What Exactly Does Beto O’Rourke Believe In?

So far, Beto O'Rourke's campaign has been far more about image than substance.

It’s been just about a month since former Texas Congressman and unsuccessful Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke entered the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination and, as Politico’s David Siders notes that, so far, his campaign appears to be lacking in substance:

Kamala Harris has her $315 billion proposal to raise teacher pay. Amy Klobuchar has a seven-point infrastructure investment plan. Elizabeth Warren is swimming in white papers on subjects ranging from tech company mergers to taxes and housing.

Beto O’Rourke’s most distinctive policy position? To be determined. There’s no signature issue yet, no single policy proposal sparking his campaign. Convening crowds — and listening to them — is the central thrust of his early presidential bid. And one month into the race, even some of O’Rourke’s supporters are starting to worry about persistent criticism that the charismatic Texan is missing big policy ideas of his own.

“Many of your critics often believe that you’re not clear or firm on your policy positions,” a caucus-goer told O’Rourke at a town hall-style meeting in Iowa recently. “What should we, as supporters and caucus-ers, say to rebut these claims?”

It’s not that O’Rourke doesn’t have positions. He does, and in the month since announcing his presidential campaign, he has expressed many of them with specificity. He has robust ideas about immigration, including a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. He has lauded the Green New Deal and called for a new Voting Rights Act. He was an early champion of legalizing marijuana — and co-wrote a book about it. He wants universal pre-K education, and he has touted a bill by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) to dramatically expand Medicare coverage while maintaining a role for private health insurance.

Campaigning in South Carolina on Saturday, O’Rourke was endorsed by state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, who said he was proud to support a politician who is “looking at how we can ensure that all Americans have a quality of life that is necessary in the form of health care and affordable housing and a quality education.”

But none of those positions are unique to O’Rourke. And with his relatively meager legislative record — and a belief that he can transcend ideological lanes within the Democratic Party — even O’Rourke appears unclear about where he fits on the policy spectrum.

When a Republican voter told O’Rourke after a campaign event recently that he came off “a little bit more centrist” than she expected and asked,

“Is that true?” O’Rourke replied, “That’s a great question.”

Then O’Rourke, who only weeks earlier had proclaimed that the nation’s “extraordinary, unprecedented concentration of wealth and power and privilege must be broken apart,” told the woman, “I guess it’s probably for you and voters to decide.”

“All I can do is share the things that I believe in and the way in which I want to campaign,” O’Rourke said. “And then where you want to affix me on the political spectrum is up to you.”

To be fair to O’Rourke, it’s still very early in the Presidential race and there’s plenty of time to roll out a more robust set of policy proposals and positions that will differentiate him from the rest of the Democratic field. At this point, it’s arguably more important for candidates to be out there on the hustings introducing themselves to voters in early primary and caucus states like Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. As I noted on Saturday, for many of these Democratic voters the most important thing is to find a candidate who has the best chance of beating Donald Trump in November 2020 rather than the one that most closely matches them ideologically. Given that, the fact that O’Rourke isn’t exactly being specific about his policy goals isn’t necessarily a problem for his campaign at this point.

Additionally, as Siders notes, the last successful Democratic candidate for President followed a similar strategy:

Like O’Rourke, Obama was beset early in the 2008 presidential primary by complaints that he was light on policy. David Axelrod, a former top adviser to Obama, recalled one health care forum with Hillary Clinton in early 2007 in which Obama looked “sorely wanting.”

“I remember him coming back and saying, ‘I did not look like a president up there. She looked like president up there,'” Axelrod said. “There were times when he acknowledged, ‘I’m not where I need to be or want to be.’ But he then pushed himself to dig more deeply, to have more conversations, to develop his thoughts on things where he thought there were gaps … By the time the campaign hit full swing, he was in a much better place.”

In any campaign, Axelrod said, “There is this tension in a campaign between the desire of the media and the political community to judge everything in the moment, and the reality of a campaign, which evolves and gives candidates time to evolve with it … I think that in a marathon, it is risky to draw too many conclusions at the two-mile mark.

As Siders goes on to note, though, O’Rourke 2020 differs from Obama’s campaign in 2008 in that he appears to be trying to appease both the center of his party and the progressive wing., especially on issues such as climate change and the like. Additionally, while the early stages of Obama’s 2008 campaign were more about vision than policy, there did come a time when he started to become more specific on policy issues, especially when it became necessary for him to truly differentiate himself from his chief rival in that race, Hillary Clinton. At some point, O’Rourke will need to do more than rely on image and good looks if he’s going to rise in what is already a crowded Democratic field.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Kit says:

    It’s not that O’Rourke doesn’t have positions. He does, and in the month since announcing his presidential campaign, he has expressed many of them with specificity.


