Beto O’Rourke shouldn’t run for president.
It’s not because he wouldn’t run a strong campaign. The man is charismatic and likable, capable of inspiring intense devotion among his followers (one of his 2012 campaign workers took a year off school to work for him). He’s not only managed to beat an eight-term, establishment-favored Democratic incumbent (albeit with the help of some family-backed Super PAC cash); he came within a hair’s breadth of taking a Republican Senate seat in Texas by running a fairly progressive campaign.
Nor is it because he has some terrible career-ending scandal waiting in the wings. O’Rourke has been open and contrite about his decades-old arrest record — which didn’t stop him from winning his seats in the El Paso City Council or the House, and didn’t appear to register much in this most recent, fairly nasty, Senate race. The less said about his opposition’s lame attempts to use his punk rock days against him the better. And while his Pelosi-like profiting off IPOs while in Congress was unseemly, he quickly got rid of both the stocks and the money he made when he realized the ethical problems involved.
Also, unlike the Clintons and so many other presidential aspirants, he isn’t secretly an enemy of the politics he espouses. O’Rourke has had a progressive record throughout his political career, from advocating for drug legalization and health benefits for same-sex and unmarried partners in El Paso to staunchly defending immigrants’ rights, the right to abortion, and speaking out against border militarization in Congress. O’Rourke even bucked Obama on several important issues, pressuring him to close Guantanamo, supporting legislation to curtail NSA spying, opposing war in Syria and arming the country’s rebels, and demanding Obama get congressional authorization for his continued war on ISIS.
But none of that means he needs to run for president.
The current Beto-for-president mania sweeping liberal America is the product of two specific pathologies.
One of these is a direct result of the trauma many liberals have wrestled with since Trump’s victory — namely, the need to find someone, anyone, charismatic and likable enough to beat Trump. Name after absurd name has been floated the past two years to this end. First it was Michelle Obama. Then it was Meryl Streep and Beyoncé. Then it was the Rock and John Kerry. Hopes for James Comey came and went. At one point someone seriously suggested Doug Jones, currently one of the most Trump-friendly Democrats in the Senate. Joe Kennedy briefly sent hearts aflutter, because he made a speech once. And who could forget when Oprah became the frontrunner in the establishment liberal imagination for about a week, because she had also made a speech.
It’s all been pretty embarrassing to watch, the ultimate showcase of a Democratic Party and a liberalism desperate and out of ideas, at once resistant to change and lacking the political imagination to see a path to victory through anything but the most cosmetic signifiers of success, such as a dazzling smile, a comforting baritone, or a strong social media game.
O’Rourke is at least not a celebrity, and has an actual record. But his elevation to this spot is a sign of another sickness that’s plagued Democrats and establishment liberals long before Trump came on the scene: an all-consuming obsession with the presidency.
The presidency is important, of course. But the liberal fixation on the White House at the expense of all else is partly to blame for the Democratic Party’s historic collapse at the state level, something it only now seems to be working to recover from by expanding its national presence. O’Rourke joining an already crowded field of presidential candidates would be a step backward from this.
If the Democratic Party ever wants to actually wield national power, instead of simply enacting change through easily repealable executive orders, then it has to win governorships, congressional seats, statehouses, and more all over the country. That means running strong candidates all over the country, including in “Food Stamp Red America,” to quote one liberal columnist.
Through years of work, O’Rourke made a name for himself in his home state, climbed its political ladder, and ultimately came this close to turning a Senate seat blue in Texas for the first time in twenty-five years. In so doing, he built a national profile and a statewide constituency that positions him to try again sometime in the future, this time with potentially better results. Sure, Cruz’s seat won’t be up for reelection until 2024 (the same year the Texas governor’s office opens up), and Senator John Cornyn, whose seat is up for grabs in 2020, isn’t as aggressively loathsome as Cruz, which will make the job of unseating him harder.
Yet any of these options would be far more beneficial not just to the Democratic Party, but to the cause of meaningful political change in a leftward direction, than O’Rourke becoming one more presidential contender.
