There has been a debate, both in the run-up to and since last week’s launch of Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign, about his ideology and policy positions. It has two dimensions. First, people are asking whether O’Rourke actually stands for much of anything — or if his candidacy is just about his perceived charisma and electability. And second, they are asking whether he is a true liberal/progressive — or if he should be classified as a moderate (compared with the other 2020 candidates) or as a more centrist Democrat (based on his voting record in Congress).
I’m not sure how to define O’Rourke’s policy views in one word, and I’m not sure how important that is anyway. But from his 2018 Senate candidacy in Texas to his presidential campaign launch, O’Rourke has taken positions on many major issues, and some of those stances are decidedly left-wing, particularly on cultural issues. O’Rourke may not be an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-style “Super-Progressive,” but he has plenty of positions that Republicans would aggressively attack in a general election.1
Those stances from O’Rourke include:
- Supporting the abolition of for-profit and private prisons.
- Supporting a ban on so-called assault weapons.
- Supporting the elimination of bail sentences that require people to pay money to be released from jail ahead of trial.
- Criticizing not only Trump’s border wall, but also some of the existing barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border and the increase in border security spending over the last decade. (“Yes, absolutely, I’d take the wall down,” he said in February, referring to the border fencing in the El Paso region.)
- Supporting the impeachment of President Trump (O’Rourke took this stance during his Senate campaign. I doubt that he will push this issue during his presidential run, but it was somewhat surprising that he adopted it last year. Other Democrats, like 2020 hopeful Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, didn’t take this stance even as they were running in more liberal states than Texas.).
- Supporting a proposal to allow anyone who wants to enroll in a Medicare-like insurance plan the option to do so.
- Supporting an increase of the minimum wage to $15 per hour.
- Supporting marijuana legalization.
- Opposing the death penalty.
- Supporting NFL players kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racism.
- Describing himself as benefiting from “white privilege.”
This isn’t an exhaustive list or a representative sample of issues, obviously. And O’Rourke is taking some more centrist policy positions — for example, his refusal to embrace putting all Americans in a single-payer health care system puts him to the right of Bernie Sanders. O’Rourke has been somewhat cautious about the Green New Deal too, although last week he said he hadn’t “seen anything better” in terms of environmental policy ideas.
O’Rourke has also adopted some bipartisan rhetorical flourishes, emphasizing that he wants politics to be less divisive and more focused on finding common ground. And no one should ignore his fairly centrist political history. He wasn’t known as a liberal firebrand and often eschewed liberal positions during his political rise in Texas. In Congress, his voting record put him to the right of the average House Democrat in 2017-18. He was a member of the New Democrat Coalition, a more centrist wing of the party.
But as I have written before, the policy promises that a candidate makes during his or her campaign are usually a better predictor of future stances than votes or positions taken well before the campaign. So O’Rourke’s more recent liberalism is important. And many of his current stances, the ones highlighted above, are decidedly not centrist.
To cherry-pick a few: Public opinion is divided on the NFL player protests, with nearly universal opposition among Republicans to kneeling. And just 17 percent of Republicans and 39 percent of Americans overall oppose the death penalty for people convicted of murder, according to a Pew Research Center poll from last year. That position doesn’t even unify Democrats, with 59 percent against the death penalty and 35 percent in favor. A 2018 Gallup poll showed similar results. Lots of white Americans think they are the ones facing discrimination, so I doubt that they will relate to O’Rourke’s white privilege comments.
I might classify O’Rourke as fairly liberal on issues around culture and identity and left-leaning but maybe not particularly liberal — compared with, say, Sanders or Elizabeth Warren — on economic issues. (Cory Booker and Kamala Harris probably fall in this camp with O’Rourke.) Part of what’s confusing in assessing O’Rourke’s ideology is that the results are different depending on what benchmark you choose. Is he liberal compared with previous Democratic presidential candidates? Yes. Is he liberal compared with the activists dominating the discourse in the party now? No.
O’Rourke’s current positioning may seem fairly politically safe in a general election (and hence not particularly progressive), but I’m not so sure that’s true. O’Rourke’s liberalism on questions of culture and race might help him woo college-educated white voters and minorities, but it might also be fodder for Trump in appealing to GOP voters, many of whom are wary of an America growing more racially diverse. Part of Trump’s success in 2016, scholars have found, was getting white voters thinking about and defending their whiteness. O’Rourke is planning a campaign that will highlight his heavily Latino hometown of El Paso and will emphasize the close ties between El Paso and neighboring Ciudad Juárez, Mexico — the kind of multiculturalism that Trump has been attacking for years. Indeed, Republicans are already attacking him on immigration. In a tweet on Monday, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said that the Texan is “one of the most extreme Democrats running,” noting his opposition to some existing border barriers.
And it’s not just O’Rourke’s pro-immigration and pro-Latino stands that would likely be heavily contested in a general election. Ted Cruz, whom O’Rourke unsuccessfully challenged in the Texas Senate race last year, highlighted O’Rourke’s defense of NFL player protests during the 2018 campaign, suggesting that the Republican thought the issue would help him more than it would help O’Rourke. And we haven’t seen a recent presidential candidate have to defend opposition to the death penalty (neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton ran for president as death penalty opponents). But O’Rourke seems to have left himself little wiggle room by saying that his stance is based on “moral grounds.”
Overall, I’m not sure how primary voters — or general election voters, if he gets that far — will perceive O’Rourke. He has a mix of traits and positions that could result in perceptions of him as fairly moderate (white, male, not supportive of single-payer health care) and traits and positions that could come off as liberal (pro-immigrant, pro-pot, anti-death penalty). “How liberal is Beto?” will likely remain a question throughout the campaign, particularly if he surges in the polls and his ideology and policy views become more relevant.
From ABC News: