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What does Beto actually believe? It's tough to say

The candidate who's about being "for" things will have to define himself in a Democratic primary of big policy ideas.

by Rex Santus
Mar 14 2019, 3:56pm

Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who came within three percentage points of beating Sen. Ted Cruz in a dramatically publicized midterm Senate race, is running for president.

In announcing his candidacy, O’Rourke said he is going to run a “positive” campaign.

“I just don’t get turned on by being against,” he told Vanity Fair in a profile that amounted to a campaign announcement. “I really get excited to be for. That’s what moves me.”

But what exactly is Beto O’Rourke for?

It’s a question that is not easy to answer from a three-term Democratic legislator, who ran a 2018 Senate campaign as ubiquitous as it was vague on the details. That was Texas. Now O'Rourke will be challenged to define himself in a Democratic primary field where candidates are eagerly staking out progressive positions on big policy ideas like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, taking on Wall Street, and tuition-free college.

O’Rourke is known for his good looks, charisma, and record-breaking fundraising numbers, but it’s difficult to say where he stands on some of the key issues that matter to Democratic primary voters.

“I don’t know. I’m just, as you may have seen and heard over the course of the campaign, I’m not big on labels,” O’Rourke said in December when asked if he identified as a progressive. “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.”

Here’s a look at what O’Rourke has done as a legislator and what he’s said about some of the major issues Democrats are taking on in the presidential race.

Medicare for All

Does he support it? Unclear.

In his campaign announcement video, O’Rourke failed to throw his support behind Medicare for All and characteristically kept his ideas about health care vague.

“We can ensure that every single American can see a doctor,” he said.

During his 2018 Senate campaign, O’Rourke initially embraced Medicare for All, but he later shied away from the concept as he tried to position himself as a centrist. He stopped using the words “Medicare for All” and “single payer,” as noted by Politico, and instead opted for sweeping, indefinite ideas like “universal, guaranteed, high-quality health care for all.”

O’Rourke also failed to co-sponsor the House’s Medicare for All legislation in 2017, and he has indicated that he does not support eliminating private insurance — a key element of single-payer legislation that five Democratic presidential candidates have co-sponsored in the Senate.

The Green New Deal

Does he support it? Maybe

O’Rourke seemed to tacitly zero in on climate change as one of his big issues in his campaign announcement.

“We are truly now, more than ever, the last great hope for Earth,” O’Rourke said.

But does he support a Green New Deal, the radical restructuring of the U.S. economy to divest from fossil fuels and pour resources into green infrastructure and jobs? Well, it’s the “best” idea he’s seen, at least.

“It is the best proposal that I've seen to ensure that this planet does not warm another two degrees celsius, after which we may lose the ability to live in places like El Paso,” O’Rourke told BuzzFeed News last month.

Maybe something better will come along. O’Rourke also defended himself as a capitalist by claiming that we need free markets to defeat the existential threat of climate change.

"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 system as a country, our economy, is going to have to be part of that," he recently said to reporters in Texas.

Free college

Does he support it? Unclear

O’Rourke has called for more affordable college but has yet to explicitly support tuition-free college, as many Democratic candidates have ahead of 2020. He also did not sponsor a House bill for free college in 2017.

He has previously endorsed less sweeping ideas, like “debt-free” college, as well as two years of free community college.

Taking on Wall Street

Does he support it? No

Two 2020 candidates — Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — are loathed by Wall Street mega-donors. They seem to adore O’Rourke.

“He’s game changing,” Robert Wolf, an investment banker who raked in Wall Street money for Obama in 2008 and 2012, told Politico back in November about a potential Beto run. “If he decides to run, he will be in the top five. You can’t deny the electricity and excitement around the guy.”

And for good reason. O’Rourke’s voting record indicates a reluctance to attack big banks in a way that the furthest-left 2020 candidates have. In 2018, for example, he voted to weaken a key rule of the Dodd-Frank.

And although he’s not such a big fan of the “progressive” label, O’Rourke has repeatedly embraced the “capitalist” label, which puts him at stark odds with Sanders and other prominent Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

"I'm a capitalist,” O'Rourke told reporters recently in El Paso. “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.”

Beto's congressional record

O’Rourke has one of the more conservative voting records of any recent Democratic member of the House. He voted in line with Trump 30 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, compared to 17 percent for the average Democrat. In all three terms he served in Congress, O’Rourke was more conservative than at least 76 percent of House Democrats.

Despite positioning himself as a progressive when it comes to immigration and climate change, O’Rourke has supported GOP bills that bolstered the fossil-fuel industry and watered down hiring requirements for border patrol agents.

He also broke his 2018 campaign promise to not accept oil and gas money, and he voted to table articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump. He also voted to make it easier to seek the death penalty against people who attempt murder on first responders.

O’Rourke never joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus during his three terms in Congress and instead was a member of the New Democratic Caucus, which is far more aligned with centrist Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Cover image: Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke speaks to a crowd of marchers during the anti-Trump 'March for Truth' in El Paso, Texas, on February 11, 2019. (Photo: PAUL RATJE/AFP/Getty Images)

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