For all the plans and white papers the Democratic presidential candidates have released—for all of the vigorous back and forth between the field’s progressives and moderates on health care, climate, and other issues at the center of the primary—the race seems to be in a state of stasis. Joe Biden’s numbers continue their trickle downward, Elizabeth Warren has seemingly cemented a spot near the top of the field over the course of the past few months, and Bernie Sanders is holding steady at either second or third place, with the rest of a gradually thinning pack struggling to gain ground. Debates are supposed to shake things up—we expect some soundbite or canned controversy to realign the field, as Kamala Harris’s exchange with Biden on busing during the first round of debates did, for a moment.
Since that episode, the debates haven’t shaken up all that much. The exchanges on nearly every major issue have become predictable, and while the candidates have “traded barbs” here and there, there haven’t been any truly shocking moments. That changed last night.
Biden, while describing his health care plan, said that those who lose their insurance through unemployment would be able to “automatically ... buy into” his Medicare option. Minutes later, Julián Castro noted this and referred also to the fact that the Biden campaign’s own figures suggest as many as 10 million Americans—perhaps including people in situations like Castro’s diabetic grandmother—would be left uninsured by his plan. Castro’s health care plan, by contrast, is aimed at covering all Americans automatically, without the added step of having people buy into the plan.
“That’s a big difference because 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.” An affronted Biden denied this, leading to a sharp exchange.
Biden: They do not have to buy in. They do not have to buy in.
Castro: You just said that. You just said that two minutes ago. You just two minutes ago that they would have to buy in.
Biden: They do not have to buy in if you can’t afford it.
Castro: You said they would have to buy in.
Biden: Your grandmother would not have to buy in. If she qualifies for Medicaid, she would automatically be enrolled.
Castro: Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? 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.
It is doubtful most viewers would have appreciated the nuances of what Biden and Castro were discussing even if Castro hadn’t taken a remarkably transparent jab at Biden’s age—which was in turn followed by Castro summarily rejecting Pete Buttigieg’s attempt to play peacemaker. “This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington,” Buttigieg said, “scoring points against each other, poking at each other, and telling each other that—my plan, your plan. Look we all have different visions for what is better—”
Castro cut him off. “Yeah, that’s called the Democratic primary election, Pete,” he said. “That’s called an election.”
It’s possible all of this landed more poorly among most debate viewers than it did among progressives on social media who have been openly questioning Biden’s mental acuity since he entered the race. There are a fair number of people roughly as old as Biden within the primary electorate, and polls routinely show that Democratic voters have a favorable opinion of just about everyone in the field. On top of that, Democrats tend to prefer amiable politicians. Yet Cory Booker, an evangelist for finding common ground and winning change through what he calls a “conspiracy of love,” was willing to defend and echo Castro in the post-debate spin room. “Castro has some really legitimate concerns about, can [Biden] be someone in a long grueling campaign that can get the ball over the line?” he said. “And he has every right to call that out.”
All of this is obviously about toppling Biden from his perch atop the polls. Nevertheless, it’s notable that Castro and Booker would see hitting Biden on his age as a safe way of doing that. Both are professional strivers and loyal party men—Castro, of course, was a member of the Obama-Biden cabinet—who must at this point, given their position in the polls, be thinking about their likely post-primary futures as much if not more seriously than they’re thinking about the possibility of winning the nomination. As recently as 2016, securing a stable future in Democratic Party politics would have meant going along to get along with people like Biden and his backers—contest the primary, sure, but respect the man.
But the Democratic culture of intra-party civility and deference to party elders has frayed significantly over the past few years. We’ve seen it in the open tensions between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the progressive members of her caucus. We’ve seen it in the willingness of party activists, like those of Indivisible and the Sunrise Movement, to sharply criticize, confront, or threaten primary challenges against esteemed moderates like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Senator Dianne Feinstein. And we’ve seen it, too, in all the previous jabs against Biden, which are often hits—implicitly or explicitly—against Barack Obama’s policy record.
There are insurgencies against party leadership afoot everywhere, but progressives should note that only some of them have anything to do with moving the party left. The movement to replace Nancy Pelosi as speaker was driven not by the House’s young progressives but rather by young moderates like Tim Ryan and Seth Moulton. The generational argument they made was echoed against Biden by fellow moderate Eric Swalwell in his brief primary campaign and is now being echoed again by Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts in his run for Senate against Ed Markey—an old, long-serving member of Congress, sure, but a pretty reliably progressive one.
The progressive parts of the Booker and Castro platforms have been stapled hastily onto generic Democratic policy resumes. It’s both too early to tell whether they have any intention of keeping those commitments long-term and entirely reasonable to suspect that in a different policy climate within the party, one not shaken up by Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, they would be just as eager to topple Biden—that in an alternate universe today, Castro is being slammed by pundits for a spat with Biden over their respective plans to reduce the national debt.
In this world, the reactions of those pundits to Castro’s attack have revealed how comically hollow Democratic civility discourse can be. One of the first post-debate commentators ABC turned to was former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was indignant about the moment. “That was a disqualifier the way he handled it,” he said. “It will come across as mean and vindictive.” This is coming from a man so cartoonishly mean and vindictive that he once famously sent a dead fish to a pollster who had upset him.
Emanuel’s entire political career, which he brought to an abrupt end amidst allegations that his administration had worked to cover up a policeman’s murder of an unarmed black teen named Laquan McDonald—name-checked by Castro on the debate stage—has been proof positive that intra-party comity is a norm that serves only the party’s leadership. The establishment figures tightly clutching their pearls about Castro were happy to retain a man willing to call progressives “fucking retarded” as a powerful fixer and make him mayor of Chicago because Democratic civility is, primarily, an instrument of party control. It’s now weakening—to the benefit not only of progressives and leftists who want to remake the party, but also those who think it’s their turn to run the party we already have.