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Beto O'Rourke in El Paso, Texas on Nov. 6, where he made his election night concesssion speech. (Photo: Eric Gay/AP)

Born to Run? As Beto Enters 2020 Race, Progressives Still Unclear Where Texas Democrat Stands on Key Priorities

As one analyst put it, O'Rourke lacks "a clear political ideology, a signature legislative achievement, a major policy issue, or a concrete agenda for the country."

Jake Johnson

Former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke announced Thursday that he is running for president in 2020, but commentators and reporters say his policy agenda and vision for the country remain unclear.

"This is a defining moment of truth for this country, and for every single one of us," O'Rourke said in a video announcing his candidacy. "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."

O'Rourke soared to national prominence during his race last year against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), which he lost by a narrow margin after shattering fundraising records and sparking grassroots enthusiasm across the state.

"There's a lot in O'Rourke's record we're wary of, most notably his comment during a Senate debate last year that it's a false choice between fossil fuels and renewable energy."
—Janet Redman, Greenpeace USA

Progressives were broadly excited in 2018 by the prospect of a Democrat taking a Senate seat in Texas and ousting Cruz. But since O'Rourke's loss, many have expressed skepticism about his presidential aspirations, pointing to his relatively conservative voting record and vague policy positions at a time when the Democratic base appears hungry for bold solutions.

"O'Rourke would enter the race as a man without a clear political ideology, a signature legislative achievement, a major policy issue, or a concrete agenda for the country," wrote Slate's Josh Voorhees.

As the New York Times put it, "in a primary so far defined by big-ticket policy ideas, like the economic agendas of Senators Bernie Sanders [I-Vt.] and Elizabeth Warren [D-Mass.], Mr. O'Rourke enters without a signature proposal that might serve as the ideological anchor of his bid."

On Twitter, the Washington Post's Jenna Johnson pointed out that O'Rourke does not yet have policy positions listed on his official campaign website. The Post's Jeff Stein asked O'Rourke's team about "his key policy priorites," and has yet to hear back.

In recent interviews, O'Rourke has refused to place himself on the ideological spectrum—saying he's "not into labels"—and offered unclear answers when asked about his views on Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and other popular progressive agenda items.

Earlier this year, O'Rourke described the Green New Deal as "a perfect point from which to start a conversation" on confronting the climate crisis, but he didn't say whether he supports the proposal.

In a statement, Greenpeace USA climate director Janet Redman said O'Rourke has not yet offered or gotten behind a "real plan that acknowledges the urgency of the crisis."

"We're glad the field is widening, and are excited to watch this growing pool of candidates debate the best way to overcome the fossil fuel industry's stranglehold on our politics," Redman said. "Still, there's a lot in O'Rourke's record we're wary of, most notably his comment during a Senate debate last year that it's a false choice between fossil fuels and renewable energy."

O'Rourke's position on Medicare for All has been similarly unclear. Though he previously expressed support for single-payer, Politico reported that O'Rourke abruptly stopped using the words "Medicare for All" and "single-payer" during last year's Senate race.

Speaking to Vanity Fair for a profile that was published online just hours before he announced his 2020 bid, O'Rourke said "he wants to shore up the Affordable Care Act and make Medicare part of the healthcare marketplace, and eventually make 'healthcare for all' a reality."

While offering few specifics about his vision for the nation, O'Rourke told Vanity Fair, "I want to be in it."

"Man, I'm just born to be in it, and want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment," he said of the presidential race.

In a Twitter post, journalist Matthew Sitman captured a sentiment that was prominent among progressives reacting to O'Rourke's announcement.

"Must be frustrating to be Liz Warren, rolling out policy after policy," Sitman tweeted, "and then see Beto make a splash by saying he just, like, needs to be in it, man."

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