Beto O’Rourke entered the presidential race Thursday with dire warnings about the political moment America faces and a sweeping call to action — to combat climate change, income inequality, a lack of affordable health care and more.
But he only started to answer the biggest question of all: How, exactly, would he address any of those challenges?
The former Texas congressman, who emerged as a Democratic superstar during his failed bid to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz last year, kicked off his presidential campaign Thursday with a video that didn’t detail any policy specifics or offers glimpses of his overarching ideology. His website didn’t contain any policy proposals — though it did have a store with Beto O’Rourke T-shirts, hats, tote bags and signs.
But as the day wore on, O’Rourke, campaigning in eastern Iowa, began laying out his policy beliefs in response to questions from his audiences. On climate change, he praised the plan embraced by the most progressive members of the party. But on health care, he took a more measured approach.
The most in-depth explanation of his policy priorities came on health care. He said he supports a vast expansion of Medicare — but drew the line at eliminating the private insurance market altogether, positioning himself to the right of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and several other contenders who are advocating a single-payer “Medicare-for-all.”
He pointed to legislation by Reps. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut as “one of those that I like a lot.” Their bill, he said, “ensures that those who have employer-based insurance and like it can keep it, and those who do not and would love to enroll in Medicare, regardless of their age or position or status or otherwise, are able to do so.”
Called “Medicare for America,” the measure would broaden the services covered by the current Medicare plan and funnel those currently enrolled in Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Obamacare’s insurance markets into Medicare. It would also automatically enroll uninsured Americans and allow those who receive health insurance from their employers to choose between keeping that insurance and joining Medicare.
“Let’s not wait for the perfect. Let’s try to do everything we can to get there while we have the opportunity,” O’Rourke said.
The comment came after O’Rourke, in an interview with Radio Iowa, carefully avoided endorsing “Medicare-for-all” proposals that would replace the private insurance market with government-funded coverage.
“I’m convinced we’ll have to work from as much common ground as possible,” he said. “No one person — perhaps no one party — can force the decision on this. This has to be something America comes together on.”
O’Rourke also called several times Thursday for the federal government to lift its prohibition on marijuana — which, he told one mostly white crowd in rural southeastern Iowa, has led to high incarceration rates, and those in prison “don’t look like people in this room. They are browner and blacker.”
He called for more federal funding for public education, including universal prekindergarten.
He connected the struggle some American families face paying for education to this week’s scandal in which dozens of wealthy people were charged in an alleged conspiracy to get their children into top colleges.
“This is symptomatic of an economy that really does not work for everyone,” he said.
He said he supports a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
And he called for universal background checks for gun purchases, saying he would sell the idea to those who are protective of Second Amendment rights by highlighting a reduction in gun violence against law enforcement officers in states that already mandate those checks.
Aides declined to say who is advising O’Rourke on policy. But one said O’Rourke plans to delve deeper into his priorities and vision in his campaign kickoff speech on March 30 in El Paso, Texas.
In his stump speech, O’Rourke called climate change the most pressing issue of all — one that threatens to exacerbate the issue of displaced refugees arriving at the US-Mexico border, which he said he doesn’t currently consider a problem.
He praised the Green New Deal, a far-reaching set of proposals introduced by progressives led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
“Some will criticize the Green New Deal for being too bold,” O’Rourke told a crowd in Keokuk. But, he said, “I haven’t seen anything better that addresses this singular crisis we face — a crisis that could, at its worst, lead to extinction.”
Later, in Burlington, he compared those who have pushed major climate proposals to “those who were on the beaches in Normandy.” But he did not offer a series of his own policy ideas to address climate change.