Handicapping the 2020 Democratic Primary, Part Four: Beto O’Rourke


The year 2016 is never going to end. While the Republican Party owns every level of government — from Congress, to the Senate, to and the White House — the Democratic Party remains in complete disarray. The same ideological battle that was fought between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Dem Primary continues on to this day, with no apparent end in sight, and will continue in 2020. 

The field of 2020 Democratic candidates is going to be enormous, potentially featuring from the jump as many as 15 or 20 warm bodies. In reality, though, the race will only involve two individuals: the establishment-backed, corporate-friendly candidate, and the Progressive candidate. No one else matters. The only questions are (1) who will be the establishment choice, and (2) who will be the Progressive choice?

Part One: Kamala Harris

Part Two: Joe Biden

Part Three: Bernie Sanders

Here are the current odds, listed in order of likelihood, according to Bovada:

Kamala Harris: +450
Beto O'Rourke: +500
Bernie Sanders: +600
Joe Biden: +600
Elizabeth Warren: +900
Hillary Clinton: +1500

Part Four: Beto O’Rourke (5-to-1)

Beto O’Rourke gained national attention during the 2018 midterm elections by running a valiant campaign against incumbent Ted Cruz for one of Texas’s senate seats. In the end Cruz squeaked out the win by 2.3 percent — about 220,000 votes — making it the closest race in Texas in 40 years.

O’Rourke, 46, is considered by some as the Next Great Hope of the Democratic Party. Since 2013 he has been a member of the House, representing Texas’s 16th district, and the fact that he managed to take Ted Cruz down to the wire in a deep red state has made Democrats swoon over the idea of him making a run for President in 2020.

Vegas oddsmakers, meanwhile, have reciprocated that sentiment, making him the second favorite (next to California Senator Kamala Harris) to win the Democratic nomination. The current 5-to-1 price tag reflects the momentum of Beto’s popularity, which has seemingly never stopped rising since he declared to run against Ted Cruz.

A major part of me wants to like Beto O’Rourke. After all, he doesn’t accept corporate PAC money. He made healthcare reform one of the pillars of his senate campaign. He’s one of the few politicians with any sort of name recognition to come out in support of Colin Kaepernick. In 2018, he appears to check off all the proper boxes that make him worthy of support from the Left.

My problem with Beto has little to do with his actual record, because there just isn’t a lot to go on as far as that’s concerned. My problem is I have a hard time taking upstart politicians at their word, especially when those words have changed in such a short amount of time. In October, 2017 — as he ran for nomination in Texas’s Democratic primary — O’Rourke told a reporter from Vox that “Bernie Sanders’s single-payer bill was perhaps the best piece of health care legislation that had been introduced in Congress.” About nine months later — after he secured the primary victory and was in the midst of a general election vs. Cruz —Renuka Rayasam of Politico acknowledged that Beto “no longer uses phrases like ‘single-payer’ or ‘Medicare For All.'”

Instead, O’Rourke began saying things like “Universal Healthcare,” or my personal favorite, “universal access to healthcare.” In an interview with Bill Maher, Beto said “Universal healthcare, the ability for everyone to go see a doctor, regardless of income,” was one of his most important issues. When Maher asked if he supports single-payer (essentially Bernie’s healthcare proposal), the Texas congressman said “If that’s how we get there, that’s how we get there,” before being his usual policy wonk self and getting into Medicare costs. A simple “yes” would have done the trick.

Should I care that Beto O’Rourke pivoted to the right after winning the Democratic primary in Texas? Probably not. I don’t have any tangible evidence to suggest that he isn’t honest, or earnest, about being such a people’s champion. I do, however, understand the difference between politicians who say “Medicare For All” and those who say “Universal Healthcare.” One of those terms is used by Progressives like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, while the other is oftentimes uttered by corporate politicians like Hillary Clinton and Cory Booker — people who have basically made Triangulation their political ideology.

This distinction may seem small, but there is no doubt it is meaningful. Andrew Gillum, a 2018 candidate for governor of Florida, campaigned during his own Dem primary on Medicare For All, and like O’Rourke he ended up winning against the Democratic field. In the weeks leading up to Florida’s general election, though, Gillum shifted his rhetoric from “Medicare For All” to the same mealy-mouthed responses that Beto invoked in his race against Ted Cruz. It wasn’t only that, though. Gillum also made his rounds in Washington by spending time with Hillary Clinton and making awkward Twitter videos with Cory Booker.

