The appeal for Beto O’Rourke as a presidential candidate seems to stem from a few key facts: He is tall, attractive, energetic, and has a pleasant boyish affect—like Jim Halpert without the irony—that can be safely labeled ‘charisma.’ He has a talent for platitudes and staging viral West-Wingy moments on safe social issues, and he is, in some ways, an ideal empty vessel on which liberal voters might project their own vague aspirations without ever quite knowing what he actually intends to do. He can be a human representation for concepts like triumph and transformation, the thinking goes—a white knight to unify the country against a Republican villain on the strength of image and an idealism that never commits the crime of getting too specific. He is, in short, the manifestation of a collective nostalgia for Barack Obama, and if he hasn’t had quite the same political success, and if he doesn’t command the same key demographic, and if he’s not quite the public speaker, well…it’s close enough for government work.
For the centrist Democratic establishment who lives in fear of leftist policy, he is more than all that—he is the perfect marionette, whose limbs can be jerked about in a realistic simulacrum of bodily autonomy while he obeys their marching orders and leaves all the important power structures in place.
Of course, the mere suggestion that there’s something achingly superficial and desperate about the emerging Beto Cult is deeply unfashionable. It makes you a poor sport, and a stodgy adherent of something called “purity politics.” You’ll be quickly scolded: “All that matters is beating Trump!” The creeping implication from the center is that this person is the only man for the job, and that American voters lack the intelligence to rally behind anything other than someone who remains amorphous enough in presentation to let them hear what they want to hear, and that if he never ventures beyond the general, Republicans will be unable to attack him. And God forbid you point out that, while Beto put together a nice campaign in Texas and was the high tide that raised a lot of Democratic ships, he also lost to a slithering Lovecraftian sea creature who withered like a salted slug against Trump in 2016, and shows absolutely no indication of being able to carry his home state in a general election.
Then there’s policy. Jaid Zilani at Current Affairs and Branko Marcetic at Jacobin and Elizabeth Bruenig at the Washington Post have each done admirable jobs pointing out that, whatever else you may think of him, Beto O’Rourke is not progressive on certain issues where it really, really matters—like healthcare, economic reform, and energy/climate change.
A sampling, starting at Current Affairs:
Unlike O’Rourke, Hernandez [a former opponent] ran on an unflinching support for the Sanders platform of universal college and higher education. O’Rourke’s support for similar politics was, like his opposition to needlessly funding the Israeli military, fleeting. When he first announced his Senate run, he said we “need a single-payer healthcare system for all Americans.” As his campaign progressed, his language on healthcare did, too. A year after O’Rourke said we need single-payer, Politico noted that the congressman slyly changed his wording on health care issues. He stopped using the phrases Medicare for All or single-payer, and instead would tell crowds we need “universal, guaranteed, high-quality health care for all.” His Senate campaign page eventually settled on saying that we could have single-payer, or maybe something completely different.
O’Rourke has also been curiously active in trying to chip away at the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. He voted to weaken the law in 2015, changed his mind when a delay on the Volcker Rule was inserted into the bill he voted for, then voted to weaken that same rule three years later anyway. He also voted to exempt certain non-bank financial institutions, such as mutual funds, from stress tests required under the law, a step supported by the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), a trade group for banks, securities firms, and asset management firms…SIFMA and the American Bankers Association likewise supported the Financial Institutions Examination Fairness and Reform Act, another bill O’Rourke voted for, this one making it easier for financial institutions to appeal regulators’ decisions. He’s also voted to triple the size of institutions eligible to be considered small bank holding companies, and so qualify to hold higher levels of risky debt; and he voted to create an unelected oversight board with broad powers to restructure Puerto Rico’s debt, which cut pension benefits for the island’s residents last year, cut the minimum wage, and wants to slash its budget by a third. It’s votes like these that have given him one of the better US Chamber of Commerce voting scores among Democrats.
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.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg—from police and judicial reform to Israel to free trade to championing his extremely rich father-in-law’s real estate developments, his politics seem to perfectly reflect his wealthy background, and he has reliably been a fairly conservative Democrat in the House. The only way you can possibly believe Beto is progressive is if you measure that, somehow, by personality.
Which seems to be exactly what certain establishment powers would like you to do. Enter Neera Tanden, president of the neoliberal think tank Center for American Progress, devoted Hillary acolyte, and sworn enemy of the Sanders left (and their single-payer healthcare plan specifically). How Neera goes, so goes the corporate left, and, well…it’s been abundantly clear of late how Neera goes. Click on the tweet below to view the attached images, and see if you notice a theme:
Now, fair’s fair—she happens to be correct about O’Rourke’s so-called oil and gas donations. It’s the same misleading argument Sally Albright used in 2017 when she tried to nail Bernie Sanders for taking money from “Big Pharma” (in short, this money comes from employees of these industries, and that can mean anyone, including low-level employees making small donations). That said, it’s the frequency of Tanden’s tweets, and her near-constant defense of Beto, that should help us read the writing on the wall: the center-left is rallying behind him, and they’re doing it fast. Her relentless Twitter stumping is not without a point—Tanden has better things to do than to argue with all Beto’s enemies on social media unless she believes it’s somehow critical to a bigger goal. And she’s already using the very Republican strategy of accusing her opponents of the exact tactics she herself is employing; that’s how a few articles looking at the policy record of a public figure become a “coordinated effort,” when in fact it’s Tanden and her ilk—actual paid political operatives—who have clearly begun to roll out Operation Beto.
Beto himself said he wouldn’t run for president, then retracted two weeks ago, so it appears the wheels are in motion. Nor are the centrist wrong to pick a champion early—a divided field of Bidens and Gillibrands and Betos makes it all too easy to lose the nomination to someone like Sanders. They need to control their own better than the GOP managed as it ceded control of everything to Trump. Soon, we’re going to find out how much establishment support matters when the candidate isn’t quite as famous as Hillary Clinton. My suspicion is that Beto will find it about as helpful as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush found Republican support in 2016, but in a potentially crowded primary field, powerful people, with Neera Tanden in the vanguard, are already casting him in that paradoxical role: The status quo “change” candidate.