Julián Castro came out swinging. It seemed antithetical to his reputation as a sort of measured, even-handed bureaucrat, but once he hit the crowded stages of the first Democratic presidential debates, it was clear he was willing to cross lines that most candidates would consider campaign-enders. He earned a bump in donations in the fall but all along it was evident: America was not ready for Julián Castro.
For pragmatists on the left, it was fairly obvious his unapologetic approach wouldn’t win—not in the America that still can’t decide whether blackface is bad or understand that transgender women face disproportionate violence. But while Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders get most of the credit for pushing the party to the left, Castro was also doing the same. Before officially declaring his run, he said he would reject PAC money. His campaign staff was among the first to form a union. He supported reparations for descendants of enslaved people and pressed other candidates on their reluctance to do the same. He openly questioned the power of early states in presidential primaries because of the racial demographics that typify them.
“Iowa and New Hampshire are wonderful states with wonderful people," he said in November. "But they’re also not reflective of the diversity of our country, and certainly not reflective of the diversity of the Democratic Party.”
Castro spoke not in platitudes about transgender rights and protections, but in detail (his work at HUD and his time as mayor of San Antonio primed him to do so). He pointed an intersectional lens at several issues, including homelessness, immigration, and abortion, in ways that likely confused some folks. At the first debate in June, Castro did misspeak by saying “trans women” when he meant to say “trans men,” but essentially asserted that reproductive justice isn't just for cis women, but also for transgender and nonbinary folks. In another debate, he brought up the officer-involved shooting of Atatiana Jefferson, asserting that "police violence is also gun violence."
Castro's approach—his willingness to say the true things that make people uncomfortable—is exactly what we need but are mostly still unprepared to do. As David M. Perry's profile for Gen on Castro in November pointed out, he "never quite caught the initial wave of media attention that would have elevated his candidacy." But that might be because the party and its voters are just not ready to take certain risks against Donald Trump, who was able to generate excitement from a whole lot of anxious white people in 2016, and could very well do it again. Sure, Warren and Sanders represent risks, with both of them embracing major structural changes in the very fabric of America, but as a Latino who has no problem talking intimately and intricately about race, Castro wanted to do this in ways that would completely disrupt our social and racial mores.
The initial range of Democratic candidates reflected the large tent of the Democratic Party, with people of color, several women, and a gay candidate. Their identities were important in the face of a Trump administration that has hit women, people of color, and LGBTQ populations hard, rolling back rights, and enforcing discriminatory policies.
As the months have gone on, it's become clear, at least through polling and donations, that enough Democratic voters feel the need to play it safe—judging by who remains in the field, they will probably pick a white person, and that person will probably be a guy. If anything, the field is getting older, whiter, and richer with the influx of billionaires and the drop-offs in women and candidates of color who just can't keep up financially or in polls.
Nonetheless, at 45, Castro is practically a teenager compared to some of his fellow Democrats vying for the ticket—the average age of the top five candidates (based on the Real Clear Politics national average) is 67.5, and that’s only because Pete Buttigieg hasn't turned 38 yet. Without him, the average of those remaining four—Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Mike Bloomberg is 75. This isn't a knock on septuagenarians, but it is to say that even if Castro were to wait a few more presidential cycles, he'd only be in his fifties if he decides to run again in say, 2032.
As the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel points out, Castro didn’t clinch the nomination in 2020, but he's leaving the presidential race in a higher regard than he did when he entered it, at least among those on the left who wrote him off as an "amiable lightweight." Maybe after another four years of Trump, which alas feels bound to happen, Democrats will live a little, and take on another candidate of color or a woman. Until then, as Castro said in his sign-off video, "Ganaremos un dia!" or, "We'll win one day!"