The big idea? Beto doesn’t have one.
By David Siders 4/15/18
Kamala Harris has her $315 billion proposal to raise teacher pay. Amy Klobuchar has a seven-point infrastructure investment plan. Elizabeth Warren is swimming in white papers on subjects ranging from tech company mergers to taxes and housing.
Beto O’Rourke’s most distinctive policy position? To be determined. There’s no signature issue yet, no single policy proposal sparking his campaign. Convening crowds — and listening to them — is the central thrust of his early presidential bid. And one month into the race, even some of O’Rourke’s supporters are starting to worry about persistent criticism that the charismatic Texan is missing big policy ideas of his own.
“Many of your critics often believe that you’re not clear or firm on your policy positions,” a caucusgoer told O’Rourke at a town hall-style meeting in Iowa recently. “What should we, as supporters and caucusers, say to rebut these claims?”
It’s not that O’Rourke doesn’t have positions. He does, and in the month since announcing his presidential campaign, he has expressed many of them with specificity. He has robust ideas about immigration, including a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. He has lauded the "Green New Deal" and called for a new Voting Rights Act. He was an early champion of legalizing marijuana — and co-wrote a book about it. He wants universal pre-K education, and he has touted a bill by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) to dramatically expand Medicare coverage while maintaining a role for private health insurance.
Campaigning in South Carolina on Saturday, O’Rourke was endorsed by state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, who said he was proud to support a politician who is “looking at how we can ensure that all Americans have a quality of life that is necessary in the form of health care and affordable housing and a quality education.”
But none of those positions is unique to O’Rourke. And with his relatively meager legislative record — and a belief that he can transcend ideological lanes within the Democratic Party — O'Rourke appears unclear about where he fits on the policy spectrum.
When a Republican voter told O’Rourke after a recent campaign event that he came off “a little bit more centrist” than she had expected and asked, “Is that true?” O’Rourke replied, “That’s a great question.”
Then O’Rourke, who only weeks earlier had said the nation’s “extraordinary, unprecedented concentration of wealth and power and privilege must be broken apart,” told the woman, “I guess it’s probably for you and voters to decide.”
“All I can do is share the things that I believe in and the way in which I want to campaign,” O’Rourke said. “And then where you want to affix me on the political spectrum is up to you.”
Unlike some of his lower-profile competitors, O’Rourke has not been compelled to release policy papers to draw media attention or donor interest. And the experience of the nation’s last Democratic president, Barack Obama, suggests O’Rourke has ample time to build a policy portfolio.
Like O’Rourke, Obama was beset early in the 2008 presidential primary by complaints that he was light on policy. David Axelrod, a former top adviser to Obama, recalled one health care forum with Hillary Clinton in early 2007 in which Obama looked “sorely wanting.”
“I remember him coming back and saying: ‘I did not look like a president up there. She looked like president up there,’” Axelrod said. “There were times when he acknowledged, ‘I’m not where I need to be or want to be.’ But he then pushed himself to dig more deeply, to have more conversations, to develop his thoughts on things where he thought there were gaps. … By the time the campaign hit full swing, he was in a much better place.”
Axelrod said, “There is this tension in a campaign between the desire of the media and the political community to judge everything in the moment and the reality of a campaign, which evolves and gives candidates time to evolve with it. … I think that in a marathon, it is risky to draw too many conclusions at the 2-mile mark.”
Like Obama, a first-term senator when he ran for president, O’Rourke has relatively little Washington experience. But that is not the only obstacle O’Rourke will encounter in his effort to assemble a cohesive policy platform. The former three-term congressman was criticized during his Texas Senate run last year for appearing too progressive. Then it was progressive Democrats’ turn, faulting him in the early stages of the presidential campaign for more moderate elements of his record, including on climate change.
O’Rourke has acknowledged that he might reconsider some votes he took related to the issue. Asked which ones, O’Rourke told reporters in Iowa recently, “I’ll try to get you a more complete answer in the future because I would need to take a look at those votes. I don’t have them all memorized.
“But I think the point that I was trying to make is that we have very limited time within which to act,” he said. “It’s something that I feel that I’m just really fully appreciating now.”
Following the exchange, Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist in Washington, said, “Beto is going to, at a point, have to put out actual policy proposals and continue to explain how he has evolved on his issues.
“He definitely has real energy behind him,” Feldman said. “But ultimately with that energy comes increased scrutiny and he’s going to have to put forth a policy agenda at some point.”
O’Rourke has at times appeared confounded by criticism that he is glossing over policy. When an MSNBC correspondent relayed to O’Rourke recently that some students he spoke with found O’Rourke “wishy-washy” on climate change, police violence and other issues, O’Rourke said, “Hmm,” then paused.
“Let me try again,” he said. “On climate: rejoin the Paris climate agreement, Day One. On climate: reinstitute the Clean Power Plan. Make sure that we have higher standards for vehicle emissions for this country. Invest in wind and solar and other renewable energies that are also producing the highest growth and jobs in this country. Free ourselves from a dependence on fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions. Help to convene the world around this problem because even if the United States did everything within its power, China has three to four times the number of coal-fired plants than we do. So we need to exert global leadership, once again return to being the indispensable nation.”
Then, turning to police use of force, O'Rourke called for “tying federal funds to full reporting on use of force and against whom force is used” and “invoking the civil rights laws of the United States to transcend local and state jurisdictions to make sure the full weight and power and accountability of the federal government comes into play to ensure that we protect the lives of those in our lives and in our communities.”
He said, “So those, I hope, are some specific answers on some specific questions.”
At other times, however, O’Rourke has deliberately positioned himself less as a proponent of policy ideas than as a synthesizer of them.
“I’m going to make the rare admission for a politician that I don’t have a good answer to your question,” O’Rourke said at a recent campaign stop when asked what he would do to help in-home child care providers.
Directing an aide to collect the questioner’s telephone number, O’Rourke said, “Let me learn from you and not try to pretend that I have the answer.”
The exchange was reminiscent of O'Rourke's first day as a presidential candidate, when he told a crowd: "I am all ears right now. There's no sense in campaigning if you already know every single answer, if you're not willing to listen to those whom you wish to serve."
Earlier this month, O’Rourke’s campaign publicized a pledge by O’Rourke, if elected, to sign an executive order requiring his Cabinet secretaries to hold monthly town hall meetings — effectively codifying his commitment to listen to and learn from his constituents. The proposal was in keeping with O’Rourke’s grueling schedule of campaign appearances across the country, after holding more than 100 town hall meetings in his Texas congressional district while in the House.
O’Rourke’s willingness to volunteer his own gaps in knowledge is rare for a politician and endearing to his supporters. And it has benefited him politically in previous campaigns.
Russell Autry, a pollster who worked for O’Rourke during his time on the City Council in El Paso, Texas, said: “When he started this [presidential] campaign, he was pretty clear what he wanted to do first of all was listen and meet as many people as possible. That was part of his strategy when he first ran for City Council in El Paso and when he first ran for Congress.”
“He wants to have a dialogue, and he wants to engage with real, live citizens, taxpayers, voters and hear what they have to say. And I think he’s good at it,” Autry said. “This is what Beto does. He does his homework and he tries to engage people. And when it comes time for there to be meat on the bones in terms of public policy, I think you’re going to start seeing that.”