It’s hard to quantify the damage Beto O’Rourke has done to the Democratic Party these last few months by championing a call for “mandatory gun buybacks”—a euphemism for confiscation.
As the Democratic debate Tuesday night, Pete Buttigieg made the point that we shouldn’t sacrifice the chance to pass universal background checks or red-flag laws, just because they don’t rise to the standard of Beto’s “purity tests.”
O’Rourke, well, fired back, suggesting that Buttigieg’s more moderate proposals were based on polls and focus groups, to which Buttigieg, who is a military veteran and who is openly gay, responded: “I don’t need lessons from you on courage—political or personal.”
Beto’s position may be idealistic, but it is also constitutionally dubious, practically impossible, and politically suicidal. It may benefit him personally, but it’s damaging to a political party that has to win states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan to claim the electoral college. What is more, it only confirms the narrative that the Democrats-want-to-take-your-guns—a perception that Democrats have spent decades trying to dispel. Long after O’Rourke’s campaign is finished, his call to confiscate “assault weapons” will live on in Republican ads, in plain violation of my colleague Tomasky’s Commandment: ”Thou shalt not attack a fellow Democrat in a way that can be recycled as a trash right-wing talking point in the general election.”
A thought: Everyone assumes the debate is breaking down between centrist and progressives, but that’s not actually true. Or, at least, it’s simplistic. It’s convenient to use the moderate versus liberal paradigm as shorthand, but in many ways, the schism is between incrementalists versus the idealists.
The problem with being an incrementalist is that it is inherently wishy-washy. There is a hunger for a fighter. A passionate and bold politician can almost always outbid a pragmatic one, which often means they can outperform them. This, I think, helps explain why candidates like Amy Klobuchar hadn’t hit their stride until Monday night—and why Pete Buttigieg started this campaign trying hard to sound more like a progressive, when, in fact, he is temperamentally moderate.
What made Monday night’s debate different was that, for the first time, the incrementalists had some passion and confidence. At various junctures this year, we’ve seen candidates make the case for incremental changes, but these ideas were usually shot down by Warren’s mockery and insistence that they weren’t bold enough.
Tonight, the incrementalists came prepared. It didn’t hurt that they had the substance, too. Elizabeth Warren—whose superpower is feigning confidence, even as she dodges questions—doesn’t have a solid reason why mandatory Medicare for All is preferable to Buttigieg’s public option. Likewise, Beto O’Rourke doesn’t really have a plausible argument for advancing what can only be described as a quixotic and counterproductive plan to confiscate “assault weapons.”
Interestingly, it was Julian Castro who probably drove the final nail in Beto’s “mandatory buyback” coffin. Citing Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old black woman who was recently shot and killed by police in her Texas home, Castro suggested that it might not be such a great idea to have police going around door-to-door trying to confiscate guns.
O’Rourke might have thought he had the moral high ground on this issue, but in the the hierarchy of progressive identity politics, he was bested by a gay military veteran (hitting him from the pragmatic center) and a Hispanic Democrat who was channeling the pain of African-Americans abused by the police (hitting him from the civil libertarian left).
It was a fitting night for a candidate who has been firing blanks ever since he started running for president.