Column: Is Beto O’Rourke just another pretty face?

Beto O'Rourke speaks at a union hall in Burlington, Iowa. He announced Thursday that he's seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

The most striking thing about the Democrats’ newest presidential candidate is that he’s so hard to pin down.

Even though Beto O’Rourke spent six years as a congressman from El Paso, he has offered few specific positions on issues. Instead, he mostly deploys sunny attitudes; he’s for unity, bipartisanship and everyone pulling together.

“Let us not allow our differences to define us,” he told voters in Iowa. He’s a lanky, toothy Rorschach test; Democrats can project almost any view onto him they like.


That’s unlikely to work long in a tough primary contest, when more than a dozen other candidates will be vying to pin O’Rourke down and expose his soft spots. He’d better come up with some specific proposals and be ready to defend them.

His fans, and they are many, often compare him to Barack Obama. But Obama had a compelling story and a signature issue. The story was his biography as the first African American to have a real shot at the nomination; the issue was his early, prescient opposition to the Iraq war.

O’Rourke’s story is a bit thinner: He skateboards, plays the guitar and came close to beating Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in November. His issue, at least so far, seems to be his buoyant optimism and bipartisan goodwill — and those may prove out of step in these combative times.

During his six years in the House, O’Rourke joined the New Democrat caucus, which favors “pro-economic growth, pro-innovation and fiscally responsible policies” — the wing of the party that used to be known as Clinton Democrats.

But describing where the 46-year-old belongs on the Democratic spectrum now is an exercise in approximation.

He’s a liberal on social issues; he’s for abortion rights, legalizing marijuana and easier immigration. But he’s a centrist on economic issues; he was a relatively business-friendly member of Congress (especially on oil and gas; he’s from Texas).


He voted to reduce some financial regulations, and he steers well clear of the plutocrat-bashing rhetoric of candidates like Elizabeth Warren.

Instead of taking specific positions, O’Rourke has issued lists of “ideas” — proposals “we ought to be debating.”

These include granting immediate citizenship to “Dreamers,” immigrants who entered the country illegally as children. The mainstream Democratic position is to offer Dreamers “a path to citizenship,” not grant it automatically.

He also suggests expanding the Supreme Court to 15 seats, with five seats chosen by each major party and five chosen by the justices themselves, which would require rewriting the Constitution.

That’s “an idea we should explore,” O’Rourke said in Iowa. Some voters may find his invitation to a national conversation on notions such as rewiring the nation’s highest court beguiling. Others will find it annoying.

Like most politicians, O’Rourke has changed some of his views over time. In his 2012 race for Congress, he ran against a more liberal Democratic incumbent, and he was funded partly by local business leaders.


He suggested then that he would have voted against Obamacare, then only two years old and less popular. He mused about raising the Social Security retirement age to 69 to reduce the federal deficit. He seems to have abandoned both ideas.

Progressive voters — the ones who know they want “Medicare for all” and free college tuition — are likely to find O’Rourke wanting. He’s closer to being a young Joe Biden than a young Bernie Sanders.

When a reporter asked last week whether he considered himself a progressive, his answer was, “I don’t know…. I’m not big on labels.”

The bigger question is whether he’s prepared for the intense scrutiny a presidential candidate must handle.

In January, when a reporter asked how he would address the problem of foreign visitors who overstay their U.S. visas — which O’Rourke had said is more urgent than building a wall on the border — his answer was, again, “I don’t know.” (He eventually suggested improved tracking of visa holders.)

His biggest success last year was winning a national fan base and an impressive list of financial donors in his unsuccessful Senate race in Texas. But he was running against Cruz, a Republican Democrats love to hate.


Will his charisma still work if he’s running against Biden, Sanders, Warren, Kamala Harris and the rest of the Democratic field?

I don’t mean to sell O’Rourke too short. Optimism can be a winning theme in political campaigns; it worked for Ronald Reagan. It could be just the antidote voters seek to defuse the anger and fear that have dominated the Trump era.

O’Rourke can be eloquent off the cuff, as he was last year when he defended NFL players’ right to take a knee.

His goofy, freewheeling verbal style is fun to watch. He handles questions about whether Democrats want another white male candidate gracefully, acknowledging that it’s a reasonable concern.

And now that he’s in the race, he has begun to offer a bit more substance on his views. He told Iowa voters last week that he thinks global warming requires putting a price on carbon. He wants universal healthcare, but isn’t sure how to get there.

But he’s playing in a tougher league than he has before. He’ll face a lineup of equally ambitious (and, in most cases, more experienced) rivals in monthly debates that begin in June.


Part of the drama of the next six months will be seeing whether Beto O’Rourke can grow into the role of a presidential candidate — and whether he can take a punch.