Making It All Go Away
The calls for O’Rourke to run would maybe make more sense if he were the most progressive candidate in the burgeoning Democratic line-up. But in a race that is set to feature Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Jeff Merkley, and possibly Sherrod Brown, that doesn’t really hold water.
O’Rourke has a decent record, but it’s not exactly spotless. He failed to get the AFL-CIO’s endorsement in his race against Cruz because of his vote to give Obama the power to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, lamely arguing that Obama would negotiate a more progressive deal than a Republican (he of course didn’t). This technically puts him to the right of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on the issue. (He’s since voiced support for Trump’s NAFTA renegotiation.)
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.
This bill was just one of a series of fifteen bills put forward this year by the Republican-controlled House Financial Services Committee as part of a stealth attempt to pass last year’s failed Dodd-Frank-gutting bill, the Financial CHOICE Act (which O’Rourke had voted against), by breaking it up into smaller pieces. He did vote against three others brought to the floor.
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 gets consistently high scores from the National Association of Police Officers (NAPO), a coalition of police unions and associations from around the country. Some of the votes in question were innocuous, such as allowing officials to fly the flag at half-mast after the death of a first responder.
Others were more pernicious. One horrendous bill O’Rourke approved would throw teens in prison for at least fifteen years, no exceptions, for not just sending or receiving sexts, but for simply attempting to send or receive sexts, whatever that might mean. O’Rourke was also one of just forty-eight Democrats to vote for a bill making it easier to execute someone if they killed or tried to kill a police officer, and he voted for a bill that essentially turns police into a protected class, making assaulting an officer akin to a hate crime. He also voted for FOSTA/SESTA, an anti-sex-trafficking bill not on the NAPO wishlist, but which has been devastating for sex workers.
Finally, while O’Rourke made waves in 2014 for being one of only eight House members to vote against sending $225 million to replenish Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system — a vote he justified on procedural grounds, but which some evidence suggests was motivated by the viciousness of Israel’s assault on Gaza civilians at the time — the furious pushback and lobbying pressure he got for it turned him into a conventional (read: bad) Democrat on the issue.
O’Rourke has become a reliable vote for the pro-Israel lobby since then — for example, supporting the largest Israel aid package in history, as all Democrats did. Meanwhile, Palestinian activists complain he’s nowhere to be found on issues important to them, such as a resolution barring US money from being used to imprison and torture Palestinian kids. He opposes BDS, and has written that “the UN is dangerously preoccupied with Israel . . . and clearly biased against her,” supporting the US vote against a UN resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlement building. In case it needs to be said, such positions are increasingly out of step with the increasingly pro-Palestinian Democratic base.
In other words, O’Rourke is a decent, progressive candidate in slowly purpling Texas, but when you put him on the national stage and drill down on his record, he becomes just another flawed Democrat.
Of course, you won’t find much actual discussion of O’Rourke’s record in the many pieces written by prominent liberals and others encouraging him to run in 2020; only vague exhortations about his “energy,” youth, good looks, “rock star”–like status, the “enthusiasm” he inspires, and his similarity to Obama.
It’s this last part that’s really the rub, because what establishment liberals really want — the reason they’ve grasped wildly at everyone from Meryl Streep to Oprah to be their next standard-bearer — is Obama redux: an attractive, progressive-sounding, comforting figure who will pay lip service to their values and make the trauma of Trump just go away.
But this would be disastrous. Obama’s America still separated immigrant families, locked up kids in cages, and used tear gas on migrants; it still coddled and cozied up to blood-soaked tyrants; it still incinerated wedding parties and hospitals; it still brutalized environmental protesters and forced people to beg for money to cover their medical bills; it still let Wall Street write economic policy and stood by as black wealth was eviscerated in a cavalcade of fraud and other criminality.
There’s no guarantee O’Rourke would herald a return to all of these policies; he has been to Obama’s left on numerous issues. But for establishment liberals, O’Rourke is clearly a chance at a return to the pre-Trump status quo — a status quo that not only involved intense oppression for many people, but also led directly to Trump.
Politicians like Beto O’Rourke represent a step forward for states like Texas. Making them national standard-bearers is a step backward.