Beto O’Rourke: Corporate or Progressive Democrat?

March 24, 2019

O’Rourke is a member of the New Democrat Coalition, a caucus with close connections to the finance, insurance and real estate industries; Beto’s supporters call him a progressive Democrat - with Jacqueline Luqman, Norman Solomon and host Paul Jay

O’Rourke is a member of the New Democrat Coalition, a caucus with close connections to the finance, insurance and real estate industries; Beto’s supporters call him a progressive Democrat - with Jacqueline Luqman, Norman Solomon and host Paul Jay


Beto O'Rourke: Corporate or Progressive Democrat?

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

So we’re going to continue our discussion. We’re going to every Friday have a sort of roundup of different topics. And one of the topics is usually going to be the race to become the nominee for the Democratic Party and the 2020 presidential elections. And today we’re going to focus a lot on Beto O’Rourke, who on March 14 raised over–let’s get the number correctly–$6.1 million in a day; actually beat Bernie Sanders’s amount that he raised in a day. And just who and what is Beto O’Rourke? What’s he stand for? Well, here’s a little clip from MSNBC, where they discuss his policies, or lack thereof.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: Who can tell me what it is Beto’s clear message? Who’s got it for me? I want to know what it is.

MIKE: I got it.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: Mike. All right. Mike went first. Go, Mike.

MIKE: He’s young, he’s electric. He has enormous appeal. I’m telling you, that’s what he’s got right now. That’s what he’s got right now.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: No, no, no. What is his–what is his message? [Yamish. Yamish.]

YAMISH: I think unlike other candidates who are talking about climate change, his message is a vague one which says we want to heal our nation, and we want to get past this time and period where we have President Trump really kind of getting into these small, petty fights. We want to rise above this. That’s of course a message, not a policy position, which is a big difference.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: No. OK. Bob Costa, you raised your hand? Or no.

BOB COSTA: Yes, I did. I’ve been listening to his speeches over the last few days. His message is–it’s clear his message is I may not have the experience, I may not be the typical contender. But I’m the best candidate to present a generational choice to beat Donald Trump, to beat President Trump. It’s all about beating Trump.

SPEAKER: All right. All right. Enough of this McLaughlin Report thing. We’d like to all thank you, Mika, for not going WHOA-

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: I got his message. It’s this. Look, you want to see it? I roll up my sleeves, and the camera zooms in. And I look really busy. I want to know what his message is, what’s his platform.

PAUL JAY: Well, that’s interesting, an MSNBC host sort of trashing Beto O’Rourke, given that a lot of people think Beto O’Rourke is the establishment candidate of choice, at least until Biden gets in, and maybe even then. So how come they’re going after O’Rourke so much there?

Anyway, we’re going to talk about different things, and we’re going to start with that. So now joining me on the panel, first of all, is Jacqueline Luqman. Jacqueline runs an outlet, a website called Luqman Nation, which does politics, and she’s also a regular contributor to The Real News. And also joining us is Norman Solomon. He’s the co-founder of RootsAction.org, and he’s also one of the key organizers of the Bernie Delegates Network. Thank you both for joining us.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Happy to be here.

PAUL JAY: Norman, let me start with you. This Beto O’Rourke candidacy is kind of interesting. He raised a lot of money. He raised actually more than Bernie did. Bernie raised $5.9 million from 220,000 donors. Beto raised $6.1 [million] from 128,000 donors. So clearly Beto had some bigger donors in there. We don’t know exactly who they are, I don’t think. And there’s been a lot of fuss about him, because he kind of looks like Kennedy. He almost beat Ted Cruz. And he’s got a Kennedy-esque buzz about him.

On the other hand, he took a very interesting position which is not a normal position for someone running for president in the Democratic Party candidacy, which he’s really attacked Netanyahu and Israel. He’s said that Netanyahu has allied himself with racists in Israel. And you know, one would think, if you’re smart about this, you at least shut up even if you’re don’t like Netanyahu. You don’t make a thing out of it. Anyway, what’s your take on Beto O’Rourke, and let me say again, you have and are a Bernie supporters. You’re not completely neutral observer here. Although I happen to know you’re more interested in progressive politics than you are in any particular candidate. I think that’s fair to say. But anyway, Norman.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, definitely there’s a tremendous buzz for Beto O’Rourke. I’ve spent a lot of time the last couple of weeks looking into his history, because there is an official backstory from the news media, or at least a de facto received wisdom backstory, that he’s this independent guy. Obviously there’s a tremendous emphasis on looks, on dynamism, energy, and so forth. But what we get very little of is what exists in fits and starts, in various outlets. Frankly his style being critiqued is not what would be most damaging to him among those who are going to by voting determine who is the next Democratic presidential nominee.

