Beto O'Rourke

Can a Self-Described 'Capitalist' Win the 2020 Democratic Primary?

Beto O'Rourke-who won't call himself a "progressive," let alone a "democratic socialist"-is expected to jump into the presidential race.


||| Carlo Allegri/REUTERS/Newscom
Carlo Allegri/REUTERS/Newscom

When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) jumped into the 2020 presidential race last week, reporters sought comment about Bernie's democratic socialism from the other would-be candidate who tends to make Democratic voters weak in the knees, former congressman and failed senatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke.

"I'm a capitalist," O'Rourke replied. "I don't see how we're able to meet any of the fundamental challenges that we have as a country without, in part, harnessing the power of the market. Climate change is the most immediate example of that. If you're going to bring the total innovation and ingenuity of this country to bear…our economy is going to have to be a part of that." Asked at a town hall two months prior if he was a progressive, O'Rourke incurred the wrath of Team Bernie by saying, "I don't know….I'm not big on labels. 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."

O'Rourke this week announced that he has made a decision about whether he is going to run; he says he's "excited to share it with everyone soon," which pretty much everyone (including his sister) interprets as #He'sRunning. With President Donald Trump and his less-subtle surrogates clearly relishing a campaign fight against socialism, and with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) emerging as both the go-to conservative bogeyman and an influential driver of Democratic policy discussions, some on the left are catching the distinct whiff of triangulation from the toothsome Medium author.

"O'Rourke's biggest presidential problem is he's potentially positioned himself as too much of a centrist to win the backing of the Democratic Party's increasingly large progressive wing in a nationwide Democratic primary," writes Esquire's Gabrielle Bruney. "During his three terms in Congress, O'Rourke joined the centrist New Democrat Coalition rather than the Congressional Progressive Caucus and amassed a voting record more conservative than that of the average Democrat….Beto backed Medicare for All in 2017, but, as Politico notes, stopped publicly using both that term and 'single payer' as his Senate Campaign heated up last year."

The progressive case against O'Rourke, as I pointed out in December, is almost entirely economic, since he has been far to the "left" of most Democrats on the drug war, criminal justice reform, immigration, and U.S. intervention abroad. (Though headlines like "Beto's excellent adventure drips with white male privilege" also indicate that the identity-politics wars will inflict some wounds as well.) So how does his economic centrism translate into policy?

For one thing, like vanishingly few politicians from either major party, O'Rourke speaks as if there are budgetary constraints on the federal level. "We are $21 trillion in debt," he lamented at a town hall in December, commenting further that "we are projected to add $1 trillion in deficit spending to that debt just in this next fiscal year." He's also a comparatively lonely pro-trade voice in the Democratic field.

On the other hand O'Rourke also recently called the Green New Deal "the best proposal that I've seen to ensure that this planet does not warm another two degrees Celsius," despite the plan's jaw-dropping cost and progressive grab-bagging. And he has said in the past that a "single-payer Medicare-for-all program is the best way to ensure all Americans get the healthcare they need," despite the country's inability to afford even the Medicare we already have.

It's worth pointing out that the O'Rourkian thrill that went down Democrats' legs during his unprecedentedly expensive race against Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) had far less to do with policy or ideology and far more to do with the challenger's charisma and inclusive uplift. This quality, otherwise elusive on the Democratic primary side so far (with the possible partial exception of California Sen. Kamala Harris), has drawn not just frequent comparisons to Barack Obama but some obvious enthusiasm from the former president's inner circle. Trump would probably love to run against a democratic socialist. It might prove a thornier challenge for him to smite someone who excites Democrats without either promising too much or scaring half the country.

The flip side to the O'Rourke grassroots phenomenon—should it repeat itself in a presidential run, which is far from a sure thing—is that being the object of a political groundswell tends to change a person, including ideologically. Howard Dean started out as a pro-gun, largely pro-intervention centrist, but after catching the anti-Iraq War fire, "I noticed folks to the left of me…were saying stuff that turned out to be true." Bernie Sanders has successfully jerked the whole party significantly to the economic left; it would take an act of will to resist being swept along.