According to a straw poll recently conducted by the progressive MoveOn.org, the early frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination is the skateboarding Texas wunderkind Robert Francis "Beto" O'Rourke.
The straw poll, of course, is highly unscientific. And despite the recent announcement that Democratic candidates will be meeting for at least 12 televised debates beginning next June, the election is mercifully far away. Beto's lead in the MoveOn poll is also quite narrow. (He sits at just 15.6 percent, followed by Joe Biden at 14.9 percent and Bernie Sanders at 13.1 percent.) But still, I can honestly say that this was the least surprising news of 2018.
It was even less surprising than a recent report in The Guardian about O'Rourke's voting record in the House of Representatives, where he represents one of the most solidly Democratic constituencies in the country. According to analysis by Capital and Main, a nonprofit journalism organization, Beto has voted against the majority of Democrats on some 167 occasions since being elected to Congress.
In the last two years, O'Rourke was among the top fifth of all lawmakers voting against his own party's positions. FiveThirtyEight has calculated that in that same time period, O'Rourke has voted for the Trump administration position roughly 30 percent of the time. [The Guardian]
O'Rourke's dissents were not Dennis Kucinich-style breaks with leadership over matters of leftist principle. Despite his relentless talk about climate change and the danger posed by fossil fuels he voted on several occasions for GOP-sponsored bills meant to lift the decades-old ban on oil exports, legislation that Democrats in a committee report described as "extreme." He also voted against a bill from his own party that would have prevented oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
On finance his record is even starker. He has voted against allowing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to go after discriminatory auto lenders, criticizing the agency for its "lack of openness" and blaming supposedly excessive regulations for the cost of loans. He sided with Republicans in favor of watering down the so-called Volcker Rule, the federal regulation that prohibits banks from treating customer deposits like casino chips. He has also voted for legislation designed to eliminate financial and privacy-related disclosure requirements, for lightening the audit burden imposed on corporations, for deregulating stock exchanges and frequent trading, and for increasing the amount of debt holding companies are allowed to take on. At the end of September 2018, he was going whole-hog behind another package of Republican tax cuts described by the Center for American Progress (whose president, Neera Tanden, has endorsed O'Rourke") as a "scam."
This voting record suggests that O'Rourke is very slightly to the left of West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, whom President Trump has come close to nominating for a Cabinet post. In what sense, exactly, is Beto a "progressive"?
I can understand why some naive Democrats, for strictly partisan at-least-he's-not-the-other-guy reasons, were big paid-up Beto supporters in his failed 2018 Senate campaign, and show signs of going the same way in 2020. What I do not understand is why ostensibly committed left-wingers would give this corporate shill the time of day. When Elizabeth Bruenig of The Washington Post, a socialist Texan, dared to write a mildly critical column about Beto in her newspaper, she received thousands of hateful messages accusing her of being a crypto-Trumpist collaborator who hates immigrants and the poor.
Why do left-wingers settle for candidates who pay lip service to the parts of their agenda that are actually appealing to a majority of Americans — shoring up the welfare state, policing the Wall Street criminals, taking care of our forests and rivers, giving people higher wages and better health care? This is not a question about pragmatism vs. principles or making the perfect the enemy of the good. It's a question about whether a candidate should have any principles in the first place.
If Beto O'Rourke is considered an acceptable Democratic presidential nominee next year, the answer is clearly no.