“These challenges I’m absolutely convinced will bring out the absolute best in every single one of us, and
we have something that almost no other country in the world has. We have the single greatest
mechanism to call forth the genius of our fellow human beings. This democracy, more than 320 million
people strong, can bring the ingenuity, the creativity, the resolve of an entire country. And each one of
these challenges can, and will, be met.
But the foundational challenge to get all of this done, is to fix our democracy. Only when it works, and
only when each one of us can work within it, will we be able to meet these threats. And so this setting
right now, the very first event of our campaign for president, is an example not only of the way I wish to
campaign across this country, for every single American, and I could care less your party persuasion,
your religion. Anything other than the fact that right now we are all Americans and we’re all human
beings, and we would do anything within our power for one another, for this great country, and for
every generation that follows.”
There is the thesis of Beto’s campaign, distilled by the man himself in the opening event to kick off his
2020 bid to succeed Donald Trump as President of the United States. To call the statement vacuous is to
undersell just how empty the rhetoric is. He didn’t speak of a tangible policy to improve anyone’s life.
He didn’t put forth a theory of how we build and maintain power. He didn’t give a single reason why he
is better equipped to be president than any other candidate.
Even on its own terms, the statement was empty. The closest thing to substance is the statement that
we must “fix our democracy.” True enough, but how? If this is the fundamental issue we face, as
O’Rourke seems to be suggesting, surely you have a plan to fix it. Unless he believes, as one could
genuinely interpret this bizarrely amorphous argument, that his campaign alone will fix democracy, he
hasn’t suggested a solution.
Many compare Beto’s style favorably to that of Barack Obama, as both speak optimistically to the better
angels of America’s nature. After reporting on Mr. O’Rourke’s presidential campaign, I’ve concluded that
the comparison falls flat and is a slap in the face to President Obama. There’s a key distinction here that
makes all the difference. Barack Obama was painstakingly vigilant in building flexibility into his speeches
and arguments related to politics and policy so that you couldn’t hold him to a narrow set of specifics.
He used words like “access” and “affordability,” which are subjective criteria. Having “access” to
healthcare can mean anything from free-at-the-point-of-service to an emergency room not being able to
turn you away (although they can charge you $10,000.)
Despite Obama’s crafty language, he was constantly talking about policy. Further, Obama has a very
serious and historically grounded view of politics. If Obama was giving a speech on the need to fix our
democracy, he would almost certainly give the historical context of how voting rights have been
stripped away and how big money has flooded our political system. He would then argue for a set of
reforms that could be enacted to fix it, albeit in carefully constructed language so he couldn’t be held
responsible for failing to act. Finally, he would end by waxing poetic about the value of democracy in the
high-minded prose that he is so famous for. O’Rourke skips the first two steps. He doesn’t have a historical analysis, a theory of politics, or a policy set to solve real world problems. He jumps straight to
This is a big contrast with Barack Obama. It’s an even bigger contrast with Bernie Sanders. Sanders skips
the platitudes altogether, potentially to a fault. He doesn’t use flowery language about how great
America is if we live up to our ideals, he only wants to talk about two things: policy and power. What
material outcomes are we trying to achieve, and how do they get accomplished. That’s it for Bernie. The
rest is just noise.
Where Obama uses carefully crafted language when discussing policy, Sanders shows no signs of
concern about being held to account. He wants Medicare for All, free college, immigration reform, cuts
to the military budget, a $15 minimum wage, a withdrawal of troops, an end to NSA surveillance,
regulation of Wall Street, a transition to a carbon neutral economy, a restoration of unions, and
democracy in the workplace. He doesn’t hedge his bets or water down his proposals in any of these
policy arenas, because he knows what his values are.
A vote for Bernie Sanders is a vote for this set of policies. No one thinks he will achieve all of them, but
most expect he will fight for each. That means a Sanders presidency might produce a $15 minimum
wage and a scaling back of American military intervention but not Medicare for All. Conversely, it might
produce Medicare for All and the regulation of Wall Street, but no minimum wage increase. Whichever
way it shakes out, you know when you check the box next to Bernie Sanders’ name you are voting to
materially improve your life and the lives of those you care about.
We have had people like Sanders and people like O’Rourke ascend to the presidency before. By this I
mean not just moderate and left-wing Democrats, but presidents who ran on policy versus those who
ran on platitudes and their own personal appeal as candidates.
In the O’Rourke column are presidents like Bill Clinton. The campaign he ran was very vague and
malleable, and people were enamored with the way he spoke and the feel he gave them. As a result, we
got a center right presidency which was, in many ways, indistinguishable from that of a Republican
administration. In fact, Clinton constantly bragged that he was able to get things through Congress like
NAFTA and welfare reform that Reagan couldn’t because Clinton was a Democrat. It’s even fair to argue
that the presidency of both Dwight Eisenhower (rolling back the military industrial complex) and Richard
Nixon (raised the minimum wage and proposed universal healthcare) were to the left of Clinton, who
cut welfare benefits and enormously expanded the carceral state.
