Return to Transcripts main page


Questioning Biden's Age and Memory; Showdown Over Health Care; Democrats Embrace Obama Legacy. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired September 13, 2019 - 12:00   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: And I think we're going to keep this. Pretty sure we're just going to keep it. Even though I can't.

Thanks, everybody, for joining me. "INSIDE POLITICS: with John King starts right now.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Kate.

And welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Fallout today from a feisty ten candidate Democratic debate. Joe Biden mixes it up with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on health care. And two contenders who made Biden's age and stamina an issue last night stage hasty retreats the morning after.

Plus, Beto O'Rourke adds a hell yes when asked if he would push a mandatory buy-back of assault weapons. It is a line that could well help him in the Democratic primary. But a position most Democrats see as an impossible sell in a general election.

And over three hours, clear dividing lines between the liberals and the more moderate candidates, with an exception here and there.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My friend, Vermont thinks that employer is going to give you back if you negotiated as union all these years, got a cut in wages because you got insurance, they're going to give back that money to the employee?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: As a matter of fact they will. (INAUDIBLE) will.

BIDEN: Well, let me tell you something, for a socialist, you've got a -- you -- for a socialist, you've got a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do.


KING: And we begin the hour with that debate. The Democrats and their post-debate reset. Or in the case of two candidates, their hasty post- debate retreats. Last night the Houston debate brought a big and familiar split on health care. You saw some of it there. Medicare for all versus building on Obamacare. There also were flashy moments for lower tier candidates who needed them. So don't look for the field to shrink much before debate round four, that's next month.

The most talked about moment, Julian Castro's attack on Joe Biden.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They do not have to buy in. They do not have to buy in.

JULIAN CASTRO (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You just said that -- you just said that two minutes ago. You just said two minutes ago that they would have to buy in.

BIDEN: They do not have to buy in if they can't afford it. Medicaid would automatically be (INAUDIBLE).

CASTRO: 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 they don't have to buy -- you're forgetting that.


KING: The morning after, Castro insisting this was all about policy, not a personal dig at the former vice president's age.


JULIAN CASTRO (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That was not a personal attack. This was about a disagreement over what the vice president said.

That's a question that I would ask any opponent on stage.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR, "NEW DAY": Are you asking us to believe this morning that you weren't questioning Joe Biden's memory?

CASTRO: Oh, I was questioning why he was saying that he hadn't said the words "buy in."


KING: After the debate, Cory Booker sided with Castro. But a few hours later, he joined Castro in the walk back aisle.


SEN. CORY BOOKER (D-NJ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's a lot of people who are concerned about Joe Biden's ability to carry the ball all the way across the end line without fumbling. There are definitely moments where you listen to Joe Biden and you

just wonder. But I don't know -- look --

Forgive me if my football metaphor about fumbling the ball is being taken out of context.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR, "NEW DAY": So to use the football metaphor, you wouldn't throw a flag on questioning Joe Biden's memory?

BOOKER: Look, I definitely was not saying that. I think that we all have challenges at times. I can't even remember what I had for dinner last night.


KING: With me today to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Pace with the Associated Press, CNN's Jeff Zeleny, Michael Shear with "The New York Times" and Tarini Parti with "The Wall Street Journal."

My take away from that is that, look, talk to any Democrat. There are questions. Does Joe Biden have what it takes. Whether that's an age question, whether that's a discipline question, whether that's a focus question, there are questions about Joe Biden.

My take away from Castro and Booker trying to say, never mind the morning after is, they realize it's dangerous to bring it up.

JULIE PACE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, absolutely. I mean they were giving voice in those initial comments to this real conversation that is happening among Democrats, Democratic voters, Democratic strategists, you know, members of other -- of the other campaigns, is Joe Biden too old to be president? Has he lost a step? Is he -- is he too shaky? That is an actual conversation that is happening.

