HUD secretary, saying that such rhetoric is why the presidential debates were “becoming unwatchable.”

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisTrump reignites court fight with Ninth Circuit pick MSNBC Climate Change Forum draws 1.3M viewers in 8 pm timeslot Iowa Steak Fry to draw record crowds for Democrats MORE (D-Calif.), who opened a rift with Biden after a high-profile confrontation with the former vice president in the first debate in June, acknowledged that “things get heated” on the debate stage. But, she added, “the focus needs to be on the fact that Donald Trump is not doing the American people the benefit of the office.”

But Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony Booker2020 Democrats defend climate priorities in MSNBC forum MSNBC Climate Change Forum draws 1.3M viewers in 8 pm timeslot Iowa Steak Fry to draw record crowds for Democrats MORE (D-N.J.), who clashed with Biden at the last Democratic debate in July, sided with Castro in the confrontation, saying that he raised some “legitimate concerns” about the former vice president.

"Look, I think that we are at a tough point right now, because there's a lot of people who are concerned about Joe Biden's ability to carry the ball all the way across the end line without fumbling,” Booker said on CNN in a post-debate interview.

"I think that Castro has 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’s swipe at Biden underscores the challenges that come with debating the primary field’s front-runner.

On one hand, a successful confrontation could pay dividends in polling and fundraising. Harris, for example, surged after she clashed with Biden in the first presidential debate in June over his past opposition to federally mandated school busing. In the 24 hours after that exchange, she saw her best day of fundraising since her campaign launch.

But Biden remains one of the Democratic Party’s most popular figures, and attacking him, especially on a personal level, has the potential to backfire.

“If you go really negative, people are going to remember you and they’re not going to like you,” said Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. “These people are at the top of the polls because people like them.”

Eddie Vale, a Democratic strategist, argued, however, that Castro’s attack was par for the course.

"It's politics, not a college debating society, so I think that generally everything is fair game and it's good to air it all out now early because you know Trump and the Republicans aren't going to show any mercy," Vale said. 

Vale said that it’s up to Biden to show that his age isn’t an issue.

"I think in addressing it there isn't a single thing or moment Biden has to do,” he said. “It's not a give a big set piece speech to address it. It needs to be the cumulative effect of the campaign ... over the course of the next few months showing out on the campaign trail that he's ready to fight and take on Trump and win.”

Democratic strategist Basil Smikle said the attacks wouldn't eliminate Biden from the race "but a constant defensive position on the debate stage and regular gaffes invite more questions and attacks.
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Smikle said "showing a more aggressive posture by pushing policy ideas proactively and creating distinctions between himself and his opponents could help overcome questions about his age."

But one Democratic strategist, who is unaffiliated with any campaign, accused the attacks of being "low-brow crap."

"Funny that two candidates polling less than the margin of error combined have the stones to attack Biden about his age," the strategist said. "Here is my advice: Beat him if you're better without playing into pathetic stereotypes."

Castro has shown no signs of backing down. He sent a fundraising email to supporters on Friday, calling the criticism he has received after his clash with Biden “the biggest obstacle I have ever faced.” And in an interview with CNN, he insisted that his attack was not “personal.”

“I wouldn’t do it differently,” he said.