A few weeks ago, I wasn’t thinking much about Beto O’Rourke. He had, after all, lost his Senate race against Ted Cruz. He was not doing anything particularly noteworthy. When veteran political reporter Zaid Jilani emailed me asking to write an article about Beto for Current Affairs, I didn’t see the point. He lost. Why bother to write about someone who doesn’t matter? I had heard that some were touting O’Rourke as a possible 2020 presidential candidate, but it didn’t make any sense to me and I dismissed it all as hype.
But, in trying to convince me the story was worth looking into, Zaid pointed out something interesting: O’Rourke has, in fact, been near the top of some 2020 polls. And important Democratic insiders like David Axelrod seem very excited about O’Rourke. Yet, Zaid noted, very little of the discussion of O’Rourke had discussed his actual record and stances. If you’re a leftist, that record turns out to be very concerning. Despite condemning inequality, the influence of corporations on politics, and (sort of) getting behind single-payer healthcare, O’Rourke’s votes have been conservative for a Democrat. (So much so that the Week’s Matthew Walther thinks O’Rourke should be called a “Republican.” I certainly wouldn’t go that far, since today’s Republicans are slightly to the right of Augusto Pinochet.)
I think it’s important to critically examine politicians’ public acts, especially when they are being floated as possible presidential contenders. I didn’t have much of an opinion about O’Rourke when he was running against Cruz—his not being Ted Cruz was good enough for me. But once someone is being talked about as a 2020 candidate, anyone who has clear political values and goals deserves to know whether that candidate seems to share those values and will do a good job advancing those goals. So progressive journalists like Zaid, David Sirota, Alex Kotch, Branko Marcetic, and Elizabeth Bruenig started critically examining O’Rourke, finding facts that would make it difficult for a progressive to support him in a primary.
For example, O’Rourke signed the “No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge” from Oil Change USA, which commits candidates to refusing money from the oil and gas industry (both in the form of corporate PAC money and individual donations from industry executives). But O’Rourke violated that pledge, and has in fact received $430,000 from people in the oil and gas industries, more individual oil and gas donations than any other member of congress except Ted Cruz. This included dozens of donations of over $200 from fossil fuel executives. (Jeremy Fassler of the Daily Banter, in attempting to “debunk” this claim and defend O’Rourke, ended up conceding that it is completely true that O’Rourke took a large amount of money from those in the industry including executives: “[Since most of his donors were Texas residents,] it’s only natural that people who worked within the oil and gas industries would have given to his campaign. And while he was the number one recipient of funds from oil and gas employees, he was also number one across many other fields as well.” This amounts to saying “Of course he took oil executives’ money, he’s from Texas. And he didn’t just take oil money.”)
After O’Rourke’s acceptance of the contributions was disclosed, Oil Change USA removed his name from the list of pledgers because he had explicitly violated the promise he signed.
There are many other reasons why people on the left can’t trust O’Rourke to be a champion of progressive values, including his backtracking on criticism of Israel and the fact that he doesn’t even call himself a progressive! But something strange happened after journalists began scrutinizing O’Rourke: A number of pundits suggested there was something unseemly about criticizing O’Rourke for these failings. Here is Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress:
“This is seriously dangerous. We know Trump is in the White House and attacking Dems is doing Trump’s bidding.”
[Regarding “Bernie v. Beto”:] Heading into 2019, we’ll see lots of early maneuvering and skirmishes. That’s fine, AS LONG AS THEY ARE NOT CHARACTER ATTACKS. A character attack directly impugns the honesty, integrity, and/or ethics of a candidate. Examples: Candidate X is a liar. Candidate Y is immoral. An issue debate is perfectly acceptable, i.e. Candidate Z is wrong on health care, the economy, etc.