But the reality is that Joe Biden still leads this field and Joe Biden has a deep reservoir of goodwill with a lot of Democratic voters. And what a lot of these candidates are seeing is that there is still a line in how far a lot of Democrats are willing to let you go in challenging him. That could change as we get deeper into the primary, but right now it still remains risky to voice some of those concerns publicly.

KING: And fair, and John Berman in both cases there doing a very good job the morning after as the candidates try to retreat to say, come on, come on, especially last night when Castro turned to Biden and Castro -- actually, if you look at the transcript, Castro was wrong about what Biden said. He was actually wrong about what Biden said. I'm not going to beat him up for that. It's hard to hear sometimes in a hall like that. He was wrong, but it was crystal clear what he was trying to do.


And, look, I mean, if you look at the first debate and the second debate, one strategy that has not worked is to try to go after Joe Biden personally.


Eric Swalwell is out of the race. Kamala Harris had her best moment and then her worst, you know, week since.

So the reality here is that, you know, they have injected this into the bloodstream though. So even though they're apologizing this morning, this is something, as you said, Democrats are talking about it. But either own it or not own it. So I mean they had to know it was going to sort of, you know, not be seen that strongly by Democrats.

But I think the bigger point here is, you know, when you swipe away everything, I'm not sure that much changed last night except Joe Biden is still the frontrunner. He had a very strong first part of the debate. As the debate went on, it was very long, he had a weaker performance. But you walk away from this, he's the winner. Julian Castro is not.

MICHAEL SHEAR, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": But what's in -- what's really interesting about this is the alternate universe that we're living in, in the Democratic primary, where such rules that we're talking about and niceties still apply in politics, where somebody, you know, makes an attack like Julian Castro did, which, let's face it, is pretty mild compared to what we saw in the Republican contest and what we've seen from this president for the last --

KING: Lying Ted.

SHEAR: Lying Ted. I mean think --

KING: Little Marco, low energy Jeb agree with you.

SHEAR: Think about it. And so what's interesting is, we're living temporarily in this moment where the rules are all back in place, where everybody is sort of --

ZELENY: It's a different audience though.

SHEAR: It is a different audience but what's --

ZELENY: Democrats are yearning for unity.

SHEAR: Right, and that's -- and I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't be -- I'm not making a judgment on it, but we're going to live in this universe now, and then it's going to collide when the -- when the general election comes into a set of rules that don't -- that aren't like this anymore --


SHEAR: Because he's not going to -- because Donald Trump is not going to play by them, right?

PARTI: That's the point that Castro himself also tried to make. You know he said --

SHEAR: Right.

PARTI: If you need a nominee who can go toe to toe with Donald Trump, and if you can't -- if you thought I was too mean, then wait for Donald Trump. (INAUDIBLE) --

SHEAR: Right. I mean if this -- if that -- if what -- if Joe Biden is going to be -- and the sort of Democratic sort of collective people are going to be sort of upset by that, what are they doing to do?

ZELENY: Well, Biden didn't hit back. So we have no idea how Julian Castro would react to a Trump hitting back at him.

PACE: Right.

SHEAR: Well, that's true.

KING: That's true.

ZELENY: We did not see that last night.

KING: Right.

And so you saw, we're going to get into the substance of the health care debate, which is the long running, this debate will not be settled. The voters will settle this debate. Just as they did in 2008. The Iraq War was a big issue, but so was universal access versus universal coverage between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the other candidates back in 2008. This issue is a defining one for the Democrats.

We did see -- Joe Biden is the leading candidate. I don't even call him the frontrunner because he's under 30, because those state polls are so close, but he is the leading candidate and he has proven his resilience in the race after taking a dip. He is well loved, in part -- and this came up late in the debate -- in part because his personal story is compelling.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Kierkegaard said, faith sees best in the dark. When my son Beau came home from Iraq, and with a terminal disease, and years later, a year and a half later losing him was like losing part of my soul. But the fact is that I learned that the way you deal with it is you deal with finding purpose, purpose in what you do.