    But none of those positions are unique to O’Rourke.

    Does the average voter really demand unique positions? Assuming that he’s on to a winning message, then the trick is to sell it better than his rivals.

  2. Kylopod says:

    A candidate’s positions don’t always end up mattering in terms of how they govern when and if they finally enter office. For example, in 2008 Obama attacked Clinton for supporting an individual mandate.

  3. Robert C says:

    Guy showed more guts than other candidates by calling Netanyahu a racist… which he is. Frankly showed more guts in that one statement than Bush, Obama, or Trump.

    But probably cost him the election.

  4. Steve Weber says:

    @Robert C: @Robert C:

    Robert people are tired of safe politicians and BS. Beto is as real as it gets and isn’t afraid to tackle tough questions. People appreciate that.

    No Purity Tests

  5. Todd says:

    All of the democratic candidates are generally in the same ballpark (although perhaps on slightly different sections of the field) when it comes to the major issues that their voters care about. Whoever the eventual nominee is will have ample opportunity to adopt any of the numerous specific policy proposals that will be out in the public sphere by then; whether he or she developed those plans themselves or not.

    I tend to think that this insistence that each candidate have their own specific policies is a “requirement” more for the media than for voter. It’s part of the game that we love to play. The media gets these detailed plans (that are almost all DOA the day they were written) then proceeds to analyze them as if they have any chance of being enacted … with particular focus on “estimated” costs and potential pitfalls.

    There is no upside to getting specific.

    A smart candidate will delay doing so for as long as possible.

  6. Gustopher says:


    Does the average voter really demand unique positions? Assuming that he’s on to a winning message, then the trick is to sell it better than his rivals.

    Unique positions generally give you an idea of what the candidate will fight for — it shows that they have really spent time on X, care about X, and will likely compromise to get a watered down version of X that is indistinguishable from everyone else’s watered down version, but that it’s a major priority to make progress there.

    I don’t think the average voter cares about the details of the unique policy proposals, they just want a shorthand way to distinguish the candidates. Warren is the one who wants to take on big finance, Biden is the Free Hugs guy, etc.

  7. Robert C says:

    @Steve Weber:

    From your mouth to the electorate’s ear.

  8. Jax says:

    It does seem to me like we have quite the capable field running. No matter who ends up with the nomination, I would feel comfortable with any one of these contenders being in cabinet-level positions. And with the exception of maybe Shultz and Gabbard, any one of them would probably be a better President than Trump. Now we just have to pick the one most likely to beat him, and VOTE!!!

  9. gVOR08 says:

    Like the rest of the Dem field, Beto believes he should be President instead of Trump. Works for me.

    I always felt the “vision thing” with HW Bush was a bit silly. I’d be happy with competently and fairly administering the laws. Congress can do vision.

  10. An Interested Party says:

    There is no upside to getting specific.

    A smart candidate will delay doing so for as long as possible.

    Bingo! It worked for Obama and it worked for Trump…and who was the last president who, as a candidate, put out a whole bunch of position papers and very specific, very detailed plans…

  11. Guarneri says:

    Heh. He believes in Beto. WTFU.

  12. An Interested Party says:

    He believes in Beto.

    Oh, so he’s the perfect opponent for the Narcissist-in-Chief…

  13. Lit3Bolt says:

    This is why I’m fascinated and repulsed by media political analysis.

    Everything Siders says is true, yet at the same time false. It’s the theater critic model of politics, saying things like “John McCain is too old to play this role.” or “Hillary Clinton is always too strident with her high notes.” or “Trump just gave another Manic Pixie Dream President performance!”

    Here we have “Beto brings nothing new to this role, no viva, no je ne sais quoi.” It’s BORING. You BORE me. By extension, you are BORING the audience, ie the voters. Let’s not ask his supporters or donors anything! Let’s not question the candidate and only get PR soundbites! No, let’s engage in “Masterpiece Political Theatre” and summon each candidate/actor on stage and judge their monologues/speeches based on superficial opinions and commentary alone!

  14. The abyss that is the soul of cracker says:


    Congress can do vision.

    [snort] Yeah, right. Congress can barely find it’s ass with both hands. I agree that it would be nice if Congress could do vision, but Congress’ vision is limited to reelection and/or deciding on whether or not to seek it.