Column: How to settle on a favorite Democratic presidential candidate? Good question

Former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, left, meets Myrna McCarthy of Honolulu on Monday in Yosemite National Park during the Democratic presidential candidate's tour through California.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

It was kind of refreshing on Monday to hear Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, vow that if he becomes president, he will put a halt to new oil and gas leases on federal land on Day One.

Virtually every Republican candidate in 2016 had promised to overturn President Obama’s signature law — the Affordable Care Act — on Day One. I can understand why those politicians made the pledge, since they demonized every accomplishment of Obama’s.

What I could never understand was why their crowds were so hysterically receptive to the pledge. Why would you cheer a plan to yank health insurance from millions of your fellow Americans?

Global climate change has emerged as a priority in the Democratic field this campaign season. It’s a stark difference between the parties. In November, when presented with the results of a study predicting that unchecked climate change will unleash havoc on the American economy, President Trump said, “I don’t believe it.”


Choosing between a Democrat and Republican should be an easy choice.

Choosing among Democrats, however, feels more like a nightmare right now. Do Democrats want an experienced hand, or a shiny new face? A man? A woman? A person of color? And for many voters, the most important question: Who can beat Trump?

O’Rourke, who rose from obscurity as a former Texas congressman when he very nearly toppled Republican Sen. Ted Cruz last year, is on a four-day swing through California, which started Saturday in Los Angeles.

Monday, he began his day very early in Yosemite, where he took a walking tour that was synchronized with the unveiling of his sweeping climate change plan.

O’Rourke continued his theme in the Central Valley, where he spent the afternoon at Modesto Junior College talking about the environment.

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke listens to environmental advocates on Monday in Yosemite National Park.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

He lunched with 20 or so agriculture students who focused on irrigation, and dairy and beef cattle. Then he convened a campus roundtable with a varied group of environmentalists — ranchers, farmers, naturalists, earth science teachers and land management experts — to discuss how climate change is affecting water quality, water supplies and human health.

He listened intently, asked questions that were on point, and kept his notebook open, frequently jotting notes.


“The goal,” he said, “is nothing short of saving the planet for human habitation.”

That’s pretty much the position of all the Democratic presidential candidates. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Sens. Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren all say that climate change is a critically important issue.

As Americans begin paying attention to the Democratic field, which stands at 20 now that former Vice President Joe Biden has jumped in, it’s hard to get a grasp on how they differ on policy, mostly because they don’t.

O’Rourke wasn’t even the first Democratic hopeful to vow to end new gas and oil leases on federal land. Warren made the same pledge two weeks ago.


I mean, if they all agree on almost everything, how the heck are Democratic voters supposed to pick just one?

At some point in a presidential primary, almost every candidate seems to have a fleeting moment in the sun.

Then, another swoops in and blots out the light. Or the candidate self-destructs.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean had a lock on the Democratic nomination in 2004 until he flamed out, then sealed his fate with that infamous war whoop in Iowa.


Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry was a formidable Republican challenger in 2012, until he started talking. Oops.

Jeb Bush was going to sweep the Republican field in 2016, until Trump made belittling him into a national Republican pastime.

For Democrats seeking the 2020 nomination, breaking out of the pack is a struggle.

Former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke takes a selfie with Anne Kelly, center, director of the Sierra Nevada Research Stations, and environmental advocate Leslie Martinez in Yosemite National Park.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)


Biden, of course, enters the field on top, with nowhere to go but down (something his nonchalant view of unwelcome touching may be hastening).

March was O’Rourke’s moment. He was on the cover of Vanity Fair, posing on a dirt road next to an open truck door, hands in the back pockets of his jeans, hair tousled, looking, well, Kennedy-esque. “I want to be in it. Man, I’m just born to be in it,” he said, the cringeworthy quotes appearing as cover lines.

O’Rourke had just lost one of the most expensive Senate races in American history. Why put him on the cover, and not, say Harris, who became a top-tier candidate as soon as she announced her run? He’s probably wondering the same thing now. After all, the attention did him no favors.

This month seemed to belong to South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is young, whip smart, gay and simply everywhere.


We’ll see who wins the month of May.

Debates are one of the surefire ways to separate the sheep from the goats.

The debates of 2016, between Trump and his numerous Republican opponents, then later between Trump and Hillary Clinton, were some of the most riveting and revealing moments in the campaign. The first Democratic debates are scheduled in late June.

I’m looking forward to them with the same anticipation that others feel about this season of “Game of Thrones.”