Beto O’Rourke, 2020 underdog, had the debate performance he wanted Thursday night. For the past six months, the candidate has languished in the polls as he has struggled to find an identity for his campaign beyond “youngish, hippish guy who lost to Ted Cruz.” But he seemingly found new motivation last month after a horrific mass shooting took place in his own hometown of El Paso. Picking up the mantle abdicated by Rep. Eric Swalwell, who dropped out of the 2020 race in July, Beto is refashioning himself as a mad-as-hell, take-no-prisoners, advocate of hardcore gun control, and on Thursday he hit the topic hard: making a fiery, unapologetic pledge to get high-powered rifles out of the hands of the American public.
“In Odessa I met the mother of a 15-year-old girl who was shot by an AR-15,” O’Rourke said, “and that mother watched her bleed to death over the course of an hour, because so many other people were shot by that AR-15 in Odessa and Midland there weren’t enough ambulances to get to them in time.”
“Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We are not going to allow it to be used against fellow Americans anymore.”
In a night mostly full of rehashed stump material and rote denunciations of Donald Trump, it was a striking moment: the only truly bold and novel policy moment of the debate. O’Rourke acquitted himself well in that moment—his anger felt righteous, his passion real. He provoked an instant stir on social media, enabling him to pick an adversary against whom to stake his position—a state GOP lawmaker who tweeted that “My AR is ready for you Robert Francis.” If any debate moment can breathe new life into his campaign, this was it.
He better hope it does. Because if this president thing doesn’t work out, Beto may have just burned his last bridge to a political future in Texas.
One of the great mysteries of the 2020 primary has been why a number of Democrats who, popular in their own states but somewhat unknown nationally, opted to throw their hats in the presidential ring rather than run for important statewide offices. This has become a source of some anxiety on the left, with many observers fretting that candidates’ eagerness to land the greatest of political prizes—to be the hero who unseats history’s worst Republican villain—runs the risk of hurting the Democratic party nationwide, as the task of winning critical elections for governorships or the Senate falls to less connected, charismatic, and/or well-funded contenders.
And no candidate has been more frequently subjected to such scrutiny than Beto O’Rourke, who became an unexpected but undeniable political rock star during his unsuccessful 2018 Senate challenge against Ted Cruz—a character only marginally less reviled than the president in the left’s gallery of foes. Recapturing the Lone Star State from the GOP, which has maintained a stranglehold there for decades, is one of the Democratic party’s most desperate hopes, and with the state’s other senator, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, up for reelection in 2020, many have wished that O’Rourke would leave Trump to one of the other dozen contenders running and focus his energies at home.
And yet O’Rourke has gone far, far out of his way to foreclose that possibility. Plenty of candidates go back on their promises to run or not to run for this or that particular office. But Beto’s pledge last month was about as unequivocal as you can get: “I will not in any scenario run for the United States Senate,” he told MSNBC’S Lawrence O’Donnell last month. “I’m running for president. I’m running for this country. I’m taking the fight directly to Donald Trump, and that is what I am exclusively focused on doing right now.” And rather than stick to the gauzy aisle-crossing Obamaesque image that almost carried him the day against Cruz in 2016, O’Rourke has held step with the field’s sprint to the left on most issues, from late-term abortion to the Green New Deal.
But nowhere is this bridge-burning more apparent than with Beto’s new signature issue of gun control. Second-amendment enthusiasts’ anxieties notwithstanding, in recent years the Democratic party has been content to nibble around the policy edges of what they see as the problem of a nation awash in guns: attempts to expand background checks for purchases, restrict gun ownership for specific populations who allegedly present a higher risk for gun violence, or ban certain accessories like bump stocks or high-capacity mags. For most Democrats, the most radical proposal worth championing has been a renewal of the 1994 federal assault weapons ban—a law which would prohibit the manufacture of some new rifles, but would do nothing about the millions of “AR-style” (perish the term!) rifles already in circulation.
Beto has now shot past all that—and as of Thursday night, he has also apparently dropped “gun buybacks,” the more euphemistic phraseology his campaign had previously employed. Compare the soothing, roundabout style of this:
“We’re coming for your AR, buddy”—it’s hard to imagine Beto landing on a more confrontational stance than that if he were plumbing the fever dreams of the NRA to do it.
Incredibly, this was only O’Rourke’s second extreme gun policy reveal of the day. Hours before, the candidate publicly called for credit card companies to “cut off the sales of weapons of war” by refusing to authorize customer purchases of so-called assault weapons or guns and ammo from companies that produce assault weapons.
What is to be made of all this? Why has Beto opted to pursue the single campaign strategy that seems most likely to hamstring his own political future within his state—and thus perhaps do the most damage to his own party?
The idealist answer is that O’Rourke simply doesn’t care about all these fussy political machinations and triangulations—that he’s simply following what he believes to be right, and letting the chips fall where they may. It’s a possibility, but one that’s hard to reconcile with his refusal to consider challenging Cornyn: If achieving a more stringent gun policy were truly more important to Beto than becoming president, wouldn’t he be doing his part to make sure Democrats get the necessary legislative seats to pass those policies—because Democrats have to defeat Mitch McConnell in addition to Donald Trump if they want to pass their dream agenda.
Then there’s the more cynical answer: That Team Beto has simply decided that making moves that appear to work dramatically against their own private political interest is itself the foundation of a useful political brand. Plenty of O’Rourke’s recent decisions might lead one to suspect this is the case: Not just the gun policy swerve, but also recent changes such as his new habit of deploying ostentatious profanity in his TV appearances. Here’s a guy who’s too fed up to care about the regular, stuffy rules, Beto’s new stance seems to say. And isn’t that the kind of guy who’d make a good president?
Whatever the strategy, it’s a risky one. Within days, we’ll know whether Beto’s go-for-broke approach has made a splash with his numbers—launching him out of the one-percent doldrums alongside Amy Klobuchar, Tulsi Gabbard, and Julián Castro and into real contender status. If that spike doesn’t show up, it might be time to declare Betomania over for good.