The central fissure in the Democratic Party isn’t between supposed “Bernie Bros” or so-called “centrists,” but between popularity and policy, and which one should be the central focus of choosing a candidate. It’s an unimpeachable fact that Beto O’Rourke is oozing with charisma and is an incredibly effective campaigner. It’s also an unimpeachable fact that Beto O’Rourke has voted many times with Republicans in congress—demonstrating that he would likely be one of the most conservative Democrats in the 2020 race if he were to jump in. Oil Change USA took O’Rourke’s name off their list of political candidates who promised to reject fossil fuel donations over $200, and a new examination of his votes in Capital and Main sheds more light on his decidedly non-progressive record in congress:
A Capital & Main review of congressional votes shows that even as O’Rourke has represented one of the most Democratic congressional districts in the entire country, he has in many instances undermined his own party’s efforts to halt the GOP agenda, frequently voting against the majority of House Democrats in support of Republican bills and Trump administration positions.
Capital & Main reviewed the 167 votes O’Rourke has cast in opposition to the majority of his own party in the House during his six-year tenure in Congress. Many of those votes were not progressive dissents alongside other left-leaning lawmakers but were instead votes to help pass Republican-sponsored legislation. In many cases, Democratic lawmakers said that those measures were designed to help corporate interests dismantle Obama administration programs and regulations.
How did #resistance Twitter take the news? Some went with unapologetic McCarthyism.
Most didn't go as far to call a journalist who is digging up votes that anyone can access a Kremlin stooge. Others simply just screamed “Bernie!” at the top of their lungs without any coherent logic behind their assertion.
Now, to be fair to Beto O'Rourke, his lifetime score from political watchdog Progressive Punch is 94%—roughly the same as Nancy Pelosi's. Depicting him as a stooge of the GOP or some pro-Trump agitator is just wrong and I strongly advise my progressive allies to not overreach on this topic. It's not that Beto is a Republican in liberal clothing—it's that his voting record is very much in line with the Bill Clinton policy legacy in the Democratic Party (which is conservative)—a legacy which lost to Donald freaking Trump in 2016. Times have changed, and while Beto does have an overall liberal record in congress, Progressive Punch rates him 86th out of all Democratic legislators (Pelosi is 67th).
This is the metric that Topher Spiro of the Center for American Progress used to defend Beto on this latest round of revelations of his record (CAP is the biggest liberal think tank in D.C., and they picked a fight with David Sirota over one tweet linking to OpenSecrets, proving that Ted Cruz is the only member of congress who takes more money from the oil sector than Beto), so let's look towards the top of this list from Progressive Punch.
Progressive darlings like Pramila Jaypal (5th), Ro Khanna (7th) and Barbara lee (22nd) rank towards the top, and this is what this fight is really about. Those people's records should be more representative of the Democratic Party than O'Rourke's. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton shifted the Democratic Party right. This was widely considered to be his political genius at the time, and it was an aberration in the history of the party. The Democrats of the 1960s enacted (some of) the Great Society, along with the most powerful federal civil rights legislation ever passed. FDR and the Democrats of the 1930s even threatened the power of the Supreme Court because they kept striking down the New Deal—which was a gigantic group of policies ranging from socialist (ie: Social Security) to liberal, designed to fight the rampant inequality of the Great Depression.
The legacy of the Democrats is unapologetic liberalism, not milquetoast corporate-friendly centrism.
The Democrats are moving left, the only question is how far left. What we can say so far is that the Democrats should be to the left of Beto O'Rourke's recorded history in congress. It should be to the left of Nancy Pelosi's too, and more in line with Barbara Lee's.
There is a lot of rot inside the Democratic Party that still must be cleaned out. This is supposed to be the party who stands up for the little guy—not Wall Street—yet Chuck Schumer still wins unopposed elections unanimously to lead the Senate because his balls are sitting on a gelded stand in Goldman Sachs' executive boardroom, and anyone crossing him would surely get whacked by the people who George Carlin correctly referred to as America's Real Owners.
