When CNN outrage-archeologist Andrew Kaczynski took a deep dive last week into the early-career policy statements of future Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), he found a fringe politician in his 30s advocating "the public ownership of the major means of production," as well as a spokesman of a serious presidential campaign nearly five decades later being unapologetic about such textbook socialism. So what did Kaczynski (and today's co-author, Paul LeBlanc) find after mining the early-career policy musings of a then-obscure thirtysomething El Paso City Councilman named Beto O'Rourke?
A deficit hawk advocating "tough choices" on spending, defense, and entitlement reform, including means-testing Social Security and raising the retirement age for future recipients.
"There are certainly places in the federal budget where we have to look at reorganizing, where we have to look at cutting," O'Rourke said at a March 2012 primary debate against eight-term incumbent Silvestre Reyes, who he would go on to topple two months later in the Democratic primary. "And we really don't have a choice," he said. "You have a $16 trillion debt. We're running $1 trillion annual deficits and we cannot continue to spend ourselves into ruin. We need to elect people who are gonna go up there and make some tough choices."
The national debt seven years later is now north of $22 trillion, with annual deficits projected to re-reach the $1 trillion threshold any month now, despite an economic expansion and stock market bull run that are both nearing record lengths. When the next recession and bear market hit, tax revenues will decrease just as demand for government services will spike, blowing an even larger hole in the severely imbalanced budget. Oh, and the Social Security Trust Fund, according to the Congressional Budget Office, is on pace to run out of money just 12 years from now, after which recipients face a mandatory 25 percent benefit cut.
While largely forgotten now by a political class chasing the shiny objects of democratic socialism and nationalist populism, such cruel numbers were on the lips of many a politician and journalist in 2011-2012, including then-President Barack Obama and his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, who warned in his 2012 Democratic National Convention speech that, "We've got to deal with this big long-term debt problem or it will deal with us."
Unlike his Democratic opponent, O'Rourke in his primary fight endorsed the framework for dealing with long-term spending and entitlements put forward by the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, co-chaired by former senators Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. The Simpson-Bowles collapse nevertheless produced the Budget Control Act of 2011, which created a new long-term Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, whose similar failure triggered the sequestration spending caps of 2013. All in the name of an acknowledgment, common for two decades but largely absent since then, that when Baby Boomers retire the rest of us are hosed.
"The people who paid into Social Security and who are earning their checks back from investment in Social Security, that needs to be protected," O'Rourke said in a November 2011 debate. "That's inviolable. But going forward for future generations, for my kids' generation, five, three, and one year old. Right now, we need to look at things like means testing….We need to look at perhaps a…later age at which my kids are going to retire. That's a tough decision. It's not easy to say, it's going to be politicized by my opponent. But those are the tough things that you're going to want me to weigh in on when I'm in Washington, D.C."
Unlike Sanders spokesman Josh Orton, who cast Bernie's Brezhnev-era fondness for means-of-production socialism as a noble and ongoing defense of "the interests of working people across the country," O'Rourke spokesman Chris Evans gave a more backpedaly response to CNN:
On Social Security, Beto was acknowledging that it's very possible Congress would look at that debate around raising the age in the future. He does not say he supports it or recommends it. Beto was interested in looking at possible ideas for ensuring the solvency of Social Security for future generations….He ultimately found a solution that he endorsed and co-sponsored called the Social Security 2100 Act, which extends the solvency of the program without raising the retirement age. While Beto has not taken any action to raise the retirement age, he has opposed efforts to raise the retirement age and voted against measures to privatize Social Security.
As Tim Miller points out in a shrewd piece for The Bulwark, the Beto honeymoon of five months ago is a distant or even scrubbed memory for the pro-Bernie and identity-politics portions of the left, who during this fascinatingly competitive primary have been pouring acid into every crack of O'Rourke's armor. (The candidate's emotive Gen X mannerisms have given plenty of opportunity for such withering mockery.)
In response, even in the few short days of his announced campaign, O'Rourke has backtracked at least somewhat on several things, from the way he talks about his wife to his previously stated preference for capitalism over socialism. "I consider myself a capitalist," he said again Friday. But: "Having said that, it is clearly an imperfect, unfair, unjust and racist capitalist economy."
So far in his young campaign, O'Rourke has deliberately steered concrete policy questions into more generalized statements of problems and emphases of goals, which is the kind of thing that allows one to praise the Green New Deal without quite tattooing it on your tricep. (There have been some indications that Beto is getting testy about the charge that he's all sizzle, no steak.) Being all things to all voters is damnably hard when you bring heterodox views into a competitive primary.
Bonus video: I discussed O'Rourke's vague selling proposition yet specific policy beliefs on MSNBC last week:
— Andrew Wimsatt (@ajwimsatt) March 14, 2019