September 13, 2019 at 12:22 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Dems put gloves back on in third debate — except for Castro
Democratic candidates in Houston before the third debate (Photo courtesy of ABC News)

After the last debate in which the letting of blood was all but visible on the stage floor, Democratic presidential candidates eased up on each other in their third foray Thursday — although Julian Castro didn’t seem to have gotten the memo.

With a few exceptions during the health care portion of the debate, the 2020 hopefuls — rather than attacking each other over policies and records from decades ago — generally seemed more to be willing to agree to disagree rather than put the eventual Democratic nominee in a weaker position to take on President Trump in the general election.

At one point, when Kamala Harris her proposed executive order to ban assault weapons and Joseph Biden’s remarks that would be unconstitutional, Harris — in contrast to her approach in the first two debates — gently asked him to reconsider, recalling the campaign slogan for the Obama-Biden campaign.

“I mean, I would just say, Hey Joe,” Harris said. “Instead of saying, ‘No we can’t, let’s say we can.”

Biden had his own moment of refraining from outright criticism. When moderator George Stephanopoulos asked Biden, who wants to build on Obamacare, if Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren going too far, the former vice president resisted the temptation to put down Medicare for All.

“That will be for the voters to decide that question,” Biden said. “Let me tell you what I think. I think we should have a debate on health care.  I think — I know that the senator says she’s for Bernie, well, I’m for Barack. I think the Obamacare worked.  I think the way we add to it, replace everything that has been cut, add a public option, guarantee that everyone will be able to have affordable insurance.”

Castro was different. The former secretary of housing and urban development — not once, not twice, but three times — had cringe-worthy moments on the debate stage in which he went after Biden’s throat.

The first exchange came on the issue of Medicare enrollment when Castro accused Biden of forgetting he said moments ago those who lose their health insurance would be have to be enrolled into the program. Biden over the course of this exchange said they wouldn’t have to buy if they couldn’t afford it, but Castro would not relent.

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

Amid concerns Biden, 78, is too old to run for president as well as frequent observations about Biden’s gaffes and convulsions of memories with others, Castro seemed to be going to the extreme and making fun of Biden’s age.

It was noticeable on stage. Pete Buttigieg said “this is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable,” although it’s unclear whether he was referencing just the Castro-Biden exchange or health care portion of the debate as a whole.

“This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington, scoring points against each other, poking at each other, and telling each other that — my plan, your plan,” Buttigieg said. “Look, we all have different visions for what is better.”

Castro retorted: “Yeah, that’s called the Democratic primary election, Pete. That’s called an election. That’s an election. You know? This is what we’re here for. It’s an election.”

Amy Klobuchar also chimed in with objections and a call for unity.

“A house divided cannot stand,” Klobuchar said. “And that is not how we’re going to win this.”

Castro never seemed to learn his lesson. When the topic of immigration came up, Castro scorned Biden for not saying under questioning Univision moderator Jorge Ramos Obama’s deportation of 3 million people was a mistake.

“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, and then every time somebody questions part of the administration that we were both part of, he says, well, that was the president,” Castro said. “I mean, he wants to take credit for Obama’s work, but not have to answer to any questions.”

When Biden went over his time to go through a list of initiative he favored, including calling Venezeulan dictator Nicolas Maduro and financial relief for Central America. Castro snidely said, “Well, that’s — that’s quite a lot.”

In terms of LGBT issues, one moving moment came during Buttigieg’s closing statement when he talked about the difficulties being gay and serving under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and as a public official.

“As a military officer serving under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and as an elected official in the state of Indiana when Mike Pence was governor, at a certain point, when it came to professional setbacks, I had to wonder whether just acknowledging who I was, was going to be the ultimate career-ending professional setback,” Buttigieg said. “I came back from the deployment and realized that you only get to live one life, and I was not interested in not knowing what it was like to be in love any longer, so I just came out.”

That decision, Buttigieg said, ended up being the correct one. 

“I had no idea what kind of professional setback it would be, especially because inconveniently it was an election year in my socially conservative community,” Buttigieg said. “What happened was that, when I trusted voters to judge me based on the job that I did for them, they decided to trust me and re-elected me with 80 percent of the vote. And what I learned was that trust can be reciprocated and that part of how you can win and deserve to win is to know what’s worth more to you than winning.”

Klobuchar, who was probably the candidate with the most standout performance, was undoubtedly queen one-liners during the evening. On the issue of removing individuals from private insurance under Medicare for All, Klobuchar quipped, “I don’t think that’s a bold idea, I think it’s a bad idea.”

The Minnesota Democrat also had a moving closing statement when she recalled giving birth to a daughter who couldn’t swallow, but kicked out of the hospital because of a state rule a patient couldn’t stay for more than 24 hours.

“That is what motivated me to go into public service,” Klobuchar said. “And when I got to that gridlock of Washington, D.C., I got to work and pass over 100 bills, and I know a lot of my friends here from the left, but remember, I am from the middle of the country.  And I believe, if we’re going to get things done, that we have to have someone leading the ticket with grit, someone who’s going to not just change the policies, but change the tone in the country, and someone who believes in America and believes it from their heart because of where they came from, that everyone should have that same opportunity.”

The LGBT media watchdog GLAAD, however, expressed discontent over no question on LGBT issues being asked the debate and promoted its Iowa presidential forum for LGBT candidate set for Sept. 20.

“The Trump administration has spent the last three years rolling back rights for LGBTQ and other marginalized communities, and it’s imperative that LGBTQ people and the issues affecting our lives and our families not be overlooked in this presidential election,” GLAAD CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement. “Next week’s LGBTQ Forum in Iowa will correct the pattern we have seen in the first round of debates that have left LGBTQ people largely out of the conversation.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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