On the Sanders ledger, there are two presidents that come to mind: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and
Ronald Reagan. Both came to the presidency presenting a robust policy agenda in both domestic and
foreign affairs. Roosevelt ran on a wide range of economic initiatives to pull the country out of the Great
Depression, which would become the New Deal. He also ran on making Democrats that party of an
“enlightened international outlook” that tried to build and promote equitable international institutions.
Ronald Reagan ran on aggressively rolling back government regulations at home and actively fighting
communism abroad. Domestically he passed a historical round of tax cuts, ended price controls on oil,
rolled back environmental regulation, privatized much of education, and ramped up the war on drugs.
On the international front, he completely reshaped American policy toward the Soviet Union and Latin
America in his own image.
I have no idea how a Beto presidency would turn out, but there is a big lesson here. Presidents who
campaign on personality and not policy tend to take the path of least resistance. When the
pharmaceutical companies, oil lobbyists, and Wall Street executives start threatening to spend
unprecedented amounts to block your legislation, it’s easy to justify folding if you don’t have a laundry
list of policy goals that you both feel personally bound to and have voters holding you accountable to.
Bill and Hillary Clinton seemed to genuinely want to push for a system that at least came close to
universal health coverage, but they gave up on that initiative because special interests pushed them to.
Likewise, I think its safe to presume an intelligent individual like Mr. Clinton looked at some of the most
insidious provisions of the 1994 Crime Bill and knew it was going to harm African Americans and poor
people who couldn’t afford good counsel. But the prison industrial complex wanted it, and it helped
endear him to Republican voters in time for the 1996 reelection campaign.
Bill Clinton’s behavior is very reminiscent of O’Rourke, who claims to want universal health coverage
and regulation of the financial industry, voting to weaken Obamacare and rollback the power of the
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to punish auto lenders. When your principles don’t run deep and
your personality takes center stage, political expedience usually wins out.
The transformative presidents, on the other hand, tend to be those focused obsessively on a policy
agenda and material realities. Reagan didn’t run for president to make everyone like him, he ran out of a
deep ideological commitment to combatting the horrors of big government and communism. Franklin
Roosevelt become known as a “traitor to his class” because he refused to listen to his wealthy peers
when they told him he shouldn’t redistribute their money to pay for a social safety net and a jobs
With the qualifier that I think the O’Rourke to Obama comparisons are overblown, I believe a Beto
O’Rourke presidency would like very similar to that of our 44th president. Obama’s presidency
accomplished some positive things, to be sure, but it lacked in two ways and those led directly to Donald
Trump and his authoritarian impulses.
First, it wasn’t transformational in a time when we needed transformation. While his very own White
House was publicizing information on the immediate civilizational threat of climate change and
historically high levels of economic inequality, they were doing the bare minimum to solve these issues.
Obama would have been a great president to have during the 1990’s tech boom. Less so for the crisis-
laden 21st century. Second, Obama tried to be all things to all people. His time in office revealed to us
that this is the exact wrong approach, as you end up alienating everyone. He tried to reach out to
Republicans by deporting more immigrants than any President in history, alienating Latino activists and
the left wing of the party. He tried to accomplish policy through executive order, alienating Republicans.
He bailed out the banks and pushed for the TPP, alienating Midwest independents. He designed a
centrist healthcare policy that expanded government involvement while still allowing insurance
companies to make billions of sick people, alienating virtually everyone. The result of this
misunderstanding of politics was 1,000 Democrats losing their seats in federal and state legislatures and
the presidency of Donald Trump.
This is the model Mr. O’Rourke seems intent on following. This isn’t simply my interpretation, he has
been meeting with the Obama team and the Pod Save America guys are doing everything they can to
elevate him as the next Obama. In one of the more perplexing aspects of American politics, they have a
deep desire another candidate who speak in broad generalities but has no serious policy agenda. The crises of ecology, inequality, healthcare, bigotry, and social isolation have only grown since the Obama
presidency. It thus follows that the same centrist milquetoast half-measures will lead to something as
bad, if not worse, than Donald Trump. That should horrify everyone.
Beto O’Rourke is a compelling individual, to be sure. Further, there’s nothing inherently wrong with
speaking in the language of inspirational platitudes that make people feel good. An inspiring message
certainly helps draw contrast with our bigoted, narcissistic president whose rapidly deteriorating brain
can’t put together a cohesive sentence. If the platitudes aren’t tied to a robust policy agenda and a
theory of how political change happens, however, they are little more than worthless.
The first question you should ask of your candidates is how they plan to materially change your life and
the lives of the people you care about. Thus far, Beto has no answer.