Beto O’Rourke explains his policy reversals

Beto O’Rourke says he was wrong — a lot.

Voting for a bill that would make it more likely for those who kill police officers to face the death penalty? “A poor decision on my part.” Means-testing entitlement programs like Social Security? “I’ve become a lot smarter.” A single-payer “Medicare for All” plan? No longer the “fastest and surest way” to get universal coverage, the former Texas congressman says.

In the early days of his presidential campaign, the 2020 Democratic presidential contender has been quick to abandon several of his previous policy stances. And, in some cases, O’Rourke has offered explanations of why he changed his mind.

“Listening to people, seeing things from a different perspective, owning when you’ve made a mistake” is “part of who I am,” O’Rourke told CNN recently when asked about his reversals.

It’s also what he wants from other candidates and elected officials.

“I just want to know who they are, what they really think — including when they’re saying that they’ve made a mistake,” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke is betting that voters will interpret his reversals as refreshing honesty. But the risk he faces is that Democrats will see him as a political cipher in a field with candidates like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is offering a detailed economic policy platform, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has held many of the same progressive positions for decades.

Recent presidential campaigns have shown the political downsides of both admitting error and changing positions, and of sticking by those positions for fear of appearing weak. In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry was cast as a “flip-flopper” on the war in Iraq. In 2008, Hillary Clinton came under attack for her vote to go to war in Iraq, and while she said she would have voted differently “knowing what we know now,” she wouldn’t call it a mistake — and later lost the nomination to then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who ran on his opposition to the war from the outset (though Obama never had to vote on the issue). During her second presidential run, Clinton made sure to emphasize her apology.

“I made it very clear that I made a mistake, plain and simple,” she said in 2015.

For O’Rourke, a willingness to admit error — and explain why he changed his mind — is part of his brand. Last year in Texas, he built his national image campaigning without hiring pollsters who could have told him how specific issues or positions would be received by the electorate. Though there is stagecraft to his approach — O’Rourke’s events have all been packed because he only booked smaller venues, for example — the former bass player in a punk rock band says he wants voters to see him as a politician stripped down, ready to go anywhere and talk about anything.

“All I can tell you is, I am who I am,” he said. “I try to be very honest and transparent about that. I do my best to listen to the people I want to serve — otherwise, in my opinion, there’s no reason to campaign, show up, because you have nothing to learn.”

“I have a ton to learn. And I also want to be real clear when I’ve made a mistake or when I can do something better,” O’Rourke said. “Again, I think that’s the only way to improve and to be able to not just prevail in a campaign, but to build the consensus or the movement or the coalition around getting something done.”

But his approach still has its critics.

“This is an election of big ideas, and so far all he’s made are apologies,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, a Democratic strategist who has been a vocal critic of O’Rourke’s approach to the presidential campaign.

“If I was working on his campaign, I would be pretty worried that that so early on, all he’s been talking about is the positions he needs to reverse himself on as opposed to his ideas for America,” she said. “All he’s been doing is apologizing or flip-flopping.”

‘I do regret that vote’

O’Rourke spent the first days of his presidential campaign traveling through each of the first four states to vote in the presidential nominating process — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — as well as the upper Midwest.

Though he has laid out some clear priorities — granting citizenship to “Dreamers,” expanding Medicare and legalizing marijuana while expunging marijuana possession-related convictions among them — he didn’t enter the race with the kinds of detailed policy plans some Democrats have brought with them into the 2020 contest.

Instead, at every event, he has taken questions from the audience, telling crowds he wanted to learn from them and turn their experiences into his platform.

That blank slate approach has prompted opponents, activists and journalists to examine O’Rourke’s previous comments and votes. And, in several cases, he has been quick to say those positions were wrong.

In May 2017, he backed the Thin Blue Line Act that made it more likely those who are convicted of killing police officers would face the death penalty. The legislation passed the House, but was never taken up by the Senate.

Last week, O’Rourke was asked by a reporter in Orangeburg, South Carolina, if he regretted his vote.

“I do regret the vote,” he said. “That was a poor decision on my part. I’ve never supported the death penalty. I think that attacking, killing a police officer should be an aggravating factor. But I don’t think it should contribute to taking somebody else’s life. And so that was — that was a mistake on my part. And if I could have that vote again, I would not vote for it.”

Days earlier, in Conway, New Hampshire, O’Rourke was pressed about his support during his 2012 bid for Congress for means-testing entitlement programs — meaning wealthier recipients of Social Security, for example, would receive less.

“You asked the question, has my mind changed on that? Absolutely,” he said. “I think I’ve become a lot smarter from listening to people that I represented in Congress and to others that understand this issue better than I do.”

He said he now supports lifting the cap on taxable income for Social Security. Currently, individuals only pay Social Security taxes on the first $132,900 they earn. O’Rourke said instead of means-testing, he would tax money earned above that limit.

He pointed to his co-sponsorship of a bill to do just that while in the House, and said it would “ensure the viability of that program well into the next century” without “in any way compromising the obligation that we have to our fellow working Americans who paid into that program every single day of their lives.” (That bill never went anywhere while O’Rourke was in the House and has since been reintroduced in the current Congress.)

In his bid to defeat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz last year, O’Rourke backed a “Medicare for All” single-payer health insurance program. Now that he is running for president, he has told crowds he is no longer sure supporting such a program is the fastest way to accomplish his goal of universal coverage.

Instead, he has said, he now backs “Medicare for America” — a measure proposed by Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro. It would maintain private health insurance for those whose employers provide it, but shift all other Americans into Medicare.

He has also shifted his position on impeaching President Donald Trump. During his Senate run, O’Rourke said he would vote to impeach Trump. “There is enough there to proceed to a trial,” he said in an October CNN town hall.

Now, O’Rourke is deflecting the question, saying it is up to Congress, where he is no longer a member, and that the best course of action for Democrats is to defeat Trump in 2020.

‘I have to look long and hard at my actions’

Along with the reversals on previous policy positions have come apologies for his personal conduct.

On the second night of his campaign, O’Rourke apologized twice within minutes while recording a podcast in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

He said he had been wrong for joking at several events in his first two days campaigning in Iowa that his wife has been raising their three children “sometimes with my help.” He said the joke was “ham-handed” and that he should have acknowledged his privilege. O’Rourke also later told reporters he had called his wife, Amy, who had told him his joke had sounded “flip” and that he should take the matter seriously.

“Not only will I not say that again, but I’ll be more thoughtful going forward in the way that I talk about our marriage,” he said.

He also apologized for his writings as a teenager when he was a member of a group of activist hackers. Those writings, which came under the pseudonym “Psychedelic Warlord” and included a piece of fiction from a killer’s point of view, were revealed in a Reuters report.

He said he was “mortified to read it now, incredibly embarrassed … whatever my intention was as a teenager doesn’t matter.”

“I have to look long and hard at my actions, at the language I have used, and I have to constantly try to do better,” he said.

O’Rourke has changed his approach on smaller matters, too — including his language. He was a prolific thrower of F-bombs, as politicians go, during his Senate campaign. But that language has largely been missing since he launched his presidential campaign. In Madison, Wisconsin, a voter asked him to stop using the F-word while campaigning — and O’Rourke agreed.

“I don’t intend to use that word going forward,” he said.