Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro took full advantage of his moment on the national stage at the Democratic debate Thursday night to unload on former Vice President Joe Biden, accusing him of betraying the positive aspects of President Barack Obama’s legacy and refusing to disown the negative parts.
His sharpest exchanges with Biden came up during discussion of two of the defining battles of the Obama presidency: those around health care and immigration policy.
Health care came first, with ABC News’ panel of moderators beginning the debate in Houston with a heated and prolonged conversation about the merits and potential pitfalls of transitioning to a “Medicare for All,” single-payer health care system.
Castro, who stops short of embracing a single-payer plan that forces people to drop their private insurance, nonetheless delivered a blistering attack against Biden for his health care plan. Castro simultaneously cast doubt on Biden’s self-appointed status as heir to Obama’s presidency, his commitment to universal health care coverage and his mental acuity.
Biden argued that his proposed public health insurance option that Americans can buy into would achieve the same goals as the Medicare for All system proposed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) without forcing Americans to drop their private insurance.
“If you lose the job from your ... employer, you automatically can buy into this,” Biden declared. “No pre-existing condition can stop you from buying in. You get covered, period.”
But Castro noted that by making enrollment in this public program optional rather than automatic, Biden’s plan fails to guarantee universal coverage. It’s a feature of Biden’s plan that he disputed in the last presidential debate, but as CNN noted in a fact check, his plan only claims it will guarantee coverage for 97% of the population. In a country of 327 million people, that leaves 10 million Americans without coverage.
“Barack Obama’s vision was not to leave 10 million people uncovered,” Castro said. “He wanted every single person in this country covered. My plan would do that. Your plan would not.”
Biden, who has wrapped himself in Obama’s presidency more than any other candidate, interjected repeatedly to deny that characterization.
“They do not have to buy in!” he insisted. “They do not have to buy in ―”
Castro cut him off and went on to insinuate that Biden’s memory might be failing him.
“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” he asked, eliciting gasps from the live audience at Texas Southern University. “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!”
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who also suggested that his plan went further than Biden’s, decried the pitched tone of Castro’s exchange.
“This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable,” he said. “Because this reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington: scoring points against each other, poking at each other and telling each other that ‘My plan, your plan ― look ―’”
Castro cut him off, too. “That’s called the Democratic primary election, Pete. That’s called an election. That’s an election. You know? This is what we’re here for. It’s an election,” he said, eliciting cheers from the crowd.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota did her best to call for unity as well, though her line barely made it through the din.
“A house divided cannot stand. And that is not how we’re going to win this,” she said.
In a follow-up interview after the debate, Castro denied that he was casting aspersions on how Biden’s age is affecting his fitness for office.
There is some disagreement as to whether Castro’s attack was fair, with Politifact deeming it “mostly false.”
The lack of clarity in Biden’s language appears to have contributed to a misunderstanding. Biden might have thought Castro was suggesting that his plan required that people buy in to his public health care option and thus his response: that they “do not have to buy in.” But in so doing, Biden merely confirmed Castro’s point that enrollment under Biden’s plan is optional rather than automatic, which is why Castro seized on it as evidence of Biden contradicting himself.
In a subsequent part of the exchange, Biden appeared to understand that they were debating the merits of optional enrollment. He noted that his plan automatically enrolls Americans who are eligible for Medicaid ― those with earnings below 138% of the federal poverty level ― and thus would likely cover Castro’s late diabetic grandmother, whom Castro had referenced in the debate.
“If she qualifies for Medicaid, she would automatically be enrolled,” Biden said.
Later on in the evening, Castro lit into Biden for failing to clarify whether he agreed early on with Obama’s policy of ramping up deportation of undocumented immigrations and neglecting to prioritize immigration reform in the first two years of his presidency when Democrats controlled Congress. It’s a subject that Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey lambasted Biden for failing to address in the last debate in Detroit on July 31.
The exchange began when Univision host Jorge Ramos, who co-moderated the debate, asked Biden whether he considered the administration’s harder-line approach to immigration a “mistake.” Ramos also asked why Latinos should trust Biden, given his service in an Obama administration in which immigration reform advocates increasingly find fault.
“He wants to take credit for Obama’s work but not have to answer any questions. I don’t get that.”
Biden first fell back on a stock answer. “Comparing [President Obama] to the president we have is outrageous,” he said.
But Ramos called him out for failing to answer the question: Does he stand by the Obama administration’s record?
“The president did the best thing that was able to be done at the time,” Biden finally said.
Ramos continued: What about Biden?
“I’m the vice president of the United States,” he said.
Ramos then turned to Castro, asking him what compromises he’d be willing to make to help immigrants as president.
But Castro stayed on Biden, finishing the job that Ramos started with a riff on Booker’s critique of Biden from the previous debate.
“Every time something good about Barack Obama comes up, [Biden] says, ‘Oh, I was there, I was there, I was there ― that’s me, too.’ And then every time somebody questions part of the administration that we were both part of, he says, ‘Well, that was the president,’” Castro declared, prompting applause from the audience. “He wants to take credit for Obama’s work but not have to answer any questions. I don’t get that.”
Biden denied saying that.
“I stand with Barack Obama all eight years, good, bad and indifferent. That’s where I stand,” he replied.
Castro, the only Latino candidate in the presidential primary field, has staked his underdog bid for the presidency in no small part on his ambitious immigration reform plan. During the first Democratic presidential debate in Miami in late June, Castro had a heated exchange with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a fellow Texan who refused to back Castro’s plan to downgrade unauthorized border crossings to a civil violation from their current status as a felony.
Of course, staking one’s candidacy in part on a criticism of Obama’s legacy is tricky terrain for any Democratic White House hopeful. The former president retains sky-high popularity among Democratic voters.
Castro was careful, though, to praise Obama for his work passing the Affordable Care Act and distinguish him from Trump when it comes to immigration policy.
“I agree that Barack Obama was very different from Donald Trump,” Castro said. “Donald Trump has a dark heart when it comes to immigrants.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article attributed the comment about a “house divided” to Sen. Kamala Harris. It was Sen. Amy Klobuchar who made the remark.