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.