Beto vs. Bernie: The simplistic narrative that threatens to undermine the 2020 campaign

A social media proxy war between two white men? To build a better future, Democrats have to be better than this

Published December 30, 2018 12:00PM (EST)

Beto O'Rourke; Bernie Sanders (Getty/AP/Salon)
Beto O'Rourke; Bernie Sanders (Getty/AP/Salon)

In pundit world, as well as social media, Beto O'Rourke vs. Bernie Sanders is shaping up to be the most high-volume, low-insight political stories of the early 2020 primary season. The story of the anti-Trump Resistance the past two years has overwhelming been about women and people of color, but here we are with none of them at center stage, sidelined along with the issues that motivated activists and voters: health care, immigration, gun safety, climate change, democracy itself.

O’Rourke came close to winning an impossible race against Sen. Ted Cruz -- that’s undeniably true. But not as close as former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who has done immeasurably more of the hard work building the infrastructure of democracy and grassroots power that helped her get so close. So why is all the focus on a white man from Texas? It’s a curious place to find ourselves, and it’s well worth trying to understand why.

Within hours of O'Rourke's narrow defeat, the first stories touting—or at least teasing—Beto for President began appearing in Newsweek, Billboard, Quartz,  New York magazine and on CNN, even though he had told MSNBC on election eve, "I will not be a candidate for president in 2020. That's I think as definitive as those sentences get."

After another few weeks of this, more critical pieces began to appear -- by Branko Marcetic in Jacobin, Zaid Jilani in Current Affairs and Elizabeth Bruenig in the Washington Post. These caled attention to O’Rourke’s actual legislative record, the needs of the party in Texas, and other reality-based concerns — which led Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, to allege some sort of dark conspiracy:

Bruenig’s piece in the Post on Beto is just the latest attack by a supporter of Senator Sanders on Beto: joining Jilani, Jacobin and Sirota. Feels a bit orchestrated and clearly they are worried.

Worried? Yes. But not in the way Tanden implied. None of those people advocated for Sanders specifically, but only for the direction he’s helped push the party toward -- the embrace of Medicare for All, free public college, a $15 minimum wage, a Green New Deal and a universal job guarantee. (O’Rourke, in contrast, is considerably more "moderate" conservative than his image suggests. As Matt Yglesias noted at Vox two weeks later, his record is more conservative than about 75 percent of House Democrats.)

The point is that those people would all be happy to see a vigorous primary where ideas like these were advanced by multiple different candidates vying to see which one could advance them best. They’re worried about a photogenic media star distracting the party, and American voters, from a historic opportunity. They’re worried about riding the promise of another Bill Clinton or Barack Obama into another disastrous midterm loss, like in 1994 and 2010.

“The calls for O’Rourke to run would maybe make more sense if he were the most progressive candidate in the burgeoning Democratic line-up,” Marcetic wrote. “But in a race that is set to feature Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Jeff Merkley, and possibly Sherrod Brown, that doesn’t really hold water.”

“I think the times both call for and allow for a left-populist candidate with uncompromising progressive principles. I don’t see that in O’Rourke,” Bruenig wrote. “We still have time to pick a politician with a bold, clear, distinctly progressive agenda, and an articulated vision beyond something-better-than-this, the literal translation of hope-change campaigning.”

Jilani concluded his story by saying:

The next president should be someone with a record of sticking their neck out against concentrated power, someone who has made tough decisions even when it may anger donors and political elites, and someone who has accomplished a great deal of actual tangible real change in the world. There are number of people who fit that description, but it’s difficult to say O’Rourke is one of them.

There’s no doubt that O’Rourke excites people in an Obama-like way. But that’s part of the problem, as Marcetic indicates:

The presidency is important, of course. But the liberal fixation on the White House at the expense of all else is partly to blame for the Democratic Party’s historic collapse at the state level, something it only now seems to be working to recover from by expanding its national presence. O’Rourke joining an already crowded field of presidential candidates would be a step backward from this. ... Politicians like Beto O’Rourke represent a step forward for states like Texas. Making them national standard-bearers is a step backward.

Indeed, the best thing O’Rourke could do for the Democratic Party would be to run for the Senate again, against Republican incumbent John Cornyn, in 2020. That would unquestionably be harder than running against Cruz -- Cornyn is a staunch conservative, but lacks Cruz's obvious negatives -- but it would maintain the momentum of building the Texas Democratic Party, an idea that until 2018 had been merely a dream. If O'Rourke does that, there's still plenty of time for him to run for president in the future — and there would be a much stronger national party to support him when he did.

The influence of oil

None of the stories by Marcetic, Jilani or Bruenig that Tanden cited caused quite as much of a crazed reaction as a single flashpoint tweet from former Salon contributor David Sirota, which set off a week-long furor:

After Sirota posted that, Tanden pounced. “Oh look. A supporter of Bernie Sanders attacking a Democrat,” she tweeted. “This is seriously dangerous. We know Trump is in the White House and attacking Dems is doing Trump’s bidding. I hope Senator Sanders repudiates these attacks in 2019.”