KING: When you listen to that, and if you know his life story and the personal struggles, you know, he is beloved in the party. That does not mean a lot of Democrats -- all the Democrats -- or there are a lot of Democrats, to your point, who question, is he the best nominee, who questions his history of gaffes goes back to when he was in his 30s. So some people say he's lost a step. Some people say, no, this is the Joe Biden I've known for 40 years.

But there was gasping. My email last night from people who support other candidates were saying, you can't do this. The point being that if Joe Biden is going to fall, a lot of Democrats, even Democrats who are for the other candidates, because of his history, and because he's a nice guy, they say, they want to let it happen on its own? Is that how -- what we're talking about?

PACE: Yes. I -- and I think that, you know, to Jeff's point about -- about -- I think some of the downfalls for some of these candidates like Kamala Harris, who took this very pointed and personal shot at him in the first debate, one of the lessons learned is that, you know, if Biden is going to tumble, if he's going to -- if he's going to loses his standing a top of that pack. It's not going to happen because somebody launches some type of attack that knocks him down. It's going to be -- it's going to be on his own.

And I've had, you know, a really interesting experience the last couple of times I have been out talking to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, you know, who have -- who have come out to see Joe Biden. He does these events. Sometimes they can feel a little rough. Sometimes he can feel like he's a little rambling. Sometimes he can make some misstatements and afterwards voters say versions of the same thing. They say, I feel comforted by him. I know him. I know what's behind those missteps. There's a genuine goodness to him.

And so far that seems to be mattering more to voters than some of these -- some of these things that some of the candidates really want to focus in on.

KING: And some of the references is, you know, he -- he is in his 70s. He did live years before many younger Democratic voters. So some of his references sometimes do make your head snap back a little bit.

Like last night. He was trying to make an important case and this in part comes from his wife, who has been involved in this. And in a broken family, in poverty, young children need to hear words more. That is so key to the development of a young person, hearing words, parents reading to them. Joe Biden was trying to make that case, but he took us back a few years.



JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We bring social workers into homes of parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It's not that they don't want help. They don't want -- they don't know quite what to do. Play the radio. Make sure the television -- excuse me -- make sure you have the record player on at night, the phone -- make sure the kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school, or a very poor background, will hear 4 million words few spoken by the time they get there.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KING: This -- the studies back up the idea that you want to read to children, have them hear words, especially children that need help with a head start in education.

Record player?

PARTI: I -- so my issue with that answer was less that he used a dated, you know, thing like a record player, more with, you know, just the gravity of the question. This is -- the questions about race has been something that Biden has been asked about repeatedly. He should have a strong answer on this issue at this point. But he gave such a muddled response. He went from talking about race to record player then to Maduro. And, you know, this was his opportunity to really try to get voters who don't feel as comfortable with him on issues of race.

A similar thing happened with the question on immigration, another question that Biden has struggled to answer for, you know, the Obama administration's deportations. He, again, didn't really give a strong answer on that.

KING: Struggled a lot on that one. Struggled a lot on that one.

ZELENY: Totally right focusing on his whole answer of the record player. It's what a grandfather might say. Maybe a great-grandfather might say. Voters, I can tell you, as you've heard, there is a huge disconnect. Oh, yes, the gaffe.

Voters know this is Joe Biden. If you like him, you like him. If you don't and you're looking for something else, you don't. But it's not going to be -- he's not going to fall based on a record player comment (ph).

KING: I just want to show, if we have it, just before we go to break and come back to the health care conversation. One quick moment that I found compelling last night.

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden disagree on just about everything. When Julian Castro attacked Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders came over. This happened a couple times during the debate. Bernie Sanders came over. Friends from the Senate. The club. And so they -- they -- Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden disagree on just about everything, but that told me a lot about this race right there when you see it play out. They are -- they are friends. They're going to fight it out, but they are friends, and that can matter.

