Beto O’Rourke could have been a contender. In 2018, the extremely tall, incredibly Gen-X congressman mounted the most impressive failed Senate campaign in modern memory. O’Rourke came a couple points short of evicting Ted Cruz from the upper chamber. But he persuaded no small number of Republicans to check the box next to his name — and mobilized enough left-leaning voters to paint wide swathes of Texas’s court system blue. Through tireless campaigning, and a message that celebrated transpartisan understanding while upholding progressive values, O’Rourke advanced the cause of criminal-justice reform in the present and laid the groundwork for statewide Democratic victories in the future.
He could have built on that triumph by taking a run on John Cornyn’s Senate seat in 2020, or founding an organization dedicated to turning Texas blue, or plotting a return to the House of Representatives, or doing countless other useful (or at least harmless) things.
Instead, he opted to mount a feeble presidential campaign — and then to rage against the dying of its light by adopting needlessly divisive stances on culture-war issues, thereby nullifying his potential value as a statewide candidate in Texas, and providing Rupert Murdoch’s state media channel with its ideal foil.
The 2020 campaign overexposed Beto minutes after he entered it. The Texan’s approach to oratory — saying pluckily inoffensive things in a singsongy rhythm while gesticulating furiously — was charming when juxtaposed with Ted Cruz’s sociopathic debate-nerd shtick. Placed beside more experienced and informed politicians (who are not suspected serial killers), O’Rourke’s “what if Obama, but white and less talented?” persona proved less compelling. The mayor of South Bend quickly established himself as the more attractive, gratuitously unqualified, and milquetoast young white man.
O’Rourke enjoyed a brief resurgence of relevance in the wake of the white nationalist mass murder in El Paso, when he boiled blue America’s expaseration with the media’s amnesia about Donald Trump’s unabashed racism down to the phrase, “Members of the press, what the fuck?” But then the El Paso shooting became history. And Beto’s cathartic cussing became a T-shirt.
Alas, that little blip of affirmation apparently convinced O’Rourke that he should break more taboos that highly engaged liberals wish to see smashed. Thus, when asked at September’s debate whether his plans for gun reform stopped at banning the sale of new assault rifles — or involved confiscating the existing toys of firearm enthusiasts — Beto endorsed the latter proposition. “In Odessa, I met the mother of a 15-year-old girl who was shot by an AR-15, and that mother watched her bleed to death over the course of an hour,” O’Rourke replied. “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
O’Rourke then followed up his “yes we can send jackbooted thugs to confiscate your guns” pledge by vowing to direct the power of the state against anti-LGBT churches:
Don Lemon: Do you think religious institutions like colleges, churches, charities — should they lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?
Beto O’Rourke: Yes. There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break, for anyone, any institution, any organization in America, that denies the full human rights, that denies the full civil rights, of everyone in America. So as president, we’re going to make that a priority. And we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.
Understandably, many progressives found O’Rourke’s refusal to placate red America on these points refreshing. Surely, no decent society should have millions of AR-15s in circulation. And why should our tax dollars subsidize institutions that promote bigotry in the name of tradition?
I, for one, would certainly favor mandatory buybacks if it were politically and logistically feasible (I’d also love for the state to take just about all the guns, and then disarm the cops while we’re at it). Beto’s support for conditioning the tax-exempt status of religious institutions on whether he approves of their teaching seems substantively bad (and unconstitutional) to me. But if I had my druthers, I’d probably have the state get out of the religion-subsidizing business entirely.
And if Beto had his druthers, he’d be a serious presidential candidate. Which is to say: We can’t always get what we want in this life. Although a couple of polls have found narrow majority support for mandatory AR-15 buybacks, others show the policy underwater. Given that the U.S. Senate wildly overrepresents rural areas that lean right of the nation on gun issues, and that liberals have struggled for decades to enact gun reforms that poll at 90 percent, it’s safe to say that O’Rourke’s proposal will not be legislatively viable on the federal level at any point in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the policy isn’t even a slam dunk on the merits, once one considers the risks inherent to sending armed agents of the state to confiscate the weapons of paranoid gun nuts, and/or orchestrating high-tension encounters between police officers and suspected assault-weapon owners in marginalized communities. Julián Castro eloquently spotlighted the latter hazard Tuesday night.
Nevertheless, in an interview on MSNBC Wednesday morning, O’Rourke doubled down on literal confiscation.
This is wildly unproductive. Mandatory buybacks are legislatively impossible, logistically nightmarish, and politically unwise. Elections are won and lost at the margins. There is little-to-no evidence that embracing more ideologically extreme positions spurs higher turnout among unreliable Democratic voters (who tend to be more conservative than reliable ones, especially on social issues). There are a significant number of Americans who oppose Donald Trump but lean right on gun issues. There’s no reason for Democrats to go out of their way to antagonize such voters by embracing relatively unpopular, legislatively nonviable gun reforms. And there is even less reason for O’Rourke to do so. The man is not going to be the Democrats’ 2020 nominee, but he could have used this campaign to fortify his status as a strong candidate for statewide office in Texas. Getting to Elizabeth Warren’s left on firearms probably disqualifies him from that consolation prize. And one can essentially say all these same things about his stance on the tax-exempt status of anti-LGBT churches.
But O’Rourke took his campaign’s malign uselessness to new heights Tuesday night, when he had the temerity to scold Warren for the divisiveness of her wealth tax. After allowing that a levy on the wealth of billionaires might be “part of the solution” to inequality, the man who had just called for siccing big government on Catholic churches and gun owners said the following:
Sometimes I think that Senator Warren is more focused on being punitive and pitting some part of the country against the other instead of lifting people up and making sure that this country comes together around those solutions.
In that moment, it seemed almost plausible that O’Rourke was, in truth, a GOP sleeper agent — or else a Tucker Carlson caricature of elite liberalism come to life. Taxing the wealth of billionaires is popular with a broad, bipartisan majority of Americans. The GOP’s greatest liability with marginal Trump voters is the perception that they’re the party of the superrich and corporations. To the extent that Democrats can make inroads into red America, increasing the salience of popular progressive ideas for equalizing economic power is their best bet for doing so. Warren’s wealth tax represents a step in the direction. By contrast, Beto’s efforts to spotlight relatively unpopular liberal ideas on culture-war issues, while decrying populist rhetoric as punitive and divisise, are music to Republican operatives’ ears.
O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign was a vital contribution to the fight against reactionary rule in the U.S. He deserves some measure of admiration for mounting it. But his presidential bid has accomplished nothing beyond costing his party a promising candidate in the Lone Star State. The longer he drags out this increasingly counterproductive, quixotic crusade, the harder it will be to avoid the question: Members of Beto’s campaign, what the fuck?