In the first stop of a three-day, all-10-counties swing through the early primary state of New Hampshire, presidential fundraiser extraordinaire Beto O'Rourke demonstrated last night at Keene State College many of the qualities that make him simultaneously a formidable candidate and an object of ridicule.
O'Rourke theatrically rolled up his signature white sleeves immediately upon arrival to the Keene Student Center, hopped up on a bench to get his tall, lanky frame above the eyeline of the mosh pit (which held around 250), and did his finger-jabbing, toe-bouncing best to look like a college debater-turned waiter trying his hand at slam poetry.
Yet before there was even time enough for a proper giggling fit, the former congressman and El Paso city councilman was off on a genuinely moving 900-word rap about immigration, extolling the safety of multinational cities, praising the bravery of asylum seekers fleeing Central American violence, and decrying the cruelty of the Trump administration's family-separation policy. "Until every single one of those children is reunited with every single one of their families," he said, "it is on all of us. It becomes our responsibility to make this right."
Like every other bloc in American politics, libertarians are divided on immigration, so your mileage on Beto's policy prescriptions (including qualified legalization of existing illegal immigrants, and citizenship for "dreamers") may vary. But the rest of his speech was notable for a different kind of divide, one that illustrates the candidate's unusually heterodox views and frustrating policy/aspiration gap: For every statement libertarians had reasons to cheer, O'Rourke would—often within the same paragraph—give them ample reason to boo. The contradictions were almost too painful to bear.
I counted up four such love/hate moments last night, though there were surely more.
1) Get drugs out of the criminal justice system! Also, jail those pharma execs!
As you'd expect from a major-party politician who was against the drug war not one month but one decade ago, O'Rourke last night called for the end of federal marijuana prohibition and the removal of pot arrests from criminal records, as part of a broader criminal justice reform. More boldly, given the panic du jour, he called for getting cops out of the opioid crisis.
"I'm so proud of your response to the crisis that you have seen, endured more than any other state in the nation, of opiod abuse and overuse and death," he said. "The fact that in the face of losing 70,000 of our fellow Americans to drug overdose deaths, you as a state and as a people have decided this will not be a problem of criminal justice, this will be an opportunity for public health."
But literally two sentences later O'Rourke was slamming "folks like those at Purdue Pharma [who] can sell these addictive opioids to prescribers," and lamenting that "not a single one of them has done a single day in jail." It's hard to imagine a libertarian torture chamber more economic than this short paragraph:
We need to end the prohibition of marijuana. Expunge arrest records for everyone arrested for possession of something that's legal in so many other places. And make sure that we have full prosecution and accountability for those who are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.
2) Free trade, but not for Chinese dumpers!
Atypically for the 2020 presidential field, O'Rourke has a long rhetorical track record of backing free trade, which is one of many reasons why it was odd for the ostensibly pro-trade Club for Growth to be going after a Democratic challenger (on grounds of "white male privilege"!) who is considerably better on that core issue than President Donald Trump.
Last night, sure enough, the candidate came out swinging against the administration: "This trade war that the president has entered us into with China, these tariffs that he's levied, and reciprocal tariffs that have been levied in return, hurt our ability to export into foreign markets, hurt our farmers and ranchers and producers, hurt the people who make things in this country that are opened to other markets around the world. It's hurting our economy and hurting our families."
Clear as a bell, right? But literally three sentences later, O'Rourke was talking about the need "to take on China, the manipulation of their currency, the manipulation of trade practices that allows them to dump steel and compete unfairly on a global stage."
Now, it's true that even avowedly free-trade Republican presidents have dinged China for dumping steel, let alone that recent Democratic dreamboat O'Rourke so needily evokes. But it's also true that anti-Chinese-dumping provisions already exist, even though they arguably shouldn't.
3) Debt = bad, domestic spending = good.
O'Rourke last night not only doubled down on his previous criticisms about the size of federal deficits and debt, he did so while denouncing overseas wars, occupations, and nation-building:
[W]e are $22 trillion in debt, and deficit spending to the tune of one trillion dollars annually added to that. That was approved in wars that we've been fighting going back to 1991, in the first invasion of Iraq. Six successive presidential administrations, we are still there. Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen. Those wars cost money. Those countries we rebuild after we've invaded cost money. Actually trillions of dollars.
Does the once and future New Democrat blame anything else besides war for the size of deficits and debt? Yep: Tax cuts. That was it, last night at least. Meanwhile, he's out there touting a Medicare expansion program that in his own words would be "measured in the trillions of dollars."
4) Alarmists for a new humility.
The most jarring of O'Rourke's contradictions is the dissonance between his relentlessly upbeat, respect-everyone, take-the-high-road humility, and the definitionally narcisstic (and very Obamaesque) notion that right now, this election, is our "defining moment of truth."
In one breath, Beto will beseech Americans to recognize the limits of their own knowledge and power. "There are probably a lot of people who are a lot smarter on this issue than I am," he said last night, in response to a pointed question about the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Also: "Now listen, we have to have the humility to understand we cannot impose a solution on any people, anywhere. See: 18 years and counting in Afghanistan, 27 years and counting in Iraq. Plenty of other examples. This is something that the Palestinian people and the Israeli people must decide for themselves. But given our role and our support for both sides, the aid that we provide, we have a seat at that table."
Hooray, America and her politicians are neither omniscient nor omnipotent! Or, uh, not:
The civil war in Syria, the wildfires in California—we literally are making it happen. And unless we act in the next 12 years, which the scientists also agree within which we still have time, there will be a hell visited upon our kids and grandkids and the generations that follow….If you were worried about 400,000 apprehensions at our southern border with Mexico last year, wait until some of the countries in the Western Hemisphere are no longer inhabitable by human beings. The refugee crisis then, here and all over the world, is beyond our imagination right now. But we still have time to act.
O'Rourke, who visited every single county in Texas and appears determined to repeat the trick in as many early primary states as possible, is a big fan of saying stuff like, "I think we can bridge these differences, define ourselves not by what divides us, by what we want to accomplish together." The hope is that such universalism will allow him to paper over policy and ideological differences, while emphasizing his competitive advantage of energy and charm.
But the apocalyptic drum-beating that's so prevalent in all American politics these days is never far from the surface smile. "This," he said last night, "is our moment of truth right now." His truth, anyway.