If only the electric chill in the air were an augur of fast-approaching holidays and not the static generated by so many Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls jockeying for the attention of party leaders and donors. Alas, with 2019 less than a month away, 2020 has already begun, and with it the fashioning of fresh new faces for the Democratic ticket. Among those early front-runners — at least in terms of intraparty enthusiasm — is Beto O’Rourke, the three-time congressman from El Paso who recently lost a valiant Senate run against Ted Cruz.
For some well-positioned Democrats, O’Rourke — usually mononymously styled as Beto — is already heir apparent to Barack Obama’s empty throne. Tall and reedy with an affable air, O’Rourke does seem fit to take up Obama’s mantle. But I can’t get excited about O’Rourke, though I am from Texas and had hoped as much as anyone for Cruz’s defeat. I’m not sure we need another Obama, or another of any Democrat we’ve had recently: I think the times both call for and allow for a left-populist candidate with uncompromising progressive principles. I don’t see that in O’Rourke.
There’s no denying that what O’Rourke’s campaign accomplished was genuinely impressive. With the help of veteran Bernie Sanders organizers, O’Rourke’s team built a grass-roots army that put democracy — talking to constituents, listening to their points of view, inviting them to participate in the process not by mass mail but by name — first. People were genuinely inspired by that, and by the very notion that perhaps they could revive a dream that sometimes seems to have died with Barbara Jordan and Ann Richards: turning the Lone Star State blue. And — maybe, someday.
In the meantime, though, we have the national election to think about, and when it comes to national politics, O’Rourke is plainly uninspiring. As Zaid Jilani pointed out at Current Affairs, O’Rourke’s congressional voting record signals skepticism about progressive priorities. “While the Democratic base is coalescing around single-payer health care and free college, O’Rourke sponsored neither House bill,” Jilani wrote, “During his time in Congress, he never joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus.” Instead, O’Rourke is a member of the New Democrat Coalition, a centrist caucus with Clintonian views on health care, education and trade.
Where it comes to Medicare-for-all, O’Rourke has been carefully unclear about his stance: A Politico article from July notes that, at least for a time, he had sworn off using the terms “single payer” or “Medicare for all,” instead using the less-specific, policy-neutral phrase “universal, guaranteed, high-quality health care for all.” His campaign website remains unclear, stating that he aims for achieving universal health-care coverage “whether it be through a single payer system, a dual system, or otherwise.”
O’Rourke’s other progressive-ish policy positions tend to follow along these lines. While some progressives, rallied by talk of a Green New Deal, have argued for higher taxes on oil and gas company profits, fossil fuel lobbyists to be banned from working in the White House and a whole-economy overhaul slotting Americans into jobs producing carbon-neutral infrastructure, O’Rourke’s statements on energy have been surprisingly thin. He has called the decision between oil and gas and renewable energy sources “a false choice,” and proposes on his campaign website mainly to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, empower the Environmental Protection Agency and enact energy reform.
None of this is to say O’Rourke’s policies are the worst there are, or that he couldn’t beat President Trump. (I think that practically any Democrat has a good shot at beating Trump, judging by how many Obama-Trump voters in the Midwest seemed perfectly happy to flip back to blue during this year’s midterms.) But the primaries aren’t even here yet, so there’s no need to begin resigning ourselves to policies that are merely better than Republican alternatives. We still have time to pick a politician with a bold, clear, distinctly progressive agenda, and an articulated vision beyond something-better-than-this, the literal translation of hope-change campaigning. Beto is a lot like Obama, true; it’s perhaps time for left-leaning Democrats to realize that may not be a good thing.
As for me, my cards are always on the table: I wish the Democrats would run a left-populist with sincere, well-attested antipathy toward Wall Street, oil and gas, welfare reform and war, who is willing to fight hard to win Medicare-for-all and drastically reverse our current course on climate change. I would love it if they came from Texas, but I would take one from anywhere.