Beto O’Rourke’s Senate candidacy was exciting and inspiring to people across the center-left political spectrum. Pretty much everyone from the most rabid, DSA card-carrying millennial Chapo stans to the more professional class centrist liberal-oriented types were united in wanting to see him win and vanquish Ted Cruz’s unforgettably weird face to the shadow realm forever. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. But that hasn’t stopped Beto’s momentum as a rising democratic upstart—he’s starting to get plenty of attention as a potential 2020 presidential candidate. He’s reportedly met with Obama. He’s been the subject of a significant number of fawning media profiles. A “draft Beto 2020” movement seems to be picking up steam. So, naturally, some progressive Democrats in the media and elsewhere have started to ask some questions about what he stands for. Seems simple enough, but somehow, this subject has already become a lightning rod for controversy.
The main source of contention was this tweet by Guardian writer and journalist David Sirota:
Critics accused Sirota of misleading his audience, and they’re not entirely wrong. The linked numbers weren’t related to Beto’s time in congress, but individual donations to his senate campaign from people that work in that particular industry. Since Texas is a hotbed of energy industry activity, it does make a certain amount of sense that he had many individual donors who worked in that sector. Sirota did explain this, and suggested that there are still problematic elements to taking large donations from people that work in the fossil fuel industry while we’re in the midst of an incredibly dangerous climate crisis, but that didn’t do much to quell accusations that he was taking part in some kind of coordinated hit campaign. In any case, since the meaning of these particular donations seem to be a source of controversy, let’s completely ignore them and simply take a look at his climate policy positions from Beto’s website.
It’s good that Beto talks about climate change as an existential threat. It’s good that he wants to roll back the Trump administration’s harmful changes to US climate policy. But believing climate change exists and wanting to go back to the nowhere-near-sufficient Paris Accords is the absolute bare minimum that should be expected from any 2020 Democratic candidate. Considering the depths of the crisis and the existential threat it poses to each and every one of us, it’s going to take a significantly more radical commitment in order to get progressive climate activists to take any potential 2020 candidate seriously. (There’s a certain congresswoman from Queens that seems to have some good ideas on this, perhaps Beto should consider giving her a call.)
Since healthcare is another hot-button issue that tends to divide progressives and liberals, let’s also take a look at Beto’s campaign language there.
Despite past statements about supporting Medicare-for-All, this does not inspire a lot of confidence that O’Rourke is going to take an approach to the subject any more radical than President Obama did. To many Medicare-for-All activists, this is simply not going to be good enough.
Now, none of this means he’s a bad person or that he’s progressive enemy number one. Far from it. He seems like a thoughtful, empathetic guy, a tremendous public speaker, and he has the beginnings of a dedicated grassroots movement starting to build behind him. He does have a history of fighting for some genuinely progressive positions. He’s not old and decrepit and he used to play in cool punk rock bands. There’s a lot to like. And there’s no doubt that he would stand a good chance at winning an election as a hopeful, dynamic counterpart to Trump’s embarrassing racist belligerence (though we should remind ourselves that this strategy was not ultimately able to deliver him Cruz’s Senate seat).
But what would a hypothetical O’Rourke administration actually stand for specifically, beyond not being Donald Trump? Would he have the political courage to meaningfully take on the entrenched energy industry interests that are rapidly steering us all towards environmental apocalypse? Creating a truly universal healthcare system in America will require opposing the incredibly powerful health insurance industry—would O’Rourke be willing to do that, or would he opt to take the Obama approach of enacting change within the existing private insurance system? Would he have the temerity to reign in the banking industries that have been mostly freed from the modest regulations that the Obama administration put in place and are very possibly in the process of instigating another cataclysmic financial crisis? His recent vote to help Republicans soften the Volker Rule, an important Wall Street regulation, seems to indicate that he wouldn’t.
Not only are these vital questions, they’re extremely normal questions to ask about high profile political candidates who are being floated as potential nominees by influential and powerful people. There’s no reason any of this should be controversial.
If a young, dynamic candidate like Beto embraced bold, unapologetic progressive stances on things like climate or healthcare, that would, in fact, be an exciting development. But is he doing that? As of December 2018, not so much. If that changes between now and 2020, great! Until that happens, pointing out his deficiencies in these areas is not an attack, it’s merely a warning from a large community of progressives that view these kind of centrist, playing-both-sides positions as both actively harmful to the material reality of people’s lives, and also a losing electoral formula.
And hey, just as an experiment, let’s check in on France, where many western liberal journalists and think tank heads thought that a young, handsome guy could serve as both a powerful rebuke to rising right-wing populism and a capable steward of the neoliberal project. How is that working out?
Hmm. It doesn’t seem to be going great!
There is a growing progressive constituency that doesn’t want candidates who are going to work with or try to coddle Wall Street finance giants, the health insurance industry or energy and fossil fuel companies. They expect someone who’s going to have the political courage to go after these institutions, which they view, not incorrectly, as being in direct opposition to their broader goals. As of now, there is not a lot about Beto O’Rourke that indicates that he’s going to be the one to do that.
No one is doubting that Beto is a talented politician who ran an impressive, inspiring campaign. Questioning what he stands for and what his credentials are is not about attacking him or trying to kill his potential candidacy before it starts. It’s about attempting to force him and other candidates to commit to adopting certain positions in exchange for votes. This is also known as “democracy,” and it’s nothing to be afraid of.