Here is a similar sentiment from activist Shaun King:
Attacking Beto is counterproductive. Examine Beto’s record, that’s fine, but that goes both ways. EVERY candidate will have had bad votes, including Bernie. Not a single person is going to run in 2020 that hasn’t had bad votes, bad quotes, bad positions, or supported something that doesn’t match your full ideology. This includes Beto, but also includes Bernie, Biden, Kamala, Booker, and every other candidate. We can critique records, we can ask questions, and can do so publicly, but when it bleeds over into demonization or destructive conversation, you are doing more harm than good.
“#Resist Digital Strategist” John Aravosis said we could “get ready for an ugly 2020, thanks to Bernie” accusing “BernieBros” of “lying about Beto’s record.” And at Vanity Fair, Peter Hamby asked “Why Are Democrats Trying To Annihilate An O’Rourke Campaign Before It Has Even Started?” Hamby said that the left critiques of O’Rourke were “untrue” and conflicted with reality. In fact, he said, O’Rourke is simply a pragmatic politician, with the implication that radical leftists are simply upset because O’Rourke doesn’t pass an impossible purity test. (The idea of purity tests is frequently used to dismiss as hopelessly impractical those who want politicians to share left values.) Hamby writes:
O’Rourke’s single biggest applause line on the stump was about banishing corporate PAC money in politics. O’Rourke ran openly on passing Medicare for all, an issue that Sanders successfully pushed into the mainstream of the Democratic Party. There’s literally a Daily Kos headline that we are all free to Google: “Beto O’Rourke (D) Is All in for Bernie Sanders’s Single-Payer Health-Care Bill.”… It’s just very hard to make the argument that O’Rourke isn’t a progressive, unless you live your life according to an ideological checklist. O’Rourke’s biggest vulnerability, in the context of a primary, might actually be that he seems to appreciate nuance, the vibrations of politics, and the radical notion that you might want to reason through a complex question before rendering judgment upon it. Primaries, of course, do not usually reward nuance or contrarianism—and the window for freethinking in politics is getting smaller by the day as the virtue-signalers of Twitter hunt for their next moralizing outrage.
A few points here: First, it isn’t very hard to make the argument that “O’Rourke isn’t a progressive” because O’Rourke himself literally refuses to call himself a progressive. Second, I have absolutely no idea what “the vibrations of politics” means, but while I’m glad O’Rourke appreciates them, I think one can believe in “nuance” and “complexity” and still think that politicians who sign pledges not to take oil executives’ money shouldn’t take oil executives’ money. Third, despite Hamby’s rather patronizing suggestion that we all simply Google “O’Rourke + Single-Payer,” he’s missed the entire point that Zaid and others have made here, which is that while O’Rourke did indeed sound strong on single-payer when the Daily Kos reported on it a year ago, it’s troubling that Politico reported in July that “O’Rourke no longer uses phrases like ‘single-payer’ or ‘Medicare for all.’” I have no doubt that O’Rourke got a lot of applause when he condemned corporate PACs—people hate corporate PACs! The question is whether he can be relied upon to actually stand up to corporate influence on politics. Violating your promise to reject oil executives’ money isn’t a good sign!
Tanden, Daou, and King seem to have this strange idea that you’re not supposed to “attack” members of the Democratic Party. Daou distinguishes between issue-based attacks and “character” attacks, saying it’s okay to criticize someone on the issues but we mustn’t suggest they are dishonest or unethical. That doesn’t make sense to me: What if a politician is dishonest or unethical? If they say they’re going to do one thing, and then do another, are we supposed to be silent simply because they’re a Democrat? If their position on healthcare seems to shift over time, and they’re noncommittal on policies like a “Green New Deal,” are we allowed to call them cagey?
Tanden’s idea that we shouldn’t “attack Democrats” when Trump is in the White House is bizarre. We’re supposed to be having a primary here! The whole point is to select a candidate, which means deciding whether a politician is good or bad. Shaun King tries to distinguish between “critiquing records” and “demonization”/ “destructive conversation” but I think that distinction can very easily be used to avoid dealing with legitimate criticism. In fact, that’s exactly what has happened here—instead of actually responding to the strongest version of the case made by the critics, Hamby et. al. suggest that the act of criticism itself is a problem. Don’t attack politicians! I mean, maybe a few mild critiques of their policy platforms. But don’t dare suggest that a Democrat could be an untrustworthy empty shell! Even if they are.
