In politics, there are three directions to punch upward (at someone ahead in the polls), downward (at someone trailing) and straight across (at a peer occupying the same space).
We're seen examples of punching upward in two of the three presidential debates California Sen. Kamala Harris and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro both going after former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic frontrunner.
One jab worked (that would be Harris) and one didn't (Castro).
Why would that be?
Let's review the two punches thrown.
In the first debate, Harris lit into Biden over the issue of forced federal busing and Biden's opposition to it back in the 1970's, which as Harris pointed out meant the former vice president was working with segregationist senators (which happened often back in the days when the Senate was populated by a hodgepodge of northern liberal and southern conservative Democrats and Republicans).
Harris made the issue personal but not at Biden's expense (read the debate transcript and you'll note she was careful not to brand him a racist) with this soliloquy: "There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day, and that little girl was me."
Now, let's look at what transpired last Thursday night, when Castro made it his mission to get under Biden's skin during a back-and-forth over the two candidates' health-care stances.
"The difference between what I support and you support, Vice President Biden, is that you require them to opt in. And I would not require them to opt in," said Castro. "They would automatically be enrolled. That's a big difference."
Biden's reply: "They do not have to buy in."
At which point, Castro pounced: "You just said that two minutes ago. You just said two minutes ago that they would have to buy in."
"Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?" Castro asked, returning to the line several times more amidst audience groans.
The media's reaction? "Castro Attacks Biden's Memory, But He Was The One Who's Wrong."
And: "2020 Candidates Push Back On Castro For Questioning Biden's Memory."
So why did Harris succeed in her dig (she briefly spiked in the polls in early July before returning to the middle of the pack), while Castro's wasn't well received?
Simple: Castro opened the door to suggestions that Biden was past his prime and maybe not in possession of a full bag of marbles whereas Harris inferred that Biden, good man though he might be, didn't know what it is to young, black, and afraid.
Another way to look at it: no one likes a bully; who doesn't feel empathy for a young girl made to feel like an outsider?
How then should Democrats go after Biden if, we assume, he remains the primary frontrunner and, as such, continues to hold claim to the title of debate-stage piÃ±ata?
I'd be clear, concise and clinic and take advantage of the treasure trove that is Biden's 44-year run in Washington (36 years in the Senate; eight in the vice presidency) that spanned eight of the 45 presidencies.
As for the other goodies that keep falling off the tree (most recently, Biden recalling a showdown with a young thug named Corn Pop in a tale that sounds more West Side Story than real-life Americana in 1962): leave that to the media to fan.
And stick to the record.
For example, Biden was one of 32 Senate Democrats who voted for 1996's federal Defense of Marriage Act (it defined "marriage" as a union between a man and a woman). Yes, Biden will point out that he came out in favor of same-sex marriage before Barack Obama did (this would be in 2012 in doing so, setting off a mad scramble within the Obama re-elect campaign).
But that's exactly where you want to lure Biden: "What else, Mr. Vice President, what else did you support before you were against it?"
Another Biden trouble spot: a record of being on the wrong side of military history (voting against the Gulf War in 1991 but in favour of the Iraq invasion in 2003 and later advising Obama not to okay the raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden).
A trend is apparent after only three Democratic debates: the candidates come loaded with sound bites, but ask them to explain a knotty topic while the clock's ticking and they quickly stumble.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is one such example: she's great at decrying societal inequity and corporate greed, but ask her to detail how exactly Medicare For All would work and she fast loses her eloquence.
Biden is similarly challenged. Having lost a wife and children to different forms of tragedy (a car crash, cancer), he's suffered in ways that many of us can't fathom a resilience that voters respect.
But when Biden goes down a rabbit hole on, say, race, as he did in last week's debate, it's a meandering ride seemingly without a point that takes us through poverty, family values and ultimately phonographs (could vinyl make a comeback should there be a Biden presidency?).
Such a candidate, having experienced such devastating personal losses, has a card to play in debates. What comes to mind is the late John McCain, in his first congressional campaign (and not long removed from his time as a prisoner of war), shutting down an opponent who tried to make carpetbagging an issue (the future congressman had recently relocated to Arizona, his new father-in-law being the owner of a Phoenix beer distributorship).
McCain's counter when the issue of Arizona pedigree arose in that debate: "Listen, pal . . . I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First [Congressional] District of Arizona, but I was doing other things."
"As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi."
Could Biden do the same in a future presidential debate turn the tables on his opponents by evoking the loss of his first wife, a daughter and a son ("don't lecture mean on what it means to face hardship")?
It's worth considering, the next time a Democratic hopeful decides to go after Joe Biden's mental acuity.
Long in years means possessing a few liabilities. But try to besmirch Biden and you're liable to end up where Julian Castro did after the last candidates' debate a very unpopular kid in the Democratic sand box.
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