The heavy-hitters of the 2020 field finally had a chance to share a debate stage Thursday night—and despite the fact they're all rivals in the polls, the candidates largely seemed unwilling to pit themselves against each other. With one notable exception, that is. Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro was quick to take on former Vice President Joe Biden throughout Thursday's debate, sparking a rare combative moment that the other candidates quickly shut down. Castro went against Biden over his health care plan, which he stated would leave 10 million people uninsured and require Americans to opt-in. When Biden insisted that Americans wouldn't have to opt into the plan, Castro responded by criticizing Biden's memory, saying, “But you just said that two minutes ago! . . . Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” The former Obama administration official then doubled down on his attack, informing Biden: “I'm fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama , and you're not.” (“That'll be a surprise to him,” Biden responded.)
Castro's line of attack against Biden didn't sit well with the other politicians onstage, who decried the partisan in-fighting on display. “This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable,” Mayor Pete Buttigieg cut in to say, starting in on a diatribe. “This reminds everybody of what they can not stand about Washington.” Castro interrupted Buttigieg, saying, “That's called an election. This is what we're here for.” But Senator Amy Klobuchar pushed back, telling Castro, “But a house divided cannot stand.” Castro launched another attack on Biden later in the debate, after moderator Jorge Ramos called out Biden for the number of deported immigrants under President Obama. “The president did the best thing that he could,” Biden said, adding when asked about his own role, “I'm the Vice President.” “My problem with Vice President Biden . . . is every time something good about Barack Obama comes up, he says ‘Oh, I was there, I was there, I was there, that's me too,’” Castro said. “And then every time somebody tries to question the administration we were both a part of, he says, ‘Well, that was the president.’ He wants to take credit for Obama's work but not have to answer to any questions.” (Biden's response: “I stand with Barack Obama all eight years—good, bad and indifferent.”)
The candidates' admonishment of Castro's attack on Biden was in line with the overarching civility of Thursday's debate, which contained the usual policy differences—Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren defending Medicare for All against the more moderate candidates, Sen. Kamala Harris hitting back against Biden's suggestion that she can't use executive action to ban assault weapons—but was characterized overall by the candidates' unity. The politicians consistently emphasized how little the differences in their policies matter when compared against those of President Donald Trump , framing defeating him as their primary priority, and readily gave other candidates credit for their actions. Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke was repeatedly praised for his compassionate response to the El Paso shooting, and candidates credited Sanders for his work to make Medicare for All a mainstream issue. “The differences among us Democrats on the stage are not as great as the urgency for us to unite as a party, not just to beat Donald Trump, but to unite America in common cause and common purpose,” Sen. Cory Booker said in his opening statement.
Castro going on the offensive against Biden also showed the folly of attacking the former vice president, who may be the front-runner all the other candidates have to beat, but is also the jovial and beloved “Uncle Joe.” Lobbing personal attacks at the vice president, candidates are learning, just doesn't work—not for Rep. Eric Swalwell , who took aim at Biden's age and told him to “pass the torch” in the June debate before swiftly dropping out of the race, and seemingly not for Castro. Facing a general election opponent who loves to bully his rivals and point out their flaws, the 2020 Democrats are so far signaling that they're unwilling to accept a race that stoops to Trump's level. But while the candidates may resist attacking each other, they proved Thursday that they're all too willing to focus their judgement on Trump instead. “I have a few words for Donald Trump, who we all know is watching,” Harris said in her opening statement, going on to point out Trump's “12,000 lies” and the fact that “the only reason you've not been indicted is because there was a memo in the Department of Justice that says a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime.”
Advertisement “Here's what you don't get: What you don't get is that the American people are so much better than this. And we know that the vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us, regardless of our race, where we live, or the party with which we're registered to vote. And I plan on focusing on our common issues, our common hopes and desires, and in that way, unifying our country, winning this election, and turning the page for America,” Harris continued. “And now, President Trump, you can go back to watching Fox News.”