Up next, that fierce debate over health care. When Joe Biden says he's still with Barack, other candidates can't resist the opportunity to make a joke.



SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I would just say, hey, Joe, instead of saying, no, we can't, let's say, yes, we can.




KING: The first big debate flash point last night was health care. Joe Biden at center stage leading the charge against Medicare for all. Too expensive for starters, he says. And the former vice president also says it's wrong to tell workers who like their private health care plans the government is making them illegal and has a better way.

Flanking Biden were Medicare for all's top advocates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Nothing settled in last night's debate, but it was feisty.


JOE BIDEN, (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think the Obamacare worked.

My plan for health care costs a lot of money. It costs $740 billion. It doesn't cost $30 trillion.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That's right, Joe. The status quo over ten years will be $50 trillion.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: On Medicare for all, costs are going to go up for wealthier individuals and costs are going to go up for giant corporations. But for hard-working families across this country, costs are going to go down.


KING: This is the biggest dividing issue. And it's the vehicle, if you will, for the broader conversation about how big, how bold, how left can you go, or is it better to be more pragmatic, more incremental and try to stay in the middle?

ZELENY: No question, it's the issue that animates everything. And perfectly right, it did not settle the discussion, it simply shined a light on the divide.

And this is another instance where this debate is going to go on for a long time. I was sitting at the debate last night watching them. I'm like, you know what, we are going to be at this long past Super Tuesday, well into March, probably April, maybe longer. This is a divide and voters are genuinely torn about it. I'm not sure that, you know, any minds were changed by that, but I do think that the former vice president got some points across about how expensive his plan is. And he had a couple people come to his aid, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg as well.

KING: To that point -- to that point, two candidates from the Midwest --

ZELENY: Right.

KING: Who say Democrats have to be careful. You want to win in the heartland, you want to get Wisconsin back, you want to get Michigan back, you better be careful. You mentioned Klobuchar and Buttigieg. Here they are.


SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And while Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill. One hundred and forty-nine million Americans will no longer be able to have their current insurance.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D-IN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The problem, Senator Sanders, with that damn bill that you wrote, and that Senator Warren backs, is that it doesn't trust the American people. I trust you to choose what makes the most sense for you.


KING: It's an incredibly personal issue to everybody. And it is both on policy -- you know, the nitty-gritty of policy and the more ideological question, which way do you go. It is the biggest one in this race.

PARTI: I think what was interesting last night is that everyone was waiting for this question and the responses from Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden and for them to sort of go at it on this subject. But what ended up happening is that Senator Bernie Sanders ended up taking, you know, talking about Medicare for all and defending his position, and we didn't really hear as much from Senator Warren. She was asked repeatedly if middle class would have to pay more in terms of taxes to pay for Medicare for all, and she didn't really answer that.


You know, we heard Senator Sanders continuing to defend the legislation, but not really much from her.

KING: Right. Right. And the answer is yes. The answer is yes. If -- if you read the Sanders --

PACE: If you back the Bernie bill, yes.

KING: If you read the Bernie health care bill, the answer is, yes, the middle class will pay more in taxes.

Now, he says that your overall cost will go down because you're not going to be paying premiums, you're not going to have things taken out of your paycheck, you're not going to be -- all the co-pays and all the deductibles. That's what he says. There are people who debate that. But she would not answer the question.

PACE: She would not answer that direct question. And it's fairly obvious why. I mean even with all of the explanations that Bernie puts around that answer, he still is a presidential candidate standing in front of the American people saying middle class Americans' taxes will go up. That is not a great talking point for a presidential candidate. And she is a candidate on the rise. She's trying to avoid kind of getting boxed into that.

I do think it is interesting that Warren is letting Bernie kind of be the front man on this health care debate. She's perfectly comfortable saying, I am with him on this. But for all of the plans that she has put out, and that has really become the centerpiece of her campaign, the woman with the plans, she has not put out her own plan on health care. And you do wonder, as this race goes on, if she's going to try to find a way to sort of thread this needle between being with Bernie on Medicare for all and trying to, you know, carve out some space that moderates that position.

