“I don’t know. I’m just, as you may have seen and heard over the course of the campaign, I’m not big on labels,” the Texas congressman said to reporters, when pressed if he identifies as a progressive Democrat. “I don’t get all fired up about party or classifying or defining people based on a label or a group. I’m for everyone.”
Mr O’Rourke is struggling to find his place in a battle for the Democratic party’s soul between establishment and progressives within his party, while also maintaining the support of more traditionally conservative Texas.
His 2018 Texas senate campaign—where he narrowly lost to incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz—became a turning point for Democrats finding a sliver of blue hope in the deep-red state, and thus gaining the status of a promising contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
His campaign championed progressive—perhaps even democratic socialist—policy positions including his support for Medicare for All and his stance on immigration, climate change, drug legalisation and criminal justice reform. The campaign launched Mr Rourke to political stardom, even landing him first in a group of potential 2020 Democratic candidates in a recent straw poll by MoveOn, a progressive grassroots organisation.
But as the country inches closer to the 2020 starting line, Mr O’Rourke has been a target for criticism by critics who find him either too progressive or simply not progressive enough. Those on the left have criticised Mr O’Rourke for his membership in the centrist New Democrat Coalition and for accepting donations from the oil-industry and pro-Israel lobby. Some are sceptical that the 46-year-old could find his place in an increasingly leftward shifting political party.
Mr O’Rourke has defended these criticisms, particularly regarding accepting donations from oil-industry workers. “[It is] really important to remember we did not receive a single PAC [Political Action Committee] contribution,” the Texas politician, who raised $70 million from a national network of primarily small donors, told Politico.
He went on to clarify that oil workers were not the only industry employees he accepted donations from, including “cosmetology industry, the telecommunications industry, the cupcake baking industry.”
“We received more contributions than any Senate candidate in the history of the United States of America, so we were No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 for almost every industry,” he added.
Mr O’Rourke will be joining a long list of Democratic presidential hopefuls including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, and former Vice President Joe Biden. But despite his critically-acclaimed senate campaign, progressive have largely been unmoved by Mr Rourke’s politics.
Leftist writers in Current Affairs and the Washington Post have called the 46-year-old have described him as “plainly uninspiring,” and criticised him for “rarely [challenging] concentrated power in DC”. In a piece arguing against a Mr O’Rourke presidential bid, socialist magazine Jacobin’s social media headline did not mince their words: “We don’t need another photogenic media star with run-of-the-mill liberal politics running for president.”
Mr O’Rourke discounts these criticisms. “I am who I am,” he said. “I laid out my vision for Texas and this country over the last two years without taking a single poll to find out where people were on the issues or how popular it was or how it would track in this community or that — said the same thing in Amarillo that I said in Houston, Texas, so I mean, go figure.”
With the beginning of the 2020 presidential election cycle about five or more weeks ago, the Texas congressman said still has not decided whether he will vie for the Oval Office.
As of right now, he seems fixated on challenging President Donald Trump’s policies and ensuring that the 2020 general election will result in a new administration divergent of one notorious for scandals and high-profile feuds.
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“Whoever is running may very well be running against somebody who has not the slightest respect for our norms, our traditions, our institutions, civility, dignity, decency in public life,” Mr O’Rourke said. “This is the mother of all tests for this democracy, and whether we can run a campaign — have candidates at all levels, from school board to the White House — who are willing to focus on issues, on our potential, on our promise, on the future, instead of our fears, instead of attacking one another personally.”
For Mr O’Rourke, one thing is for certain: Although the Trump administration is emblematic of one of the darkest times in US history, there is still hope things could change for the better.
“I know that something good is going to come out of all this at the end of the day,” he added. “But there’s never been a darker moment, at least in my lifetime, in this country.”