It wouldn’t shock me if 30 years from now, some time capsule reveals that Julián Castro was trying to help Joe Biden by basically accusing him of being senile about 35 minutes into the debate. It looked like a hit in real time, and some in the audience laughed and hooted, but it was way too much. Biden was more or less stumbling his way through the debate in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed, but Castro was over the top and and just looked mean.
It was an odd debate. All the build-up was about having the three heavyweights—Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders—on the same stage for the first time, which would surely mean that Warren and Sanders were going to lay it on Biden thick to prove that he was too much the mushy centrist and just way too old for this (even though he’s younger than Sanders, by 14 months). But they didn’t manage to lay a glove on him.
Biden still can’t complete a complex sentence without stopping himself in the middle. That Afghanistan explanation was… what?! He was incoherent sometimes. What kind of offenders shouldn’t face jail time? He said one thing but obviously meant another.
At moments, I pictured him up there on a debate stage against Donald Trump. I was tempted to think Trump would eat his lunch, but then I remembered that Trump is if anything way more senile than Biden and knows about one-tenth of what Biden has forgotten about policy. And also that anyway—and nobody mentions this, but keep it in mind—I’d be semi-surprised if Trump agrees to debates in the first place. He lost all three in 2016, and he’ll probably lose them again, as I’m sure he knows, because he makes Biden look like Cicero, and he’s so far down his own rabbit hole he thinks half of Fox News is against him, so he’ll just mumble something about fake news and go have a rally in Alabama, no doubt with a hurricane “bearing down.”
But back to this event: Nobody landed a punch on Biden. During the health-care segment, Sanders and Warren were if anything on the defensive. Warren dodged the middle-class tax question in a way that, to me, bodes ill for a general election, and I like her.
And then she made it a point to praise Barack Obama, which was smart, far better than acting like Obama was the failure he was in her telling during the last debate, but she did it in a way that kind of undercut her own health-care case. There were long stretches where Warren just kind of went away and one forgot she was up there (this was true of Sanders too, and during one stretch, Biden as well). But the point is that I don’t think the average Democratic viewer watched that health-care exchange and thought Warren and Sanders had the clear upper hand.
On race, nobody touched Biden. Nobody brought up the crime bill, the tough-on-crime stuff. Castro again tried to whack Biden on immigration, but again overplayed his hand. If he were polling at 6 or 7 percent, with a sporting chance of jumping into the top tier, all right, you can do that. But he’s at 1 percent, lucky to be on the stage in the first place.
The second-tier candidate who stood out was Beto O’Rourke. Of course, he did so by taking positions that are pretty out there—mandatory buyback on guns, reparations. But he connected, at least with the audience in the hall. His race and guns soliloquies were the only genuine emotional connections of the night, as I saw things. Maybe he’s back in the conversation. The other Democrats on stage, perhaps calculating otherwise, repeatedly praised him for his performance in El Paso after the tragedy there.
Kamala Harris? The only thing people will remember from tonight is that she had a couple lines that were over-rehearsed, which shows the danger of trying too hard to have the sound-bite. Bernie Sanders? Too much yelling and lecturing. Which is always true of him but somehow seemed more true tonight than in the second debate, when he found an equilibrium that served him well and corrected numbers that at the time were sagging. Pete Buttigieg? He’s a natural in a way most of the others aren’t, but it wasn’t quite his night. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar aren’t on the level of the others, and Andrew Yang is, let’s say, a boutique candidate.
So Democrats, after tonight, you’re still stuck with Joe. He’s at the top of the pole, and no one knocked him off tonight. If you followed the debate on Twitter, everybody leaped on every malapropism, every sentence fragment, every memory space-out. People have now been trained to spot those and make fun of them, and decide they’re disqualifying.
But outside of Twitter, they’re not. Warren is better than Biden virtually every day, but if she wants to win this, she has to be better on debate nights. Clearly better. And tonight, she was not.