Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) launched his a long-awaited presidential campaign Thursday with a three-minute video shared on Twitter.
“This is a defining moment of truth for this country and for every single one of us,” said O’Rourke, seated next to his wife.
“The challenges that we face right now, the interconnected crises in our economy, our democracy, and our climate have never been greater, and they will either consume us or they will afford us the greatest opportunity to unleash the genius of the United States of America.”
But for all his Obama-esque hope and change rhetoric, after six years in the House and a closely watched Senate race against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) that elevated O’Rourke to rockstar status, what exactly O’Rourke believes remains unclear.
“When he ran so effectively — if not successfully — against Cruz, he didn’t have to work very hard to set the contrast,” James Henson, director of the Texas Politicos Project at the University of Texas at Austin, told ThinkProgress. “So while there was some discussion about the vagueness of his positions, the lack of elaboration in the policy domain, that didn’t really hurt him. It was such a polarized environment it didn’t really matter.”
Henson said O’Rourke was able to do the bare minimum while campaigning one-on-one against Cruz. In a crowded Democratic field, Henson thinks it won’t be enough.
“He’s not out there being identified with a policy accomplishment or even an elaborated policy position as much as he is a personality,” he said, noting that the closest O’Rourke comes to staking a clear policy claim is his refusal to take any PAC money, a stance that was central to his Senate race.
“That has the sheen of a progressive position,” Henson said.
O’Rourke has also been vocal about immigration and border matters, vowing in his announcement that as president he would fight to ensure “lawful paths to work, to be with family, and to flee persecution.” He also has argued that existing border barriers should be torn down.
But on most major issues seen as important to Democrats, it has been hard to pin Beto down.
In a Facebook post two years ago, O’Rourke said he supported Medicare for All, but during his years in the House, he never signed onto the chamber’s Medicare for All bill. Last year, the Associated Press reported that he supports a single-payer health care system, but doesn’t support Medicare for All because he believes expanding the program could adversely affect current recipients.
On Thursday, O’Rourke launched his official campaign website. It featured a jobs page, a donation page, and page to purchase campaign gear. What it didn’t feature was any policy priority.
Similarly, his first official campaign stop in the town of Keokuk, Iowa later that day was filled with lofty rhetoric, but devoid of concrete proposals. The O’Rourke campaign declined to comment for this story.
Asked about health care, O’Rourke reiterated the vague stance he took while running for the Senate: “What are we hoping to achieve?” he asked. “In my opinion, it is guaranteed, high-quality health care.”
“We absolutely must be guaranteed the ability to see a doctor, take our child to the therapist, afford the prescription that could save our lives, certainly improve our lives. That has to be the goal that all of us share,” he said.
O’Rourke offered another answer that was long on inspiration but short on specifics when asked about increasing teacher pay, launching into a monologue about the importance of educators.
“Our ability to meet the economic challenges that I just described is only going to be possible if we support our teachers, pay them a true living wage so they focus on only one job, the most important before them,” he said. “They have [to have] a health care system they can depend on.”
We need, O’Rourke declared, to “get a hold of the situation now,” and to “hold one another accountable.”
Certainly, presidential campaigns often begin with soaring rhetoric and build out policy positions in the weeks following. But for O’Rourke, elusiveness is nothing new.
After three terms in the House, O’Rourke had few legislative accomplishments and no signature issue. Early in his tenure, while he was still in office, Obama authored two bills signed into law, according to GovTrack: a tuition assistance program for service members, and the renaming of a federal courthouse in his district.
O’Rourke told The Texas Tribune last fall that during the Trump era, among his top legislative accomplishments were bills signed into law that worked to expand access to mental health care to veterans.
O’Rourke’s vague approach to policy stands in sharp contrast many of his fellow Democrats in the race.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), the first Democrat to announce, highlighted her history fighting Wall Street and big corporations when she announced her presidential ambitions. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), in his announcement a few weeks later, highlighted his work battling for Medicare for All and a free college for all program, his support for ending U.S. involvement in Yemen, and raising the minimum wage.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), another early front runner in the race, told The Washington Post that her priorities include a major middle class tax cut, reducing cash bail, election security, Medicare for All, and reducing racial disparities in childbirth deaths would be her policy priorities.
But maybe O’Rourke has figured out something that could take him all the way, said Dante Scala, University of New Hampshire political science professor.
“He’s clearly got some certain intangibles, whether you call it charisma or relatability — that ‘X factor’,” Scala said. “He’s taking pains so far not to pigeonhole himself, and he adopts language that could be aspirational.”
While activists may want to pin O’Rourke down on issues, Scala said he thinks the Texan’s fellow contenders will be hesitant to go negative, and that voters want someone who makes them feel safe, two things that could mean O’Rourke’s fuzziness might work to his benefit.
It’s happened before, Scala argued, with former President Jimmy Carter in 1976, who spent much of the primary talking about vague notions of uniting the country after Watergate.
“Perhaps [O’Rourke] will be able to do what Carter did, and in a way Carter was able to use that to paper over the policy differences there might have been between himself and other candidates,” Scala said, who said that may be sufficient — at least through the campaign.
“In some sense, for Carter, the chickens didn’t come home to roost with him and his party until he got into office.”
Just how vague O’Rourke’s policy vision is became abundantly clear when he was asked what he thought of the Green New Deal, the plan championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) that calls for rapid national reductions in carbon use, as well as universal health care and a federal jobs guarantee.
“If you don’t mind,” O’Rourke responded, “I will take the spirit of the question.”
For several minutes, he talked passionately about the dangers of climate change, and, eventually praised the Green New Deal, saying he hasn’t seen any plan that better addresses the climate crisis better; but he did not go so far as to endorse the measure.
“Not to be dramatic, but the future of the world depends on us right now — here where we are,” he declared. “Let’s find a way to do this!”