Want To Understand Beto O’Rourke? Look At Lloyd Bentsen, Not Bernie Sanders [Opinion]

The rise of U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke as a national political figure has resulted in the inevitable desire to understand how he fits into the increasingly segmented world of modern American politics. Breathless columns about the upcoming Senate race and analysis by experts — both in Texas and nationally — have tried to argue that O’Rourke is essentially selling a national Democratic message to a Texas audience. Depending on the writer’s perspective, that can be a good or bad thing. The Republican Party and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz have latched onto this same narrative, suggesting O’Rourke is “too liberal for Texas,” while also trying to understand how he has been able to appeal to traditionally conservative voters.

Here’s the simple answer: O’Rourke’s success stems from his ability to advance a broadly optimistic and unifying message while also targeting specific issues reflective of local communities. Bucking conventional wisdom, he has been explicitly conciliatory and bipartisan in how he deals with contentious issues. His now famous video describing his nuanced opinion of the NFL kneeling protests has become a viral sensation drawing applause from all sides.

Similarly, his cross-country car ride with a Republican colleague — U.S. Rep. Will Hurd — and calls for more bipartisanship are in sharp contrast to the current national Democratic or Republican message. The more contentious the issue, the more O’Rourke advocates for discussion. At a time when sharp contrasts are the political norm, O’Rourke is selling cooperation, moderation and compassion.

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One of his primary talking points has been his commitment to visit and campaign in every county in Texas. This approach in many ways serves as a metaphor for his larger approach. He campaigns as much on agriculture, free trade and veterans rights — issues with appeal in rural Texas — as he does on health care, criminal justice reform and immigration. His recognition of the diversity of the state — both demographically and ideologically — allows him to explicitly appeal to multiple audiences while staying consistent to a core message.

While he may look like the second coming of Bobby Kennedy to D.C. pundits, Texans can see that O’Rourke has more in common with the politics and approach of former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, who advocated for modernizing Texas through bipartisan cooperation during his time leading the Texas Senate.

Similarly, O’Rourke follows in the tradition of reform-minded Democrats like former Govs. Ann Richards and Mark White, who recognized the need to expand opportunities systematically when leading a conservative state.

Possibly the best comparison is the legendary U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. Like O’Rourke, who is from El Paso, Bentsen hailed from outside of the Austin, Houston or Dallas areas. He grew up as a Spanish-speaking rancher in the Rio Grande Valley who advocated for civil rights and free markets. While Bentsen’s politics in the modern era would seem far more conservative than O’Rourke’s, both candidates valued bipartisanship and cooperation.

O’Rourke is a strong believer in free trade and global markets, an economic message that pushes back against the anti-business rhetoric of some on the left and the protectionism of the right. His rejection of PAC money and embrace of term limits puts him at odds with the much of the power structure of both parties.

While many of his positions on the most debated topics of the day — better health care access, balanced immigration reform and improved gun safety — have been characterized as out of step with Texas, nonpartisan polling data indicates that they reflect the consensus opinions of most Texans. From an issue perspective, O’Rourke is squarely in the mainstream of Texas voters.

What has made O’Rourke’s brand of politics so effective is its sharp contrast with the binary politics currently in play and embodied by Cruz. Before the rise of Donald Trump, Cruz was generally regarded as one of the most polarizing politicians in America. He has been at times unfairly lampooned and ridiculed by colleagues and opponents for his lack of “likability.” What Cruz lacks in charm, however, he makes up in conviction and commitment to conservative politics, and midterm elections have been historically been won by the most committed voters.

The contrast between O’Rourke and Cruz is as sharp as any in 2018 elections. Based upon current polling, O’Rourke’s conciliatory approach to politics has resonated with enough voters to make the race for U.S. Senate competitive for the first time in decades. Whether it will lead to victory in an increasingly hyper-partisan electorate is a question that could be as significant as the 2016 presidential election.

Aiyer is an assistant professor of political science and public administration in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. He is co-host of the weekly podcast “Party Politics,” on Houston Public Media.

Source : https://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/outlook/article/Want-to-understand-Beto-O-Rourke-Look-at-Lloyd-13221876.php

Want to understand Beto O’Rourke? Look at Lloyd Bentsen, not Bernie Sanders [Opinion]
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