There’s really the layer of the media story, and then there’s the layer of who he really is politically. You know, we all know at this point if we’re watching the news he’s got traditional good looks, what we call charisma, youthful energy. He raises a lot of money. But relatively few people are aware of, really, what I call the inconvenient truth that could undermine his campaign with the people who, after all, are going to matter most, and that’s people who are going to vote for who’s going to be the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.

And the fact is that when you trace his political history, which only goes back 15 years, he was able to get on to the El Paso City Council with the backing of some powerful and wealthy Republicans in that part of West Texas. And ever since, he’s had an alliance with a fairly conservative GOP funders. And he’s taken positions that, especially on economic issues, often are in sync with the, if I can use this term, mainstream Republican Party.

So I think overall he has a sort of a formula of style which seems independent, maybe edgy, hip, taking some positions, particularly on racial justice, that are appealing to the left. But when you get to bedrock corporate power issues he’s in with Wall Street. And that’s really a very popular combination for corporate media.

PAUL JAY: Jacqueline, he was a member of the National Democratic Coalition. What’s that about, and what does that tell us about Beto?

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Yeah, these organizations, these congressional member organizations, are really kind of where all of the meat and potatoes of politics gets done in Washington. And if we’re not careful, we miss the agendas that they’re associated with.

The New Democrat Coalition, as it’s called, is actually just a young updated version of the Democratic Leadership Council. And if we’re aware of what the Democratic Leadership Council was, they gave us neoliberal Democratic politics. The DLC gave us Bill Clinton and his pro-business, deregulation, tough on crime, Republican-lite policies that we’re still living with today. And this–I have to read directly from the website for the New Democrat Coalition, because if I didn’t tell you that it was the New Democrat Coalition, you wouldn’t know that this is a Democratic organization.

So this is what they say about themselves. “The New Democrat Coalition is made up of more than 100 forward-thinking Democrats who are committed to pro-economic growth, pro-innovation, and fiscally responsible policies. New Democrats are a solutions-oriented coalition seeking to bridge the gap between left and right by challenging outmoded partisan approaches to governing. They believe the challenges ahead are too great for members of Congress to refuse to cooperate purely out of partisanship.”

That, to me, is such an alarming mandate for an organization that is a part of this Democratic Party that’s supposed to be stopping Trump. How are you going to stop Trump and the party that he is head of with this kind of mandate that isn’t that different from the party you’re supposed to be opposing?

PAUL JAY: It’s the politics of Bill Clinton. It’s essentially the politics of Barack Obama. And it’s the politics of Hillary Clinton. Which the Democrats might argue did win 3 million more votes than Trump with that kind of politics. And I know behind you there’s a picture of Bernie Sanders, and they argue that that kind of politics can’t win. But what do you say to people that say, well, it kind of did win, one, if it wasn’t Hillary, who had a lot of, for better or worse, had a lot of built-in lack of popularity; two, didn’t campaign in the swing states in any way that one would have thought she would have. And that if you really want to beat Trump, maybe you do need this kind of essentially centrist politics. And look how much money he just raised.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Well, I mean, there is politics, and then there is what the American people want. I mean, OK, we can argue that Hillary Clinton won 3 million more votes in the 2016 election. But do those people really know what they’re voting for? That’s kind of the issue with these organizations. You can vote for a politician who’s going to say all kinds of things. But we’re talking about a candidate’s voting record. We’re kind of making fun of the way MSNBC was making fun of Beto O’Rourke, talking about what is his platform, what are his policies. And that’s all funny and in jest, but when you go to his actual campaign website there are no policies on it.

So you know, when people vote for–to this argument, you know, Hillary Clinton won more votes than than Donald Trump, and that proves that these are the kind of policies you need to run, well, Hillary wasn’t exactly honest about her own policies. Her policies, and her alignment with Bill Clinton’s policies and these holdover neoliberal Democratic policies, as well as the imperialist warmongering that she supported and spearheaded as secretary of state, that was all vetted by us crazy online progressives.