The headline I’ve chosen here is a bit cheeky—I’m sure all those offended by the left “attacks” on Beto will huffily reply “Of course we should criticize politicians!” I didn’t say we shouldn’t. Yet there is a pernicious rhetorical tendency that does add up to “for the sake of the Party, do not criticize the Party.” There was a popular image that went around online back, that said something like: In 2020, the nominee won’t be perfect. They will probably have a lot of positions you don’t like. But you’re going to have to set aside your purity politics and vote for them, so get ready. It’s funny to me that Democrats already know they’ll have a nominee that people don’t like, that people will have to choke their vomit down to vote for. But it doesn’t need to be this way! If we actually vet candidates, if we do apply litmus tests in the selection process, then we might actually end up with someone we like!
When is the right time to criticize candidates? When the nomination has already happened, we will be told that we shouldn’t undermine the Democrat by pointing out their bad qualities, because then we’ll be helping the Russians and Trump. It would seem that the perfect time to “attack” Democrats is long before the actual primary begins, because that’s when we can afford to hash out our intra-party debates without destroying the possibility of achieving ultimate “unity.”
Some people may think that if you harshly criticize particular candidates, it’s because you’re “biased” toward your favorite candidate and want to “annihilate” or “destroy” their enemies. Hence the idea that it’s “BernieBros” doing the “attacks” on Beto. I think this misunderstands where a lot of us on the left are coming from. If I’m critical of Beto O’Rourke and supportive of Bernie Sanders, it all comes from my belief that I want a strong left candidate in 2020. I don’t support Bernie because he’s Bernie, and criticize Beto because he’s Beto, I support Bernie because I think he is willing to fight against corporate interests, and I’m skeptical of Beto because he isn’t.
There is a common misunderstanding about Bernie Sanders supporters. People believe it’s a kind of “cult of personality”—the “BernieBros” are irrationally emotionally obsessed with Sanders and therefore unfairly dismiss equally good progressive candidates like Warren, Gillibrand, and O’Rourke without giving them a fair hearing. That’s not what’s going on, though. If Bernie announced tomorrow that he was a staunch capitalist who thought millennials just needed to work harder if they wanted to get out of debt, all of us who like him would drop him like the hottest of hot potatoes. I have no loyalty to him, except to the extent that he continues to champion the causes I believe in. If Elizabeth Warren stopped talking about how she was a “capitalist to her bones,” and showed some better political instincts, I can see myself strongly supporting her!
But I’m truly afraid about 2020 and I think it’s critical that the Democrats get this right. It would be terrible to nominate a candidate that made a lot of progressive-sounding noises, but then was incapable of actually fighting for policies like free college and a Green New Deal. My friend Ben Studebaker even thinks that it would be worse to have Beto O’Rourke as president than a second term of Donald Trump, because O’Rourke would get absolutely nothing done, inequality and climate change would worsen, and then a real fascist would take over in 2024. I do not agree with Ben at all on this—I think it’s always far better to have a boring Democrat than a right-wing lunatic. But his argument is worth engaging with. If a do-nothing Democrat presides over calamity, the prospects for building a lasting progressive coalition may be irreparably damaged. It’s important to nominate an authentic champion of working people in 2020, which is why I think Sanders is the only obvious option. Every other candidate who has been floated seems only weakly committed to substantive political change. I don’t trust that they actually care about ordinary people except to the extent that it helps their careers.
Not only is it okay to criticize Democratic politicians, but we must do it. If Beto O’Rourke is “a Davos Democrat on a skateboard,” as Hamby so memorably puts it, we need to say it loudly and repeat it until people examine the facts and realize it for themselves. Good political actions must be praised, bad ones must be aired and shamed. Accountability is an indispensable part of politics.
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[Update: I added a few words to clarify exactly what Jeremy Fassler admits.]