KING: That's what Senator Harris did. Senator Harris was with him and then she had a different plan. People raise questions about that too. That's interesting. Is she -- is this, for a woman who casts herself as the purest and casts herself as the plan, is she saving herself a little wiggle room if she needs to try to get back to the middle?

SHEAR: I also think none of the proponents of Medicare for all have described to the American people what they think or how they think the sort of politics in Washington has changed so drastically that anything like this could actually happen, right, which is one of the things that Biden and the others are -- who are critics of this say.

I mean Jeff and I were both there at the beginning in 2009 and 2010 when President Obama tried to put together health care. And just the idea of a public option was, you know, was radioactive and ultimately had to be dropped in favor of doing this. And so it's -- it's sort of -- it is unclear and I think somewhat incumbent on Bernie and Warren and others to try to -- to try to say a little bit about how they think this could possibly happen.

KING: And it's one of the many great examples of, they are fighting in the Democratic primary. The winner has to then fight in a general election. And that can be two very different Americans in the sense that if you look at Democratic voters, 60 percent, 59 percent say health care is extremely important to them as an issue. That doesn't mean there's -- there is a divide among Democrats. You see it if you look deeper in the polling. But, this is issue number one for Democrats, that the economy is part of it, but health care being part of the economy.

The problem -- the problem is trying to sell this dramatic change, trust the government, we're going to take away your private health insurance, we'll have a better plan for you. People don't trust politicians of any party to make that case. It's 67 percent of Americans get their health coverage from private insurance, 18 percent from Medicaid, 18 percent from Medicare, 8.5, 9 percent uninsured if you look at that. So your -- you're asking two-thirds of the country, give up what you got and trust the politicians. That's a tough sell. I don't care whether you're a Democratic or a Republican.

ZELENY: It's a tough sell. And when Senator Warren said last night, you know, I have not met anyone who loves their insurance company, that might be true, but they do like their insurance coverage and plans and other things. And just the -- you know, the hassle, first and foremost, of going through this, and the fact that, you know, you don't trust the government. So I thought senator -- I mean she was able to say I support Bernie's plan. But you're right, she did not defend it on her own. So there is still more to come here, I think, on Elizabeth Warren. Is she, you know, trying to find a third way? I don't know.

KING: We're always looking for lessons, right? And so, in August, that was, you know, a long time ago, as in last month -- as in last month, several of the candidates distanced themselves from President Obama. They took issue with Obama policies. That was then. This is now.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think I know that the senator says she's for Bernie. Well, I'm for Barack.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We all owe a huge debt to President Obama.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I want to give credit first to Barack Obama for really bringing us this far.

JULIAN CASTRO (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We owe a debt of gratitude to President Barack Obama. Of course, I also worked for President Obama.

BIDEN: I stand with Barack Obama all eight years, good, bad and indifferent.


KING: Now, that's trademark for Joe Biden. He has tried to Velcro himself to the two-term president that he served as vice president. It was Castro, who, more than any of the others, went after his former boss -- he served in the Obama cabinet -- last time. Again, he wanted a redo there.

ZELENY: And I talked to a former senior Obama official last night who said, they don't recall him standing up in object to any of these things at cabinet meetings. So he's trying to, of course, have this conversation now, but he didn't then.

KING: Huh. All right.

Much more to talk about. It was a feisty, fun debate.

Up next, a look at the lower tier candidates and the moments they hope will help them break through to the top tier.



KING: Several candidates low in the 2020 Democratic polls are hoping last night's debate brings them a momentum boost. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar mixed it up with more liberal candidates she believes want to spend too much and she believes cannot win the heartland.


SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You're going to hear a lot of ideas up here. Some will be great. But if you see that some of them seem a little off track, I've got a better way.


If you feel stuck in the middle of the extremes in our politics and you are tired of the noise.