So people who are not as attuned to politics on that level, most Americans, I think, vote for a figurehead. I think that’s true.

PAUL JAY: Well, Norman, then that argument is Beto’s a good figurehead. If the only objective is to beat Trump and get power back more in the hands of the Democratic Party, and a lot of people that vote that will be a motivating issue, beat Trump, are they going to be, one, concerned of this anti-socialist campaign that Trump will wage against Bernie, and you know, pinning this all–the specter of Venezuela, which is what Trump and every Republican running in the country does, even down to congressional districts in Pennsylvania talk the same way. So he’s got a problem, which is, one, in the Democratic primaries, the progressive vote’s going to really matter. But Beto’s argument to the wider Democratic Party is I’m actually the one that can beat Trump.

So for a lot of ordinary people the vote for the Democratic Party, their driving motivation is going to be to beat Donald Trump. And, personally, I think, for good reason. And even if there is much more sympathy in the broader party for Bernie Sanders, and I have some of my relatives in mind right now, who later regretted not voting for Bernie because they thought Hillary was the one that was going to beat Donald, and that was the priority. But they may be persuaded again that Beto doesn’t carry the kind of baggage that Hillary had. And that those kinds of policies simply are going to be more successful amongst the broader population than Bernie because of the anti-socialist thing that he’s going to go on about, Trump. So how does Bernie deal with Beto?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, first I should note that Steve Bannon is saying that the strongest candidate against Donald Trump would be Beto O’Rourke. Now, whether Steve Bannon really has the interests of defeating Donald Trump at heart is another matter. But I want to note that yes, it’s true Hillary Clinton got 3 million more votes than Donald Trump, but Clinton won at checkers when everybody knew it was a chess game. And the same is going to be the case in 2020.

The conventional wisdom is always that centrist corporate Democrats will beat Republicans. But we’re not finding that to be the case. And our experience has been very grim, and I certainly agree that defeating Trump or any other Republican for the White House next year is going to be really important. The underlying question, or one of the key ones, is whether you can defeat right-wing Republicans with a corporate Democrat who is ultimately unable to persuade people that he or she is a genuine progressive who’s going to fight the power, or at least a populist who isn’t part of the establishment. And I think as facts come out, style aside, his youthful energy and, you know, pronounced charisma and all the rest of it set aside, Beto O’Rourke in policy is an establishment person. And when you get so many people in this country, as is the case, who are upset with the status quo, with widening economic inequality and so forth, Beto O’Rourke is really, I think, not going to be a persuasive candidate to carry that agenda.

PAUL JAY: And, Jacqueline, it seems to me the critical issue is that it’s not that there’s something in the label of corporate Democrat, or National Democratic Coalition. It’s that the policies didn’t work. Clinton policies, the Obama policies. Inequality got greater. The Rust Belt emerged under Bill Clinton, or certainly much more emerged under Bill Clinton. It’s not them individually. It’s the kind of policies they represent. But I thought Bernie held back on that. And I always thought that he should have distanced himself more from the Obama administration. Hillary was running as the legacy of Obama, and Obama was running–I mean, ran the government–more or less on the principles of the new Democratic coalition, the Democratic Leadership Council. You know, maybe a little bit more liberal. But not much.

And more–I think if he–I think he has to come out and actually really critique the Democratic Party record, including Obama. But can he do that and still get a black vote?

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And that–see, you read my mind. Because that’s the thing. He has to be very careful of the line he treads since he is running in as a Democrat inside the Democratic Party. They’re already out to get him. There are 20 other candidates. Most of them are not even viable as candidates. Most of them won’t even make it to the first debate stage. But the Democratic Party is–this enormous field is a strategy to pull as many votes away from Sanders, because the Democratic Party does not want Sanders as their candidate. They don’t. And it’s because of these kind of corporate-focused policies that they don’t want to upset, they don’t want to lose their backers and their donors. So they, you know, they can’t have Sanders as their representative of their party.

