No, Beto O'Rourke isn't the most progressive Democrat you've ever seen — and that might be a good thing

Nicholas Clairmont
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Beto O’Rourke says he would pick a female vice president: ‘That would be my preference’

Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke became a Democratic star last year when he almost unseated Ted Cruz in a bid for the Senate, prompting speculation he might run for the presidency in 2020. Today, the 46-year-old from El Paso ended the guessing amid a social media flurry prompted by a fawning profile of him in Vanity Fair, releasing an announcement video that adds his name to the large field of contenders vying to be nominated by the Democratic Party to go up against Donald Trump.

While it became commonplace to describe Beto as not only a rising Democratic star but also a rising progressive star during his near-miss Senate run, the left wing of the party is not uniformly pleased to have Beto in a field that already includes contenders with proven progressive chops like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. According to a line of harder-left criticism, if you look past Beto’s admittedly star-making rhetorical skills and, yes, undeniably good looks, his voting record shows little evidence of real progressive political commitments. Indeed, there is evidence that on some key issues for Americans, he’s somewhat uncomfortably out to the right.

So what does Beto really believe? As Vox’s Matt Yglesias summarised the legislative evidence: “ his first term in Congress, he voted somewhat more conservatively than the typical House Democrat. It was the same in his second term in Congress and the same again in his third term.” During those terms, Yglesias notes, his voting record placed him as more conservative than between 76 and 79 per cent of Democrats.

"Now, to be clear," he writes, "if you look at a visualisation of O’Rourke in the most recent Congress, it’s not like he’s a crypto-Republican or anything. Even the most conservative Democrats are well to the left of the most liberal Republicans, and O’Rourke is quite a bit more liberal than the most conservative Democrats.

"All that said, O’Rourke basically has the voting record of someone capable of threading the needle between grassroots enthusiasm and swing-voter acceptability that you would need to mount a credible statewide campaign in Texas.

"Most of the other names you hear in the 2020 race are, however, more consistently progressive."

For progressive Washington Post columnist and native Texan Elizabeth Bruenig, Beto seems more like a tacit New Democrat or defender of the neoliberal consensus than like the real deal. In December, pushing against his entry into the race, she called him “progressive-ish” and summed up the three main leftist lines of disappointment with Beto.

First, “O’Rourke’s congressional voting record signals scepticism about progressive priorities” like Medicare-for-all and free college.

Second, he’s weak if not compromised on fighting oil interests: “O’Rourke’s statements on energy have been surprisingly thin.”

Finally, the star power O’Rourke brings may be fluff to disregard rather than power to embrace: “Beto is a lot like Obama, true; it’s perhaps time for left-leaning Democrats to realise that may not be a good thing.”

In Current Affairs, Zaid Jilani made a similar case for Beto-scepticism, as have others.

Yet the far-left pundit class may also be over-interpreting the evidence that the best chance of advancing its goals (including goal number one of kicking Trump out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) will be served by radical proposals. And it’s been one of the deepest hopes of Democrats everywhere to one day recapture Texas’s 38 electoral votes.

Progressive pundits would do well to remember that you can’t govern if you don’t win. And the wave of wins that regained Democrats control of the House with record turnout in the 2018 midterms came largely in purple districts where far-left policy proposals and rhetoric don’t always poll well, not in wild swings from red to blue. Progressives who have become media stars and darlings of the pundit class — Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — replaced or unseated other Democrats.

An old political adage has it that “Republicans fall in line and Democrats fall in love.” Perhaps Democratic thought leaders anticipating a race against someone they care very much about defeating could split the difference a bit, and think about who they can fall in line behind in terms of who the electorate can fall in love with. Whether that is Beto is a question that more campaigning and polling, not more editorialising, will have to determine.