Beto O’Rourke, the (center) right choice in 2020?

While he has his appeal, Beto O’Rourke seems to be more of the same kind of centrist that has dominated the Democratic Party since at least the 1980s.

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Image Credit: Richard W. Rodriguez/AP Photo

Earlier this month, the day after Robert Francis O’Rourke, 46, better known by his nickname, Beto, announced that he was running for the Democratic nomination for president, it was widely reported that he’d beaten Bernie Sanders’ earlier first day fundraising record of $5.9 million, with his campaign taking in a haul of $6.1 million during his first 24 hours in the race.

There were problems with the ‘Beto beats Bernie’ narrative that soon followed, not the least of which was the lack of deeper numbers, such as how many individual donations the campaign received and the average amount contributed.

After refusing to answer questions like these for days, the Texas Democrat’s campaign reported that it had received 128.000 “unique contributions”, averaging out to about $47 each.  Besides the fact that this was just under half the number of donations given to Bernie Sanders, who averaged $27 per contribution, the wording, “unique contributions”, is different from that of the Sanders campaign, which uses the term ‘individual donor’. This neat little trick of language could mean that O’Rourke received multiple donations from the same people. 

While the former Congressman for Texas’ 16th district, like most of those in the race, has said he will not accept money from corporate PACs, he’s already broken a similar, if more focused promise he signed onto called The No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge during his 2016 Senate campaign. One of Pledge’s demands was that signatories to it not to take money from executives in these industries.

The total amount he received from donors with connections to the fossil fuel industry during that election cycle was $430,000, and, while some of it did likely come from ordinary workers, as revealed by the website Open Secrets, “The donors include[d] more than two dozen oil and gas executives. More than 30 donations were the maximum allowed amount of $2,700.”

Many commentators at mainstream outlets excused this broken pledge because of the power these companies have in Texas, and, in fairness, Senator Ted Cruz, his opponent in the race, did receive substantially more money from these sources.

From a progressive perspective, this is not the only problem with the campaign or the candidate himself. ‘Betomania’, as some have taken to calling it, in some ways reminds this writer of the excitement surrounding a Liberal leadership candidate here in Canada a few years ago.

Similar to O’Rourke, Justin Trudeau was telegenic and had the ability to sound eloquent while saying very little of substance. Appealing rhetoric aside, Trudeau has proven almost as reliable to Canada’s big business interests, especially in the fossil fuel sector, as the previous Conservative government that he was supposedly a repudiation of.

While Trudeau was more of a blank slate in terms of his political record, O’Rourke served three terms in Congress before becoming nationally known for coming close to beating Ted Cruz in the 2016 midterms. In his initial 2012 run for Congress, O’Rourke pulled a kind of earlier, reverse AOC, having come in to office by primarying a long serving incumbent from the right and, high flown words aside, his record shows that a man who often proclaims he doesn’t like ‘labels’, is to the right of much of the field in the Democratic primaries.

Using numbers from DW-NOMINATE, Matthew Yglesias of Vox looked at the former Congressman’s voting record during his time in the body,, finding that, “In the 113th Congress, he was more conservative than 76 percent of Democrats. In the 114th Congress, he was more conservative than 79 percent of Democrats. In the 115th Congress, he was more conservative than 77 percent of Democrats.”

Although he is currently portrayed as an emerging progressive voice, the candidate was also a member of the New Democrat Coalition while in the Congress, a grouping of ‘pro-business’ and ‘fiscally responsible’ centrist Democrats who stress the need for ‘bi-partisan consensus’. 

Leaving aside the fact that bipartisanship has been a one way street for many years (just ask former President Obama), these New Democrats, like Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ colleagues in the UK, paved the way by championing neoliberal policies for the increasingly unequal world we live in in most of the western democracies today. Rather than looking for ways to improve the social safety net as many of their predecessors did with varying degrees of success, these center right social liberals call for cuts to so-called entitlements and deepening austerity for ordinary citizens.

The main excuse made by friendly outlets for O’Rourke’s record, when it’s brought up at all, is to repeat the refrain that he’s from Texas and thus should not be criticized for so taking what amount to moderate Republican stances on the issues in the past.

In what is one of the biggest policy areas for U.S. voters, especially on the left, healthcare, the candidate, who didn’t really face too much scrutiny on policy during his 2016 Senate race, where immigration and the border were the major issues, will face tougher questions about this, education and other domestic issues during the campaign.

While he previously supported Medicare for All, as do most of the candidates contesting the 2020 Democratic primaries with various caveats, he’s changed his position on this and now supports a plan called Medicare for America, which, instead of promising equal, quality care for every U.S. citizen, would create a multi-tiered system where those who like their current coverage could keep the plans provided to them by their employers (and, conveniently enough, allow insurance companies to continue making ridiculous profits at the expense of sick people).

As explained by Jacobin, when one looks into the details of the plan, it’s even worse: “Medicare for America includes premiums of up to 10 percent of a person’s annual income and out-of-pocket maximums of $5,000. In a country where four in ten people don’t have the savings to cover a $400 emergency, these costs will either prove to be financially devastating or deter people from seeking needed care.”

On foreign policy, the former Congressman for Texas’ 16th district is vague at best, and in terms of militarism, still seems to think that the country can win a war on a tactic, terrorism, saying, “We’re at war in six countries right now and fighting enemies that didn’t exist when Congress authorized the global war on terrorism following 9/11. We need to support our service members by ensuring this country has defined victory, has adopted a comprehensive strategy to achieve it, and is willing to commit the resources and leadership to see it through.”

After almost two decades of war, with thousands of lives and trillions of dollars squandered, rhetoric like this should scare American voters.

While he has his appeal, Beto O’Rourke seems to be more of the same kind of centrist that has dominated the Democratic Party since at least the 1980s. If he wins the nomination, we will all have to see if the mix of great personal charisma and the same old tired market based ‘solutions’ can once again win the day. Unlike Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who the candidate often draws comparisons to, the reactionary populist who currently occupies the White House is not a standard Republican like those they successfully faced off against, and this may be his greatest strength and a forceful argument for a more progressive candidate like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to win the nomination.

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