Florida is considerably more of a tossup state than Texas, but Gillum nonetheless met the same fate as O’Rourke — losing a tight race to the Republican candidate. But while Beto was always kind of a longshot to actually win, Gillum found himself in a cozy position where he was ahead in the polls heading into election day.

The lesson here is that a Progressive platform insists on the politician to be unapologetic. If you are going to go left, go left. Don’t retreat back to the center. Ordinary people aren’t interested in all the ingredients that make up the soup of the healthcare industry, they just want to hear that Medicare For All is the answer. People believe it when Bernie Sanders says it, because Bernie has basically been calling for a single-payer system since the late 1980’s. When people hear buzzwords like “universal,” and “access,” they immediately recall the terribly unpopular politicians who have deployed those empty words before. And any time voters are able to link candidates to Clinton and Booker, they inherently lose trust that the guy will actually follow through.

Beto O’Rourke is a hero in Texas, though I do imagine roughly half the state views him as some type of fucking communist. For a legit senate contender, he is clearly as left-leaning as has ever been seen around those parts. And when we talk about the viability of Progressive politics, we look directly at O’Rourke, and directly at the state of Texas, and we say if this guy can almost win there, then this message can, at the very least, compete anywhere.

But again, I’m suspicious. I can’t bring myself to have faith in his ability to be about the things he says he’s about. In September, for reasons that don’t add up, Beto O’Rourke endorsed representative Sean Patrick Maloney for New York Attorney General. Why does this matter? For starters, what business does O’Rourke, running for the senate in Texas, have with whoever wins the race for New York AG? Secondly, why would a man supposedly of the people endorse Maloney, a corporatist millionaire, over Zephyr Teachout, who was endorsed by Bernie Sanders and the Progressives?

On their own, slips like these pale in comparison to some of the harmful deeds done by Kamala Harris. They aren’t that big of a deal. But that may exactly be the point: If his endorsement didn’t matter, why would he give it in the first place? And why would he endorse the guy with tons of money through banking and real estate over Teachout, whose platform is nearly identical to that of O’Rourke?

The flip flop on Medicare For All vs. Universal Healthcare, as well as the confounding endorsement of a rich guy in New York, aren’t enough of a reason to say Fuck That Guy I’m Never Voting For Him. Because there’s no doubt if O’Rourke ran against Donald Trump I would be at least semi-enthusiastic about going to the polls that day. And assuming he stuck to the plan and continued to reject PAC money, I think there’s a better than not chance he would beat Trump fairly convincingly.

But these are red flags. They are absolutely red flags. Progressives have been teased before by young and handsome politicians who campaign on big, popular ideas on the left. And we’ve seen before, as with Bill Clinton in the 1990’s, and Barack Obama from 2008-2016, that the only meaningful legislation they passed was to benefit the rich. Squashing the little guy — workers, union members, single moms — has been the main priority of both parties since the 1980’s. The tax cuts, the free trade deals, the slashing of so-called entitlements, these have all made the rich even richer and the poor even more desperate and hopeless.

Beto O’Rourke could very well be the standup guy he portrays himself as on the campaign trail. I just think with the way the Democratic establishment has been propping him up as of late, there’s a better chance he is on their team — the Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama team — than the side of the grassroots, which actually wants to accomplish all the Progressive policies Beto claims to support.

I wouldn’t put any money on the 5:1 odds, mainly because I don’t think O’Rourke can beat Kamala Harris, who gets all the Identity Politics people all excited, in a head-to-head. Like I mentioned before, the price seems to be set at a level to keep up with the momentum of Beto’s popularity. Oddsmakers would hate to set the price at his actual value — which is probably closer to 10-to-1 or 12-to-1 — and then lose a shitload of money when he beat Trump in the general. The 5:1 odds are just low enough to thwart people like me from having any interest.

On the whole, I would subjectively rank O’Rourke third on my list of Democrats that I like. Right now I just trust so much more in the track record of Bernie Sanders, and to a lesser degree Elizabeth Warren, than I do the young buck from El Paso. Perhaps more than anybody over the next 12-18 months, I am interested in seeing what kind of a general election candidate Beto becomes.

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