Texas may well be a place to watch in the 2020 election. But the two Texans in the race, Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke, have struggled to stay in the running, to the disappointment of many Democrats here. The debate at Texas Southern University, in Houston, on Thursday night, the first of the race to feature all major candidates onstage together, was an opportunity to break through on home turf. Or at least, that was the pre-debate narrative. Commentators love to crown winners and losers in these things, and at the end of the night, the consensus seemed to be that Castro had a bad night and O’Rourke had a good one. They (we?) also love to make lists of things a time-conscious news consumer needs to know. Like this one!
(1) These debates are kind of awful
The overabundance of candidates means nobody gets all that much time to speak substantively, and the format rewards attacks. In a ranking of candidates by overall speaking time, Castro placed seventh, at 11 minutes and 4 seconds, and O’Rourke ninth, at 9 minutes and 25 seconds, even though the debate ran for nearly three hours. Can you think of a single issue of national importance you could give an introductory lecture on in less than 9 minutes and 25 seconds? It’s miraculous that any discussion about policy happens at all. The main impression a viewer gets is of pinballs pinging off each other.
Two of O’Rourke’s answers, on guns and the legacy of racism in the United States, were particularly well received by many Democrats on social media. They spanned 87 and 79 seconds, respectively. Castro’s comments on health care and immigration, which both contained barbs at Joe Biden, came to 107 and 74 seconds, respectively. On the basis of this, a little less than six minutes, pundits declared Castro’s campaign dead in the water and O’Rourke’s rejuvenated. And while it’s probably true that Castro hurt himself and O’Rourke helped himself, there’s something preposterous about the idea of the race hinging on these minute soundbites.
(2) If you come at Biden, you best not miss
The most notable event of the entire night was most likely Castro’s attempt to shiv Joe Biden, in a manner similar to his earlier shivving of O’Rourke during the first debate. Castro challenged Biden on a point of fact of his health-care plan, which allows Americans to buy in or be placed on Medicare—the substance is almost immaterial, but you can read about it here—and when Biden momentarily seemed to have contradicted himself, Castro pounced.
“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?” Castro asked, as the audience howled. “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.” Really, the two were talking past each other; Castro continued to dig in after Biden clarified.
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The repeated use of the word “forgetting” seemed intended to call back to Biden’s many unfortunate recent verbal stumbles and blanks, with the clear subtext—more like a text—that Uncle Joe’s faculties aren’t quite working like they used to. The whole thing felt a bit like a scene in a superhero movie where a mohawked punk bullies a senior citizen at a bus station, shouting, “What are you going to do about it, old man?” before a caped crusader swoops in. In this case, there was no hero: Biden just smiled.
Castro’s attack landed flat in part because a lot of Democrats like Biden even if they don’t support him. Although he’s been worryingly loopy at times, he still has an avuncular charm and reminds people of the pre-Trump era, and many don’t want to see him torn down. It didn’t help Castro that Biden, in fine grandfatherly form, ended the night with the story of the untimely loss of his wife and multiple children to illness and a car accident. “Kierkegaard said, ‘Faith sees best in the dark,’ ” Biden said. It’s a story he’s told many times but that never completely loses its bite. What are you going to do about it, old man?
(3) Castro versus O’Rourke is still a thing
At the O’Rourke debate watch party, there was scattered jeering and booing as Castro dug into Biden’s soft flesh. Many Beto fans turned on Castro when he sucker punched their guy, and now, maybe, he was getting his comeuppance. The rift between the two had continued since the first debate, though O’Rourke supporters are keen to note the shade is being thrown in one direction only. Castro held a rally in Houston earlier this week called “Castro Country,” i.e., not Beto’s. And Castro has made remarks to the effect that he is the Texas Candidate in the race, which the polling doesn’t quite bear out.
That divide even manifested in the watch parties Thursday night: the official Texas Democratic Party watch party, at an event space west of downtown, doubled as Castro’s party—even though his people seemed to be outnumbered by very passionate members of Andrew Yang’s gang. Castro was scheduled to speak there at a rally after midnight, which ruffled the feathers of some of O’Rourke supporters just a bit.
Beto’s people segregated themselves into a bar in downtown Austin, where they got to watch their man showered with praise by other candidates for his response to the shooting in El Paso in August, and cheered wildly at some of the candidate’s stronger lines, particularly his endorsement of mandatory gun buybacks. “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he said. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”
Throughout the 2018 Senate race, O’Rourke had repeatedly told gun owners that while he would restrict future gun sales, “if you own an AR-15, keep it. Continue to use it responsibly and safely.” The swing to gun-seizing may well be good politics, but it also seemed like an admission that he wouldn’t be running for office in Texas ever again.
(4) Texas Republicans had a bad night too
Some Texas Democrats have hoped that a Texan would rise to the top of the ticket and mightily boost the party’s chances in 2020. That still looks much less likely than it once did. But Republicans didn’t seem to be doing too well either on Thursday. Prior to the debate, RNC chair Ronna McDaniel and Kayleigh McEnany, press secretary of the Trump 2020 campaign, were in town to hold an event as part of the “Vamos to Victory” tour, which the campaign said was to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.
The Trump campaign, doing Hispanic outreach? Exciting stuff. The rally took place in the bowels of a geographically isolated whiskey distillery in an industrial part of Houston—the kind of venue that would serve as a defensible home in the event of a zombie attack. The event was an example of the rich tradition of campaigns doing things so that they can be seen to have done them. A few dozen people listened to McDaniel speak. At the end, a Hispanic Republican from California gave a presentation about how to register voters. Maybe a dozen people stuck around to hear him, with a few other attendees drinking and chatting in the background.
One of the instructions: follow the president on Twitter. Another: “You have to be really careful not to bribe anyone,” he said. And: “You can’t throw away their ballot if they register as Democrat. That’s super-illegal.” (There’s no party registration in Texas—you can’t register to vote as a member of any party.) It did not, in other words, seem like the kind of operation that should have the left-wing Texas Organizing Project quaking in its boots.