Beto’s Pose As A Benign Hipster In An Empty Suit Is Covering Up Something Worse

Written by on March 16, 2019

The Beto Bandwagon by Nancy Ohanian

Reid Epstein’s Wall Street Journal piece, Beto O’Rourke’s Past GOP Ties Could Complicate Primary Run, pointed out that “Before becoming a rising star in the Democratic Party, Beto O’Rourke relied on a core group of business-minded Republicans in his Texas hometown to launch and sustain his political career.To win their backing, Mr. O’Rourke opposed Obamacare, voted against Nancy Pelosi as the House Democratic leader and called for a raise in the Social Security eligibility age.” Surprised? You should have been reading DWT. Late last year we reported that Beto’s dad was a kind of switchy-changey politician– sometimes a Democrat, sometimes a Republican and when Beto and two of his pals– collectively “The Progressives”– decided to run for El Paso City Council it was on a very non-partisan agenda– improving urban planning, downtown development, border reform, creating a more diversified economy with more highly skilled jobs,and ending systemic corruption among city’s political class…” Beto won big and was reelected bigger and he turned out to be a dream official… for gentrification and for developers.

When Beto first ran for Congress in 2012, he also ran as a reformer– conveniently against an entrenched conservative Democrat, Silvestre Reyes– he seemed like an idealistic kid. He was 40. Blue America endorsed him in a largely ignored primary. But we weren’t the only outside group supporting him. A group financed by conservative billionaires, Campaign for Primary Accountability (the No Labels of its day) spent heavily against Reyes. In fact they spent more in the TX-16 race than in any of the 14 districts they contested in 2012– $240,000 helping to elect Beto. Aside from Beto’s father-in-law, William Sanders, the top donors were all right-wing 6 and 7-figure Republican donors, mostly from Texas, who support charter schools and want to privatize Medicare: Leo Linbeck, Joe Ricketss, Tim Dunn, Eric O’Keefe, Jonathan Farber…

Beto’s biggest single contributor that cycle was the Hunt Companies (developers) who in 2012 gave massively to Republicans and… Beto– Texas Conservative Fund ($225,000), NRSC ($217,300), Mitt Romney ($33,250), RNC ($31,110), Ted Cruz ($25,500) David Dewhurst ($20,000), NRCC ($19,100)… only Republicans plus Beto. Worth mentioning is that they kept right on supporting Beto. In the 2016 cycle, for example, as they were writing over $2.1 million in checks to Jeb Bush’s campaign and over $200,000 each to the RNC and the NRCC, they also supported one Democrat– Beto– with $39,300. In 2014 they backed candidates like Bill Cassidy (R-LA), John Boehner (R-OH), Ed Gillespie (R-VA), John Cornyn (R-TX), Mitt Romney (R-UT) and one Democrat– Beto, who got more than any of them.

Blue America didn’t endorse Beto for his reelection bids in 2014 or 2016 for two reasons. He didn’t need our help and he had turned out to be a so-so member of Congress, scoring an “F” from ProgressivePunch and joining the New Dems. Still, he has been good on some issues– immigration, gun control, campaign finance reform, Palestine, anti-trust and marijuana but usually in a “moderate” way. His environmental record is good, but he isn’t exactly the kind of guy to sign onto the GreenNewDeal. Nor Medicare-For-All.

He’s more a centrist than an actual progressive. Last summer, NPR referred to him as “an unapologetic, unabashed liberal who has shown no interest in moving toward the political middle after his victory in the Texas Democratic primary. On issues like universal health care, an assault weapons ban, abortion rights and a higher minimum wage, O’Rourke has staked out progressive positions.” They quoted Democratic populist Jim Hightower saying “You’ve got a Democratic constituency that is fed up, not just with Trump, but with the centrist, mealy-mouthed, do-nothing Democratic establishment. They’re looking for some real change and Beto is representing that.” NPR was wrong and Hightower may have been as well– at least if he was buying into any kind of reality behind a Democratic constituency that is deluding itself into thinking Beto is representing substantive policy-oriented change. The kind of change Beto represents is changing out a Cruz or a Trump for a Beto. That’s change– good change… but that’s not the Kind of change Bernie or Elizabeth Warren represents.

Elaina Plott, writing for The Atlantic was less starry-eyed, noting that Beto has been endlessly compared to the great charismatic stars of the Democratic Party like JFK and Obama but she sees him more like Marco Rubio, “a young, handsome, eloquent, prolific fund-raiser.” But even Plott claimed he supported Medicare-for-All, which he certainly didn’t. 124 House Dems co-sponsored the Conyers bill while Beto was still in Congress– but he didn’t. Even some Texas Democrats considerably to his right like Gene Green and Marc Veasey and Blue Dogs Filemon Vela and Vicente Gonzalez signed on. When I spoke with him about it personally, he remained non-committal, the same way the website for his Senate campaign was. Will he be the guy to push for Job Guarantee? No. Free state colleges? No. Bernie and Bobby Scott introduced H.R. 15, the raise the wage act (for a $15 minimum wage) on May 25, 2017. There were 151 immediate co-sponsors. But Beto wasn’t among them. In fact, it wasn’t until February of 2018 that he finally signed on, one of the last 3 Democratic holdouts.

In 2016, Beto endorsed Hillary, not Bernie. People call her a progressive as well. I’d say Beto is a moderate with more in common with centrists like Hillary and Biden than with cutting edge leaders like Bernie or Alexandria Ocasio. There are reasons he joined the New Dems but not the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

In yesterday’s Christopher Hooks report for the American Prospect, Beto Versus The Bario, the point is that on the El Paso City Council Beto pushed through gentrification plans that benefited his rich Republican, predatory father-in-law, gentrification that was devastating to poor Latinos in El Paso.

