A new Washington Post interview of Beto O’Rourke, whom many Democrats would like to see run for president, leaves the impression that he is an empty shirt. He is probably counting on it.
On issue after issue, O’Rourke––who just lost a Senate campaign––seems determined to avoid being pinned down. Regarding immigration, he has been very critical of President Trump’s proposed border wall, but when asked what America should do about visa overstays, his answer is, “I don’t know.” According to former Democratic representative Luis Gutierrez, immigration was not a big issue for O’Rourke, even though he hails from El Paso and represented a majority-Hispanic district along the Texas-Mexico border.
With regard to President Trump’s planned troop withdrawal in Syria, O’Rourke makes vague noises suggesting sympathy with the non-interventionist wing of his party. But he leaves the door open to staying, saying, “There may be a very good reason to do it. I don’t necessarily understand––and I’ve been a member of Congress for six years.” (Incidentally, if you’re starting to wonder what O’Rourke was doing during those six years, the answer is not much. He was responsible for two bills assisting veterans and one bill naming a federal courthouse in El Paso.)
O’Rourke praises the Green New Deal championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman congresswoman from New York, as “bold.” He does not commit to supporting it, “but thank God the work has been done to articulate the goal, the vision, the means to achieve it, and that’s a perfect point from which to start a conversation.”
Indeed, Beto favors sweeping change so much that he seems ready to consider junking parts of the Constitution. At the end of the Post interview, he asks, “Can an empire like ours with military presence in over 170 countries around the globe, with trading relationships…and security agreements in every continent, can it still be managed by the same principles that were set down 230-plus years ago?”
He’s not calling for a revolution, mind you; he’s just asking questions.
Beto Just Wants a Conversation
Beto is eager to have a debate or a conversation about any of these issues. But do not expect him to have an opinion an any of them. This so-called open-mindedness extends to health care. He ran against Sen. Ted Cruz on the issue, but stopped using phrases like “Medicare for All” or “single-payer.”
By constantly deflecting to the idea of having a debate, O’Rourke wraps his evasiveness in the populism of the moment. While avoiding taking a position on immigration, he assures the Post that once the people have the facts, they will reach the right decision.
This is the infantile political philosophy of Anakin Skywalker. In reality, politics exists precisely because good people often have differing beliefs about what the right policy is on a given issue. O’Rourke either does not understand this essential point or presumes that his followers do not. (He could be right about that.)
In this regard, O’Rourke’s non-positions reflect part of the appeal of populism, which is stronger in offering a critique or inviting a debate than in offering new solutions. If O’Rourke runs for president, however, he should have to do better than asking questions. There’s this thing called leadership that voters might desire in an aspiring president. Say what you want about the merits of a border wall, but at least it’s a policy.
Of course, O’Rourke has a solid reason to present himself as political vaporware. Barack Obama, the last Democratic president, famously wrote in “The Audacity of Hope”: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” Indeed, in the 2016 cycle, observers across the political spectrum thought the same “blank screen” dynamic worked for then-candidate Trump.
Charisma and rhetoric––Beto’s strengths––can go a long way in politics. However, O’Rourke would face three basic problems in trying to duplicate Obama’s blank-screen success.
O’Rourke Can’t Duplicate Obama’s Success
First, the idea that candidate Obama might become the first black president drove minority and youth turnout. In his Senate campaign, Beto failed to drive minority turnout like Stacey Abrams did in her campaign for governor in Georgia. In a presidential primary bid, O’Rourke would likely face minority rivals such as Sens. Kamala Harris or Cory Booker, who will have that argument in their pockets. And the youth vote in 2018 continued to disappoint, even relative to 2016.
Second, Democrats might not be in the market for a blank screen in 2020. Left-wing columnists like David Sirota and Elizabeth Bruenig are already making the case that O’Rourke would be a rerun of the Obama campaign, and that this would be bad. The Bernie Sanders faction of the party would press him to make more leftist commitments (then would probably denounce him as an opportunist if he did).
Third, were O’Rourke to become the Democratic nominee, a scenario that should not be discounted at this stage, he would presumably face President Trump, who would not be a blank screen. Trump likely would be as effective in filling in that blank screen as Cruz was at defining O’Rourke during his Senate campaign.
O’Rourke’s embrace of sweeping, yet undefined change might rekindle Republican fears of another existential, “Flight 93” election. Alternatively, if O’Rourke continued to vacillate, Trump would relentlessly skewer him as weak. The blank screen approach might be less effective against an incumbent than in an open seat election like 2008 or 2016.