So reporting a fact is “attacking”? Reporting a fact is “seriously dangerous”? Reporting a fact is “doing Trump’s bidding”? Reporting a fact is something Bernie Sanders should repudiate?

Let’s be clear: There’s a lot of complexity to the money trail Sirota mentions, which can't be reduced to the theory that Beto O'Rourke is an oil-industry tool. But attacking a journalist for bringing this to light is counterproductive. If our goal is to solve problems — such as saving the planet from devastating climate change — then flinging these accusations around is "seriously dangerous," to borrow Tanden's phrase. That’s not just true about climate change, it’s true of every significant challenge we face. But this time, climate change was the spark, so let’s take a closer look at the underlying reality, in contrast to the early-stage campaign uproar.

It started with Sirota’s tweet and the online response. The next week, Alex Kotch at Real Sludge looked into O’Rourke’s oil and gas contribution records, emphasizing two distinct sides that are often poorly understood. On the one hand, individual donations — especially small ones — may not necessarily mean anything in terms of industry influence. On the other hand, donations from industry executives, especially large donations, should always be viewed with suspicion.

O’Rourke’s records show plenty of both. You can tell the story to make him look good (and unfairly attacked) or to make him look bad (and like he's trying to pull a fast one on his supporters).

Tanden falsely claimed the campaign funds cited by Sirota were all “small dollar” donations, but Kotch showed both sides. He found that 75 percent of that money came in “large” donations over $200, including from more than two dozen oil and gas executives. “More than 30 donations were the maximum allowed amount of $2,700. But the Texas representative also took in tons of small donations of $200 and under,” he wrote.  Those are not the problem, and no one should try to make them out to be.

Then he went on to touchier ground:

I also found that O’Rourke broke the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge — a commitment to reject campaign donations over $200 from fossil fuel PACs and executives that was endorsed by 16 environmental groups — which he signed.

In fact, Kotch found that:

  • 92 donations were of $1,000 or more, adding up to $173,039, or 40.3 percent of the total.
  • 33 were maximum donations of $2,700, adding up to $96,400, or 22.4 percent of the total.
  • Donors included 24 executives, who gave a combined total of $35,125.

Kotch reached out to O’Rourke’s campaign, but did not hear back, and also reached out to David Turnbull, strategic communications director at Oil Change USA, which was involved in organizing the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge. Turnbull told him the group had “only just found out about the information based off of your email.” A week later, Kotch reported that O’Rourke’s name had been removed from the pledge list, but the story remained murky, in part due to the O’Rourke campaign’s silence.

I reached out to Turnbull, to get his insight into what had really happened here and why, starting with an explanation of the pledge.  What I discovered was no surprise: Oil Change USA was much more interested in building broad support than getting into fruitless fights, while also being very clear about where they stood.

The group's "no fossil fuel money" pledge, Turnbull told me, requires candidates to reject individual donations above $200 from fossil fuel executives. "Our view is that executives at the top level of oil companies are indeed using their campaign contributions to curry favor with lawmakers to help their businesses,” he said. “These are people that are integral to the company, they’re at the very top. When they give the maximum allowable contribution to a lawmaker or candidate, there's clearly a rationale behind it that's associated with their business. Their business is focused on extracting fossil fuels that are destroying our climate.”

What happened with O’Rourke was “a little bit more complex" than some of the reporting has suggested, been,” Turnbull continued. O'Rourke was approached at a campaign event "with some wording of what basically is our pledge, and he said, ‘Oh, sure, I'll sign that, no problem,’" Turnbull said. O'Rourke apparently believed the pledge was focused only on fossil fuel PACs, and didn't include oil and gas executives as individual contributors. he explained. In fact, O'Rourke already pledged not to take PAC money from anyone. But when activists followed up with the campaign, that’s when the confusion over the precise nature of the pledge came to light, and O'Rourke's name was removed from the list.

As Turnbull diplomatically put it, “There wasn't sufficient communication around what the pledge entailed, and once there was, that's not a pledge he was able to sign. Some of the reporting has been pretty breathless about him having broken the pledge, and I just don't see it that way." Turnbul makes clear that he stands behind "the full language of the pledge,” and would be happy to have O’Rourke sign it in the future.

“It's been interesting over the last few weeks, seeing this issue erupt, and seeing folks kind of jump on it,” Turnbull said. “It just feels like the campaign has begun, and people in different camps are trying to differentiate themselves from other camps. ... Our goal is to really lessen the power of the fossil fuel industry on our politics, and to encourage candidates to stand up to that power, and stand up for climate justice and climate solutions. In an ideal world, we want every major candidate to sign this pledge and for it to be a prerequisite, not a differentiating factor.”

As Alex Kotch's article for Real Sludge points out, the pledge creates an obvious conflict for Neera Tanden and the "moderate" Center for American Progress. That group accepted donations from numerous oil and gas companies, some as recently as 2017. During the platform drafting process for the 2016 Democratic convention, Tanden voted against a fracking ban, a carbon tax and a measure to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

This puts CAP and Tanden squarely on the corporate-polluter right wing of the Democratic Party. As Kotch also noted:

Prominent Democrats have urged the party to reject oil and gas executives’ contributions. Christine Pelosi, an influential party strategist and daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, proposed a ban on fossil fuel PAC donations to the Democratic National Committee, which Democrats endorsed but then reversed two months later. Another provision she pushed for was a rejection of large donations (over $200) from fossil fuel executives, which didn’t pass.