But then you raise a good point. Sanders also can’t run the risk of losing the black vote. Now, I think that the way the criticism of Sanders’s comments about some issues like reparations and racially-focused policies have been misconstrued to claim that black people just don’t like Bernie Sanders. And I think that is absolutely false. I think that’s absolutely untrue. I think he has lots of support in the black community. But I think that black people, rightfully so, are very reticent to just accept anything a politician says just because he’s popular, because we’ve been burned by Obama. So he does not want to turn off already gunshy black voters, as far as electoral politics are concerned. So he’s not going to criticize Obama too much. And he also doesn’t want the Democratic Party coming after him for criticizing them or Obama, because Obama is almost a saint still in the Democratic Party establishment circles.

So Sanders really has to stay on message about his policies. He can’t go on the attack. Because he would–I mean, attacking the Republicans are easy. That’s easy. He doesn’t want to make this about Trump, because that’s the problem the Democrats are having. He can’t go on the attack against the Democrats, because then they’re really going to pull out all the stops, and then all of the candidates are going to attack him. So he’s got to stay right strictly on that lane of talking about his issues in his platform, and he cannot deviate from that as far as a political strategy in between the rock and a hard place that is the really not great legacy of Barack Obama, his neoliberal imperialist policies, and the neoliberal imperialist Democratic Party.

PAUL JAY: Norman, just to finish off, I want to go back to something I said near the beginning. Beto O’Rourke did come out really attacking Netanyahu. He’s accused them of being in alliance with racists in Israel. Even to say there’s such a thing as racists in Israel is not a normal thing for somebody as a mainstream Democratic Party candidate. He talks about rights for Palestinians, again. You know, what he really means, I don’t know. But even to talk about it, again, not the normal, mainstream position. What do you make of that? What motivates him, there?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, I don’t do psychoanalysis, really. You know, it’s political analysis. So the motivation is sometimes, especially with Beto O’Rourke, you’re very unclear, because he’s such a mixture. And you know, admittedly an unconventional mixture. However, when you get away from issues such as NFL protests, kneeling against racism, where he took a very good position in support of that right to protest, when you look at what he’s said about Netanyahu, he has said some good things, usually often about social or racial justice issues, including for a long time for legalization of marijuana. However, when you get to economic issues, when you get to the core of economic inequality, there’s a reason why so many Obama backers on Wall Street are saying or intimating they’re going to get behind him to bundle big money up for Beto O’Rourke.

And I think what Jacqueline said is very important and insightful about the dilemma that Bernie Sanders faces in relation to the Obama legacy. To be true to what Bernie has always advocated for and been part of, progressive social movements, Bernie has to attack Obama administration policies without seeming to attack Obama as a person. And that’s a very difficult needle to thread. As Jacqueline’s said, Obama has ascended to virtual sainthood among not just the elite media and top Democrats, but by most Democratic voters who see him that way, according to the polls.

So really when you look at the policies that are being put forward by Beto O’Rourke, or intimated, that we can assume from his record in Congress, he’s a very corporate guy. He’s taken many positions that are antithetical on trade, on economic policy, antithetical to basic Democratic Party positions. His voting record on economic issues is often similar to Republican votes. He often voted with Republicans. He voted with Donald Trump in terms of raising the military budget and so forth during his last two years in Congress.

In effect, Beto O’Rourke and Joe Biden are a double-barreled attack on the progressive populist wing of the Democratic Party that could ascend to the top of the presidential ticket next year, conceivably in the form of Bernie Sanders and/or Elizabeth Warren. And O’Rourke and Biden are two people vastly different in style and in experience, or lack thereof. But they share a common affection coming toward them from most of the elite corporate inside the Beltway media, and they both, frankly, have a tremendous amount of media momentum, and will have a lot of money behind them to try to quash the upsurge of progressive populism in the last couple of years that has manifested itself in winning elections, and the kind of momentum that could win a lot more of them.

We know the names Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others who can move forward and be part of sort of the leading edge of role modeling for many other candidates and grassroots campaigns. So to sum up, I think that this battle between the corporate core of the Democratic Party hierarchy represented by Beto O’Rourke and Joe Biden and the progressive populist upsurge that is represented by Bernie Sanders and, to some degree, Elizabeth Warren, that is the battle ahead. And there’s no question that the corporate media side with Beto O’Rourke and Joe Biden. It really remains to be seen whether the grassroots can mobilize sufficiently to win the battle against corporate power and militarism in the form of electing someone like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to the White House.

PAUL JAY: All right. Thanks for joining us, Norman, Jacqueline. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.