Beto O'Rourke, Julian Castro
Beto O'Rourke, left, and Julián Castro, right, at the third Democratic presidential primary debate, in Houston at Texas Southern University. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Texas’ Presidential Candidates Break Out Briefly During the Democratic Debate

But it’s probably not enough to challenge the frontrunners.

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by Amal Ahmed, Gus Bova, and Andrea Valdez

September 13, 2019

The third Democratic presidential debate and all its attendant hullabaloo stampeded into Texas Thursday night. It was a historic night for Texas Southern University, the historically black university in Houston that graduated U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan, a woman who represents a litany of “firsts,” so it was only fitting that TSU was the first HBCU in Texas to host such an event. But it didn’t prove to be that historic of an evening for San Antonio native Julián Castro and former El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke. Both candidates needed a breakout moment, and while they each sort of got one, it likely won’t be enough to buoy them in the polls.

Castro’s moment came in the first half hour, as the candidates sparred over health care. Former vice president Joe Biden had explained his policy, in which qualified uninsured people would automatically be enrolled into a Medicare-type option. But because Biden talks in winding half-sentences that tend to trip over one another, the message was muddy and convoluted. When it came time for Castro to speak, he pounced on Biden.

“If they choose to hold on to strong, solid private health insurance, I believe they should be able to do that,” Castro said. “But the difference between what I support and what you support, Vice President Biden, is that you require them to opt in, and I would not require them to opt in. They would automatically be enrolled. They wouldn’t have to buy in.”

Biden sputtered in, saying that wasn’t what he said, but Castro insisted. “You said they would have to buy in. 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 that they don’t have to buy in. You’re forgetting that.”

The implication was clear. Castro took the shot at aging Uncle Joe.

The reaction on Twitter was instantaneous. Many found it cheap and ageist. Others thought it made explicit what a lot of people have been whispering about the 76-year-old candidate. Ultimately, the fact checkers adjusted their glasses, got to work, and found that Castro himself was the mixed up one.

Castro took the shot at aging Uncle Joe.

But that wasn’t the only dig Castro took at Biden. When asked about immigration, Biden was again against the ropes, blocking, deflecting, and throwing half-hearted answers back at moderator Jorge Ramos about the shortcomings of Barack Obama’s immigration policies. Castro attacked a bumbling Biden, but in doing so the lone Latinx candidate used up much of his time on the issue without highlighting specific policies.

O’Rourke’s debate moment also came relatively early in the debate, when the discussion turned to gun control. After the massacre in El Paso on August 3, O’Rourke remade himself by returning to himself. Gone were the status quo campaign tactics he adopted for his presidential run; he was back to cursing, and punchy social media posts, and visiting towns and communities candidates never paid much mind to. The day after the shooting, he went to a gun show in Arkansas and publicly declared that as president, he would institute a mandatory buyback of assault weapons. This was the talking point moderators brought up at the debate.

“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” Beto O’Rourke said, to raucous applause.

Gun control is always a fraught topic in Texas, but especially now. Less than a month after the shooting in El Paso, there was another mass shooting in Midland-Odessa. In the immediate aftermath of that tragedy, Texas politicians doubled down on rhetoric about the “God-given right” to own a gun, but public sentiment shifted enough to cause them to at least start talking about taking (very) tentative action on the issue. Last week Governor Greg Abbott released a report outlining eight executive orders “to better protect our communities and our residents from mass shootings.” On Thursday, the governor suggested ways to make it easier for people to do voluntary background checks.

So while some legislators took have taken a politically deft approach to the issue, Texas state Representative Briscoe Cain came out blazing Thursday night. He responded on Twitter to O’Rourke’s byte-worthy line, tweeting out, “My AR is ready for you Robert Francis.” (Robert Francis is O’Rourke’s legal name.) The tweet was quickly ratio’d with many tagging the FBI, saying the tweet sounded like a threat of violence. O’Rourke’s official Twitter account also weighed in, calling the tweet a “death threat.” The tweet was later deleted.

O’Rourke had a mini-moment when the debate turned to immigration. The border town resident often has a lot to say about immigration, and during the debate, he made some allusions to Texas as a state of immigrants and passionately condemned the border wall—but he neglected to mention that he himself voted to fund Trump’s border wall in March 2018. (Little matter—no one was there to call him on it.)

It’s a shame really the neither Texan came out strong on an issue that impacts their state more than most. Perhaps the best immigration answer came from Senator Elizabeth Warren, who spoke of legalizing not just so-called Dreamers, but their grandparents and cousins, too. (Warren’s main opponent on the party’s left edge, Senator Bernie Sanders, was not included in the same round of immigration questioning.) Frankly, the whole discussion was so abbreviated that we learned very little about how the candidates would handle the thorny, intersectional issue of immigration.

Another big issue neither Texas candidate took much time to address was the climate crisis, a topic that is increasingly a concern for Americans. (Yes, the candidates participated in a marathon seven-hour town hall on CNN last week, but that event wasn’t aired for free, making it largely inaccessible to those without a cable subscription: namely, young and low-income voters.) Roughly an hour and a half into the debate—which, again, took place in Houston, the city devastated by Hurricane Harvey just two years ago—O’Rourke was asked how his administration would address climate change and the devastating loss of the Amazon forest and ice sheets in Greenland. O’Rourke quickly turned the conversation to the issues facing Houston, here and now. The city has seen three 500-year floods in the past three years, he pointed out, and the storms won’t stop coming anytime soon. He repeated the bones of his climate policy—to invest $5 trillion in infrastructure, earmark “pre-disaster” funds, and reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. (Castro wasn’t asked about climate, although his plan is more aggressive in terms of funding, timelines, and environmental racism.)

Toward the end of the debate, Castro told the first half of a story that shows a mixed legacy on environmental issues. When he was a city councilor, a developer wanting to build a golf course over the city’s aquifer was also one of his clients at a law firm. Castro quit his well-paying law firm job to vote against the developer—the perfect inspiring story to close out the debate with. But he left off the second part of that story: a few years later, he sided with the same project in a calculated political move ahead of his run for mayor.

In the end, nothing substantial came from the debate. Most major media outlets are concerned with whether Castro was too mean; the Texas outlets glommed onto a local Republican’s outlandish rhetoric, a dog-bites-man story for those who follow the Lege. Castro could be setting himself up for a vice presidential candidacy, maybe to be the attack dog for Warren, who clearly wants to stay out of the mudpit but surely understands that’s President Donald Trump’s single favorite arena. O’Rourke continues to look like a feisty candidate who would be better suited serving his state—and polls suggest much of his state still wants him to serve as Senator. What polls don’t reflect just yet is if the third debate does anything to goose support for the two Texans.

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