Unsteady progress

O’Rourke's issue is mixed on other issues as well, as Bruenig's Washington Post article notes:

Where it comes to Medicare-for-all, O’Rourke has been carefully unclear about his stance: A Politico article from July notes that, at least for a time, he had sworn off using the terms “single payer” or “Medicare for all,” instead using the less-specific, policy-neutral phrase “universal, guaranteed, high-quality health care for all”….

O’Rourke’s statements on energy have been surprisingly thin. He has called the decision between oil and gas and renewable energy sources “a false choice,” and proposes on his campaign website mainly to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, empower the Environmental Protection Agency and enact energy reform.

In short, he’s a fairly vanilla progressive — from a dozen or so years in the past. That would be a terrific improvement in terms of representing Texas in the Senate. But it's reasonable for progressives to expect more from a would-be president.

As I mentioned above, Matt Yglesias has noted that O’Rourke was actually “more conservative than that of most Democrats in Congress, including other main 2020 contenders,” using the gold standard DW-NOMINATE measure, which is based on roll-call voting. O'Rourke's record was more conservative than three-quarters of all House Democrats during his three terms in Congress. Independently, I confirmed that O’Rourke was the second most conservative Democrat in Texas last session, even though Hillary Clinton carried his district by 40 percent in 2016, and O'Rourke won re-election with no Republican opponent:

“There’s a lot more to life than congressional voting records, so I wouldn’t take this as the final word on politicians’ true ideological souls,” Yglesias wrote. “But it does show us how they vote.”

I couldn’t agree more. That's just one piece of the puzzle to consider in evaluating a politician. But it would be foolish to ignore O'Rourke's actual record, which is what some people in the Democratic establishment seem to want us to do.

Let's be clear: O’Rourke has stood proudly and without defensiveness for important progressive values and positions. We’ve seen that time and again in his viral videos, and that's important — especially since so many Democratic leaders shrink into a defensive crouch in the face of almost any conservative pushback. But it's not clear where O'Rourke's positions lead in terms of policy, other than making us feel good, as Jilani described it:

His eloquent defense of kneeling NFL players was an instance of him diving headfirst into a symbolic culture war controversy, ticking off all the boxes contemporary liberals look for: embrace of diversity, condemnation of racism, and describing the sins of the nation.

It’s wasn’t surprising that Ted Cruz quickly took O’Rourke’s position and used it to motivate his own base. Both sides had much to gain from rallying for something that is ultimately symbolic and emotional: Kneeling on a football field doesn’t necessarily reform the criminal justice system, and standing tall for the national anthem doesn’t necessarily do anything for the men and women of the armed forces. But both sides passionately and emotionally believed they were contributing to those causes.

Of course it’s possible for O’Rourke to push beyond being merely symbolic — but only if he’s open to the kind of criticism Jilani offers. O'Rourke could connect his defense of kneeling NFL football players back to the underlying issue of criminal justice reform — but only if he’s pushed to do so. That's precisely what ought to happen in a competitive primary: Every candidate should be pressed to become a better version of what they already are. That won't happen if the race is consistently subverted by bad faith actors and simplistic narratives.

I’d like to give the last word here to Laura Moser‏, progressive Texan and founder of DailyAction. In a tweetstorm two days after Christmas, she wrote:

Moser continued from there:

There's nothing that our party needs less than a relitigation of 2016. But it's important to say that Sanders was a protest candidate: a septuagenarian left-winger from a small state, he was the kind of candidate who usually gets 5%. Instead, he got 42%.

It's worth asking why he did so well, without getting into the personal terms that so often have animated this question. And if I could offer a single reason, it is that a huge part of the party, nearly half, did not like being told whom to vote for… .

Many people deeply distrusted candidates perceived, rightly or wrongly but usually rightly, as institutional, corporate, status-quo. There was and is a huge gap between what voters want and what the leadership wants.

Rather than engaging this question honestly, Sanders supporters -- again, 42% of the party -- were and are constantly trolled, told to shut up and get in line, smeared with sexist terms like "Bernie Bros."

Now, we are seeing, with remarkable speed, a consensus emerge around Beto O'Rourke. This is not going to be helpful to him personally and it is not going to be helpful to the party.

There is huge skepticism among base Democrats about candidates that are felt to be foisted upon us without debate, and with the help of increasingly empowered internet trolls. But we desperately need that debate… .

As a Texan, I strongly prefer to see Beto run against the hideous @JohnCornyn next year. But if he is the nominee, he should emerge from a fair and honest democratic process -- not from a think tank in Washington.

Base Democratic voters have real reasons to think that they are overlooked -- even despised -- by the party's leadership. To try to crown a front-runner at this point is just another way to turn our voters off.

Amen to that. Let’s have a wide open Democratic race in 2020, one that can bring out the best in all our candidates — and in ourselves, as well.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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