2020 Vision Friday: Castro implies Biden is too old to beat Trump. Is that the best way to beat Biden?

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Julián Castro at the Democratic presidential debate in Houston on Sept. 12. (Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters)

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one smart, fast takeaway every weekday and a deeper roundup every weekend. Reminder: There are 143 days until the Iowa caucuses and 417 days until the 2020 election.

The most revelatory moment of Thursday’s debate was a small one. About a half-hour in, during a dizzying discussion of the various candidates’ various health care plans, Julián Castro cut in and said the quiet part out loud.

He said, in effect, that Joe Biden is old — too old, perhaps, to beat Donald Trump.

It’s no secret that the former vice president is a septuagenarian. If elected in 2020, Biden would become, at 78, the oldest president in U.S. history — eight years (or two full terms) older than the former record holder, Trump, when he took office.

But while some of Biden’s rivals have tiptoed around the age question before — Pete Buttigieg, for instance, talks constantly about “generational” change — none of them has made it explicit.

Onstage in Houston, Castro, 44, finally did.

“The difference between [the health care plan] I support and what you support, Vice President Biden, is that you require [Americans] to opt in, and I would not require them to opt in,” Castro said. “They would automatically be enrolled. They wouldn't have a buy-in.”

“They do not have to buy in,” Biden interrupted. “They do not have to buy in.”

“You just said that,” Castro snapped. “You just said that two minutes ago. You just said two minutes ago that they would have to buy in.”

Biden continued to defend his health care proposal, arguing that if Castro’s grandmother “qualifies for Medicaid, she would automatically be enrolled” in Biden’s version of a “public option.”

Julián Castro being interviewed after the debate in Houston. (Photo: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

Suddenly, a light bulb seemed to go off for Castro. Whether or not his next line was preplanned — a strategy to deploy if and when the opportunity presented itself — is impossible to say. But his message was unmistakable.

“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Castro shouted. “Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago? 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.”

In other words: The senior citizen might be losing his memory. (For the record, Castro denied this after the debate. “No, not at all,” he told reporters when asked if he was implying anything about Biden’s age or mental acuity. “I was going after the difference that we have in health care policy and what he just said on the stage.”)

In the immediate aftermath, other candidates distanced themselves as well, mainly by calling for unity. “A house divided cannot stand,” said Amy Klobuchar, kind of quoting Abraham Lincoln (who was himself quoting Jesus). Reporters went on to note that Castro’s facts were actually a little fuzzy and that maybe it was he who was “forgetting”: Minutes earlier Biden had said that while most people who lose their jobs would have to “buy into” his public option, “anyone who can't afford it gets automatically enrolled.” As a result, the post-show pundits declared Castro’s assault opportunistic and unfair — a self-inflicted wound.

They’re probably right. It’s unlikely Castro will climb in the polls from his current perch at 1 percent just because he called Biden old, and it’s unlikely Biden will plummet from his league-leading position at 27 percent.

But Castro’s gambit was still telling. Biden’s biggest advantage is his perceived “electability”: the fact that Democratic voters think (by a 3-to-1 margin) he’s the candidate most likely to beat Trump at the same time they overwhelmingly agree that beating Trump is their No. 1 priority.

So unless Biden somehow loses his electability advantage, the Democratic nominating contest will probably remain frozen in place, with him on top. Polls show that voters like Biden personally — but they’re not huge fans of older candidates in general. In February, for example, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 62 percent of voters had reservations about voting for someone age 75 or older; an April poll from Reuters/Ipsos found more than half of Democrats were less likely to support a presidential candidate over age 70.

Joe Biden at Thursday's Democratic debate. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

One way to counter Biden’s advantage on electability, then, is to attempt to convince voters that he’s no longer sharp enough to compete with Trump.

But can a competitor actually make that counterargument out loud? Castro tested the premise Thursday night — and wound up hurting himself in the crossfire.

The next round of polls should reveal whether Castro also hurt Biden, kamikaze-style, by making the age issue explicit — by injecting it directly into the “national conversation.”

If not, can anyone else?

The alternative approach is to simply let Biden’s age speak for itself. His gaffes show no signs of abating, and his overall performance Thursday was unfocused and at times incoherent, in marked contrast to his fellow septuagenarians Elizabeth Warren (who was as crisp as ever) and Bernie Sanders (whose answers were on point even if his voice sounded old, perhaps because he needed a lozenge).

But letting Biden’s age “speak for itself” has been the rest of the field’s strategy all along, and Biden is still the frontrunner. If anyone other than Warren or Sanders wants to win the nomination, the former veep has to collapse, opening up some space in the middle.

On Thursday, Castro took a big risk and tried to kick-start the process. You can bet his rivals were paying attention — and learning from his mistakes.

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