Former Vice President Biden seemed to struggle with how to address his rivals for the Democratic nomination at the debate in Houston on Thursday night.
While all the others on the stage were calling each other Pete and Elizabeth and Bernie and Joe, Biden referred to Sen. Bernie Sanders as “the senator on my left,” or “my friend from Vermont,” and “the senator” when speaking of Elizabeth Warren, who was standing to his right.
He called Beto O’Rourke by his first name, then apologized for being too informal, leading O’Rourke to answer “Beto’s good.”
And when thanking Pete Buttigieg for his military service he seemed to stumble for a moment before calling him simply “my friend.”
In part it was likely a throwback to the traditions of the Senate, where Biden spent more than 30 years, where members refer to each other as “the gentlewoman from Massachusetts” or “the gentleman from Texas.”
That would not, however, explain why he at one point referred to Sanders as “the president” before correcting himself to say “my friend from Vermont.”
All this risked appearing to voters as though he is mired in the old traditions, while raising questions of memory and age which have plagued the 76-year-old candidate. Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro obliquely referred to those concerns when arguing a detail of Biden’s health care plan.
“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Castro goaded, touting his own plan, which automatically enrolls patients. “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.”
The transcript doesn’t entirely support Castro’s point. Biden had said people who needed health insurance “can join immediately.”
Several minutes later, Biden called him “my colleague.”
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