Beto O’Rourke is not the pro­gres­sive some imag­ine

Chicago Tribune - - PERSPECTIVE - By El­iz­a­beth Bru­enig

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, Texas, 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, he does seem fit to take up Obama’s man­tle. But I can’t get ex­cited about him, 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 grass­roots 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 ac­cord, 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 Don­ald 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 he or she came from Texas, but I would take one from any­where. El­iz­a­beth Bru­enig is a Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist.

CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY

Beto O’Rourke’s im­pres­sive if un­suc­cess­ful Se­nate bid got many Democrats ex­cited about his prospects for the pres­i­den­tial race in 2020.

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