Stories like Shane Ryan’s at Paste yesterday– Beto O’Rourke Is the Candidate For Vapid Morons are going to start filtering out to the public and dissolve much of his in-deep support. “What, exactly,” he asked, “is Beto O’Rourke’s appeal? It’s not policy-oriented, and it’s not identity-based. He’s independently rich, and despite his grab at exoticism by transforming ‘Robert’ into ‘Beto,’ he’s white. As the Vanity Fair piece noted, he won his first House race by ‘drawing a large number of white Republican voters to his cause, which deepened suspicion from left-leaning Chicano activists.’ Representing a safe Democratic district, he nevertheless voted with Republicans 167 times in six years. Even before then, on the El Paso City Council, he was carrying water for his rich Republican father-in-law, who wanted to gentrify the downtown district using eminent domain, destroy affordable housing, and build a Wal-Mart and Target… Let’s state it plainly: If you like Beto O’Rourke, you like him because he seems cool, and you think the fact that he seems cool means he’s going to bring everyone together under the banner of good feelings and become the next Obama. His appeal, to answer the question above, is purely aesthetic.”

What has Beto actually done that people might like? Well, he gave a nice speech about Colin Kaepernick that a lot of people wanted to cast as bold, but was actually so bold that Nike employed the same tactic a few months later. He did some air drumming at a fast-food drive-thru. He skateboarded. He was in a punk band. He has lots of energy, he’s young-ish, he’s tall, he’s good-looking.

Again, all aesthetics. His appeal is the appeal of the surface, of the pathetic yearning to feel good without fixing anything.

…On a policy level, he’s one of the most conservative Democrats in the field. He doesn’t concretely support Medicare for All, except in some “it would be great, eventually!” sense. He voted against free public college. He makes vague noises about liking the Green New Deal without signing on. He gets money from oil and gas executives, and thus he won’t take a hard position against fossil fuels. He folded on the Israel Iron Dome question under the slightest pressure, he voted to let Obama negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which cost him the AFL-CIO endorsement in his race against Cruz), and the sheer amount of awful Republican bills he’s supported is enough to fill an entire article.

Now, we don’t live in a perfect political world, and despite O’Rourke’s quirks, he’s a hell of a politician…for Texas. It would have been a wonderful miracle if he defeated Cruz. It would be a wonderful miracle if he defeats John Cornyn, the state’s other senator, in 2020. He’s far from the worst Democrat in Congress, and we need people like him in the red and purple states. Nevertheless, the point needs to be made: Nothing about this guy’s politics are special. Nothing about his record screams “get this man in the oval office!” We are at a critical juncture in American history where policy change is desperately needed, and as Jacobin put it so succinctly, “We don’t need another photogenic media star with run-of-the-mill liberal politics running for president.”

If Obama represented a transformation that seemed credible, to some, in 2008, Beto O’Rourke represents that same kind of transformation for people who, a decade later, haven’t learned the most basic lesson of the American political nightmare: This is a street fight, the other side is the enemy, and if we keep losing, the penalty is poverty and sickness and death for more and more people, and, oh yeah, the environmental destruction of the planet. There is no space for a fool like Beto O’Rourke in the post-Trump era, because Beto O’Rourke, despite all his charismatic gifts, is a man who centers his political life around himself rather than the people. His book shelves are lined with the biographies of former presidents in what amounts to a paean to his own ambition, and in closing that Vanity Fair piece, he said something telling:

The more he talks, the more he likes the sound of what he’s saying. “I want to be in it,” he says, now leaning forward. “Man, I’m just born to be in it, and want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment.”

It’s up to you what part of that statement you think is the most true: The part about him being “born” for the role, or the part about him wanting to help the country. It’s not that they can’t both be true, to some extent, but taken in conjunction with the quote that led this piece, it’s clear (to me, at least) that Beto sees himself as a special agent of change. A man of all the people, a man of both parties, a man who can transcend these petty divisions that separate us and shine brighter than his dim surroundings.

He’s good enough at what he does that he’s going to make other people believe that, too– the most gullible, the most naive, the most vapid. Let’s return to a key word: The premise of his campaign is the premise of transcendence. He’s the comic book hero that many liberals have been waiting for, the man who will return us to the golden days of Obama and erase the nightmare that was Trump. He’s the savior, and because he’s the savior, he only asks for our most superficial support. He doesn’t need a grassroots movement that extends beyond the ballot box, he doesn’t need a political revolution at his back, and he doesn’t need to be anything more than a viral superstar who captures our hearts for the duration of the campaign season.

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t even try to understand the failures that brought us Donald Trump, or who doesn’t even try to see the failures of the Obama presidency, or who doesn’t like to look too deeply at the systemic injustices of late-stage capitalism underlying the modern American experience, Beto O’Rourke provides a great deal of comfort. You can close your eyes, project whatever you want onto the blank slate he presents, and hope for the best.

You can ignore the fact that transcendence and compromise are ugly myths that perpetuate inequality, and that when the concept of transcendence meets the reality of hard-nosed Republican opposition, it immediately decays into craven compromise that drags us further and further to the right. You can ignore the fact that Beto has already demonstrated this Obama-esque tendency to capitulate even while operating in the safest possible blue district. And you can ignore, above all, the obvious, unsettling conclusion: If we elect this man, we are screwed.

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