The Democratic Party Lost to Donald Freaking Trump in 2016
I think we can all agree that we should not do what we did to lose in 2016. Those same people that I embedded above would assert this Beto mess is exactly what “we” did. The story typically goes that criticizing Hillary in the primary set the table for Republican attacks in the 2016 general election, but this logic doesn't make any sense given the history of GOP attacks on the Clintons.
From the moment that Bill Clinton took office in 1992, the Republican Party spent billions of dollars to create the impression that his political machine is corrupt. Hell, they launched a special counsel in 1993 to dig into his businesses and didn't come up with anything until America learned Monica Lewinsky's name in 1998. Clintonian corruption has long been baked into minds of the populace (a recent Quinnipiac poll pegged Hillary Clinton's approval rating below that of Trump's), and it's asinine to suggest that a primary fight (that was less ugly than the campaign Hillary waged against Obama in 2008) fossilized Republican talking points into people's brains. Hillary lost because the left-of-center policies she supported do not have broad public support (and because James Comey and the New York Times interfered in the election).
It also didn't help that Bill Clinton fostered a legacy of actual corruption that bolstered this long-standing GOP argument.
In so many ways, Bill failed Hillary. He, not she, is the problem. If you ask most Democrats about policy, we all agree on some pretty leftist positions like Medicare for All. Hillary even started sounding more like Bernie after the 2016 primary. I took shots at all those folks above, but I'd bet that the vast majority of our political priorities overlap. This is what's so frustrating about Democrats these days. We are a liberal party, but our representatives are not. Policy matters and collectively we just don't care enough about it. That needs to change.
For example, it's a fact that your average Republican voter is to the left of your average Democratic Senator on health care—51% of GOPers want Medicare for All, while less than 51% of Democratic Senators do not publicly support it (85% of Democrats support Medicare for All). Leftists have already been successful in winning the war for public opinion on this topic, and from this leftist's perspective, this Beto fight is just another battle to push our Democratic representatives in line with public opinion on the next major topic of discussion.
If your stance is that we should not scrutinize the record of public officials who look like they are gearing up to run for president in 2020 (and the first Democratic debates begin in six months, so it's not like this is premature, even though it absolutely should be—America's elections should be more like France's), then you are proposing an inherently anti-democratic proposition. This is the most powerful position in the world, and these people are about to enter a job interview, and some of you folks think that we shouldn't ask questions about their record in congress? Why?
It hearkens back to the center of the schism at the heart of the Democratic Party: Bill Clinton's policies are not popular with the benefit of hindsight, and there is a legitimate existential crisis taking place around that fact which became obvious the moment President Donald Trump entered into our reality. This isn't really even up for debate. Joe Biden has even apologized for a few major votes he made at the dawn of the 21st century. The only reason that I can think of as to why you wouldn't want to discuss a presidential contender's record in congress is because you know you cannot defend that record.
Beto is undeniably an interesting candidate who would almost certainly defeat Trump—but that's not a very high bar to clear. Joe Biden is right. A lot of people can beat Trump. He's historically unpopular, so we can afford to heavily scrutinize what looks to be the biggest primary field most of us have ever known. Kamala Harris, a center-left prosecutor who expanded a policy that conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch strongly opposes (civil asset forfeiture) during her time as California's most powerful lawman, sure looks like she's going to put Medicare for All at the heart of her 2020 platform. We are going to have plenty of good, popular leftist policies to choose from in 2020. It's clear that while Hillary won the battle, Bernie won the war.
The bigger question is going to be: who can we trust to enact the will of the people? The fact that Beto O’Rourke takes oil money and has voted for oil interests puts his record on the wrong side of the biggest challenge we face, and it’s incumbent upon him to tell us why his record in congress does not define his politics. If we assert that Beto should not have to defend nor explain his record, then the most important primary in America’s history is going to be nothing more than a high school popularity contest, and we will be doomed to repeat the failures of the past.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.