Beto O’Rourke Has Become a Lightning Rod

Based on what we’ve seen and heard so far, the number of candidates who will enter the 2020 Democratic presidential primary will be huge, with as many as 30 people considering a run. That will present the party faithful with an overload of information to process in order to determine who to support—if they are open to considering all of the alternatives.

What human beings tend to do in those circumstances is to sort various candidates into categories, or as is often the lingo used by pundits, “lanes.” Dave Weigel took up the challenge of identifying the different categories that are beginning to surface. Here’s what he came up with:

* Old White Guys/Everybody Else.

* Bernie Lane/Progressive Lane/Establishment Lane.

* In Congress/Not in Congress.

* Change/Normalcy (pretty much dovetails with the Progressive/Establishment lane).

* First/Second/Third/Fourth (based on polling).

* Billionaires/Non-billionaires.

* 2006 Coalition/2018 Coalition (focus on winning back white working class male vs diverse coalition).

I’ve added some descriptions where the titles don’t make things obvious. In the end, Weigel admits that this is more of a parlor game than anything meaningful, but it does point to some of the fault lines that are already beginning to develop as various people and groups respond to potential candidates.

I doubt that questions about which candidates have served in Congress and which billionaires can self-fund their campaigns will be anything more than asterisks in other categories. While sorting candidates into tiers based on current polling is already becoming an obsession in the media, it is pretty meaningless at this point in the process because it mostly reflects name recognition.

While I think the age of candidates could play a role in the sorting process, from what I’ve seen, it is more often used as a cover for bigger issues people have with particular candidates. Weigel demonstrates this by pointing out that age is often brought up by people who oppose the candidacy of either Joe Biden (76) or Bernie Sanders (77). And yet it is rarely talked about with Elizabeth Warren, who will turn 70 next year. In the end, what all of those categories have in common is that they fail to address any policy differences among the candidates.

To the extent that I am correct in suggesting that the Progressive/Establishment and Change/Normalcy lanes capture the same issues, that leaves us with the two divisions that are holdovers from the 2016 primary and general election:

  1. Bernie Sanders as the progressive vs Hillary Clinton as the establishment, and
  2. A strategy of outreach to white working class men vs a rekindling of the diverse Obama coalition.

What is interesting about positing the divisions in those terms is that it highlights the fact that, even though Sanders ran on the so-called “populism” that many assume would connect with white working class men, there is not a complete overlap between the two. There are Clinton supporters who think that she made a mistake by buying into what some people refer to as “identity politics” and failed to champion those “populist” economic issues.

I would suggest that it is a mistake to assume that the old divisions of 2016 will animate a majority of Democratic voters in 2020. We’re already seeing potential candidates who don’t buy the script. For example, while I’ve gone on record to say that it could be more important for Beto O’Rourke to stay in Texas and do his best to assure that state continues to turn blue, it is clear that he is contemplating a presidential run. As such, he has become a lightening rod for the people wanting a replay of those two issues that animated the 2016 race. When asked to put himself in the box of “progressive,” he refused to do so.

That was a smart move on his part precisely because there are those who define the word “progressive” to mean passing the litmus test of agreeing to Sanders’ platform, including things like his proposal for single payer health insurance. But in his senate race, O’Rourke ran on a platform of getting to universal coverage by building on Obamacare. That lines up with other potential candidates who would be considered standard-bearers for those who claim the mantle of being “progressive,” like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown. Here’s how the latter recently explained his position:

I want to get to universal coverage. That’s been my commitment to taxpayers. I joined the exchange [got insurance through the ACA] in 2013. I worked for years on the Medicare buy-in at 55. I worked for years, on [former top Senate Democrat] Harry Reid’s behest, as the lead negotiator, with a group of six of us. We got that without any significant increase to premiums. We had that in the bill, and then Joe Lieberman changed his vote. That’s the way to get to Medicare-for-all. However we get to universal coverage, we’ve got to get there.

For those, like Josh Kraushaar, who rail against the Democratic Party’s embrace of so-called “cultural issues” (i.e., those that predominately affect women, people of color and LGBT voters), O’Rourke comes under fire for having defended the patriotism of athletes who take a knee in response to police brutality. In a fascinating twist, Kraushaar also critiques O’Rourke as “a ‘wine-track’ white progressive candidate” who “will struggle to inspire the African-American and Hispanic voters who are so crucial to Democratic successes.” That probably has more to do with the fact that Kraushaar could be advocating for Sherrod Brown in his attempt to connect with white working class voters via his “dignity of work” campaign slogan.

Finally, when it comes to framing the divisions as change vs normalcy, O’Rourke also comes under fire as a repeat of President Obama. What’s fascinating is that the guy who ran on hope and change in 2008 is now cast in the role of representing normalcy. Here’s Elizabeth Bruenig on that:

In 2020, Democrats will have a new opportunity to either reach backward for the Obama era, or to lay the foundation for a bolder, progressive future. Deciding which goal to pursue will likely become the chief party fault line as the 2020 primaries approach. My advice to progressives: Don’t back down…

So much of centrist-Democrat fantasizing about 2020 already seems aimed at repeating a golden past. Consider the groundswell of interest in Beto O’Rourke, the Texas congressman who narrowly lost his recent Senate race against Sen. Ted Cruz. For Democrats excited about O’Rourke, his primary draw is his similarity to Barack Obama — both in form and content.

The problem with that kind of critique is that it obliterates anything positive Democrats achieved when they were in power, rather than sending the message that the party has a history that voters can depend on and future majorities can build upon. In other words, it’s a “burn it all down” approach that undermines confidence in Democratic candidates.

I’ve been using the critiques of Beto O’Rourke because he has become a focal point for those who want to inject the past into the 2020 race before we even know who the candidates will be. There are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to what will happen over the next two years with both the Trump presidency and the Democratic primary, so I’m hesitant to do much predicting at this point. But one thing I’m sure of is that things have changed since 2016 and even more so since 2008. To cast it all as “progressives vs establishment”or “change vs normalcy” or “white working class vs people of color,” is not only divisive, it is an example of looking into the rear-view mirror rather than at the road that lies ahead.

I look forward to a healthy debate between Democratic candidates who tend to share overall goals, but will present a variety of ways to achieve them. If that is how we approach the primaries, it will be a healthy exercise for the party.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.