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Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, in the first major media stop on his reset tour, sat down with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on Monday night. The problem he faces is the endless number of questions about process, wherein political reporters and hosts want to talk strategy and encourage the candidate to admit previous missteps.

The two consequences of that are:

  1. process-type headlines (Beto says he can do better!)

  2. the missed opportunity to talk substance, as he has promised to do.

In that vein, roughly two-thirds of the time during Monday's interview was spent on campaign tactics and insider talk.

Is there a good solution? Perhaps announce up front that he does not want to play pundit, then invite policy questions. That's not so easy with an interviewer determined to turn the candidate into a pundit, but it's worth a try.

When the conversation did turn to substance --wow, on foreign policy, no less--O'Rourke did several things quite well.

He seemed comfortable with the subject matter and showed evidence of real thought about these issues. I don't mean to damn with faint praise, but that is more than many of his opponents have done. O'Rourke avoided buzzwords and catch phrases such as "No foreign policy by tweet!" that tell us nothing of substance.

The former congressman forcefully and eloquently denounced President Donald Trump's habit of cozying up to and boosting authoritarians, then proceeded to name them, including in his list Hungary's Viktor Orban, over whom Trump slobbered in the Oval Office earlier on Monday. Even better, O'Rourke explained why ingratiating oneself with these characters is a bad idea (Trump's flattery of Kim Jong Un hasn't solved the North Korean nuclear threat).

Preferring dictators over democratically elected Western leaders, he said, weakens a key component of our strength, namely our alliances.

And most importantly, in the case of Russia, O'Rourke explained, Trump spares Russian President Vladimir Putin from the full consequences of his interference with our election. He noted that one of the president's first calls after release of the Mueller report was to Putin, with whom Trump shared his view that the whole thing was a "hoax."

O'Rourke observed that if this wasn't an invitation to interfere again, he didn't know what was. Bingo!

O'Rourke also smartly said that solving the asylum problem begins with helping the countries from which they flee to reduce violence. Trump wants to cut aid, he said. "I want to double it." That's exactly right.

He also made some base-pleasing but entirely appropriate comments about the need to work with our allies and others on problems that traverse borders, such as climate change. (He did manage to squeeze in a few points about his green-energy policy, and had so much time not been spent on Punditry 101, there might have been time for followups: How does he plan to pay for it? What about a carbon tax? What about workers displaced because of the shift to green energy? What about prior votes on offshore drilling?)

O'Rourke didn't pitch a perfect game. The platitudinal promise to end wars (How? What if terrorists recapture all of Afghanistan?) didn't convey any more sophistication than Trump, who said the same thing during the 2016 campaign, as did then-candidate Barack Obama, who said it of Iraq in 2008. That said, as one Democratic foreign policy guru told me some time ago, a Democrat in a presidential primary is going to have to say something about "ending wars."

O'Rourke's emphasis on diplomacy alone--as compared to using all the levers of U.S. power, or "muscular diplomacy backed up by economic and military strength"--sounded a bit naive. But perhaps I am the naive one: Voters say overwhelmingly they prefer "diplomacy" to "military action" (as though it is a binary choice).

These, however, are relatively minor quibbles. O'Rourke gets points for discussing foreign policy at all--and more for showing he's spent some time thinking about it.

Editorial on 05/15/2019

Print Headline: Beto O'Rourke's reset


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