The third Democratic primary debate answered at least one question you didn’t know you were wondering about: Yes, there is a limit on how much shouting Bernie Sanders can do before his voice gives out.
Outside of that, it was largely clear that the candidates had heard complaints about the negativity that pervaded the second round of debates. Overall, the exchanges in Houston on Thursday night were a lot cheerier, despite the often heavy topics that dominate an event held in times that can feel like the edge of apocalypse. There was some heated argument between progressives and centrists over health care policy and funding in the early going, but most of the night was congenial, with candidates spending more time trying to make a positive argument for themselves than taking swipes at each other.
But there was one big exception: Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro took a big chunk out of former Vice President Joe Biden during the height of the health care debate, accusing Biden of contradicting himself on health care with the line that will be the most memorable of the night: “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?”
The audience’s “oh sh*t” reaction and Castro’s smirk made it undeniable what he was doing, which was calling attention not just to Biden’s age, but to concerns that the pile-up of confused statements, memory lapses, and misstatements are about something more than Biden’s long history of being what pundits call “gaffe-prone.”
Unfortunately, Biden didn’t do a whole lot to counter the narrative that Castro pulled out of subtext and dumped right into the text. He started the debate with criticisms of ambitious single-payer health care plans backed by Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, among others. They were not criticisms I agree with, but they were nonetheless clear and easy to understand. But as the night went on, Biden slid back into meandering and forgetting, even once seeming to forget Sanders’ name and calling him “the president”.
Then, to make it worse, something started to happen with Biden’s teeth that looked quite a bit like loose dentures slipping. It was subtle, but probably not subtle enough to escape the attention of Donald Trump or the demons who run his campaign. That’s a real concern, unfortunately, since Trump won’t be nearly as reserved in his ageist cracks as Castro was.
Folks, it was so bad that Sanders repeatedly appeared to be leaning over to Biden to comfort him, which was kind of sweet….