Who is Beto O’Rourke?
Despite dozens of longform thinkpieces, millions of social media followers, and the largest single-day fundraising haul of any 2020 Democratic candidate, it’s tough to say.
The Washington Post lumps him in with former Vice President Joe Biden as a centrist. Yet he’s also supported some extreme progressive positions, including impeaching President Trump — something that few others in the race have been willing to do. (He did recently walk back the original comments he made, which came during his closely-contested 2018 Senate race against former presidential candidate Ted Cruz).
Considering his massive appeal in his deeply red home state of Texas and beyond, O’Rourke’s razor-thin loss to an incumbent Republican senator — and his jam-packed campaign coffers —a better question might be: does it matter?
Let’s take a look at the arguments for O’Rourke on both sides and see what we can find out.
Beto as a Progressive
First of all, he’s a skateboarder who used to play bass in a band with Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who would go on to front cult prog-rock bands At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta — in fact, he’s hinted that he’d like the latter band to reform and play his inauguration, if he were elected. Does it get more punk than that?
But O’Rourke has a progressive history as both a politician and a musician. A few highlights of his furthest left positions:
- Not only does he not support the construction of a wall on the southern border, in an interview with MSNBC, but O’Rourke also stated that he actually wanted to remove the existing bollard fence separating El Paso from Mexico.
- While apologizing for a poor-taste joke about his wife raising their children without much help, he acknowledged that he personally has benefitted from “white male privilege.”
- He supported cannabis reform before it was cool – while serving in the El Paso City Council in 2011, he and fellow representative Susie Byrd wrote a book detailing the horrors of the drug trade in neighboring Juarez and calling for an end to prohibition on marijuana. For context, this was one year before the state of Colorado even votedon legalization.
The Argument for Beto as a Centrist
On the other side of the coin, in a 2019 Democratic party where the biggest stars are super-left politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, some have pointed out that Beto’s record in Congress is a far cry from progressivism:
- Although he’s posted on social media in support of Medicare-for-all, he did not co-sponsor a 2017 bill introduced in the House to expand and improve the program. His recently-announced healthcare plan, Medicare for America, would still allow private, for-profit insurance to sell policies to employers.
- O’Rourke did not join the Congressional Progressive Caucus while serving in the House, instead choosing to join the New Democrat Coalition, which has described itself as “Congress’ largest coalition of moderates.”
- Perhaps most damning, an investigation of his voting record in the House found that O’Rourke was in the top 20% of Democratic lawmakers voting against his own party. Bills he voted to pass included those weakening regulations on Wall Street, supporting Trump’s immigration policies and slashing taxes on the wealthy. Not very punk rock.
O’Rourke’s supporters will defend him by pointing out that he was a representative from Texas, one of the most reliably red states in the country. However, the same investigation covered in The Guardian pointed out that his district of El Paso tended to vote more Democratic than most of Massachusetts.
Why Beto’s Place on the Political Spectrum Might Not Matter
Of course, there is a chance that none of these issues will harm his chances in the 2020 election. Let’s not forget, the last two Democratic presidents have been solid moderates. O’Rourke himself has rejected the importance of his classification in a 2018 town hall: “I’m not big on labels. I don’t get all fired up about party or classifying or defining people based on a label or a group. I’m for everyone.”
And in a time of exhausting bipartisanship, voters may prefer a campaign based on personal charisma and unity over the mudslinging bar-fight that currently defines American politics. It worked in 2008 — and if O’Rourke’s massive fundraising haul is any indication, it may work again in 2020.