As other underdog White House hopefuls used their opening statements at the second Democratic debates on Tuesday to immediately hit at front-runners Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, former El Paso Rep. Beto O’Rourke did not follow suit.
He instead reflected on a “moment of truth.”
“This moment will define us forever,” he said at the first of two back-to-back CNN debates in Detroit. “In this test, America will be redeemed. In the face of cruelty and fear from a lawless president, we will choose to be the nation that stands up for the human rights of everyone.”
The decision set the tone for O’Rourke’s evening.
Needing a break-out debate performance, the Texan largely stuck to his talking points and mostly avoided the biting exchanges that often broke out between the party’s progressive leaders and its more moderate voices.
One side effect of that approach is that O’Rourke didn’t get quite the same airtime, particularly in the event’s first hour, as some of the other Democrats hoping to take on Republican President Donald Trump. Here’s a look at how O’Rourke made use of his opportunities:
O’Rourke gets a re-do explaining border views
O’Rourke came ready to defend his view that illegal border crossings should not be decriminalized.
After struggling to explain his position in the first debate — as fellow Texan Julián Castro accused him of not doing his homework — the El Pasoan jumped right into an answer that outlined all the other things he would do on immigration if he’s elected president.
Waive citizenship fees for green card holders. Free “Dreamers from any fear of deportation.” Stop criminally prosecuting families and children for seeking asylum. End for-profit detention centers in the U.S. Assist the Central American countries at the center of the migration crisis.
“Then I expect that people who come here follow our laws,” O’Rourke said. “And we reserve the right to criminally prosecute them if they do not.”
But Warren was quick to counter that the existing criminal statute on illegal border crossings “has given Donald Trump the tool to break families apart.” And the debate then stayed focused on the immigration views of Warren and other candidates.
O’Rourke didn’t get another chance to discuss one of his signature policy issues.
O’Rourke accuses rivals of pushing ‘false choice’
O’Rourke did punch at his rivals at one point, albeit reluctantly.
On the topic of health care, he said Democratic voters were being “offered a false choice.” He said some of the candidates only want to make marginal improvements, while others want a “Medicare for All” program that “will force people off of private insurance.”
The Texan pitched his own idea, which would enroll the uninsured and the under-insured in Medicare, while allowing others to keep their employer-sponsored insurance.
“I have a better path,” he said.
CNN moderator Jake Tapper looped back around, pressing O’Rourke to name those who were offering a “false choice.” The ex-congressman responded by singling out Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on one end and Sanders and Warren, though not by name, on the other.
Bullock pushed back, saying that it took “decades of false starts to get the Affordable Care Act” and that the best approach was to create a “public option allowing anyone to buy in.”
O’Rourke wasn’t having it. He said that every estimate he’s seen of expanding the Affordable Care Act, even through a public option, “leaves millions of people uninsured and also means people are not guaranteed the health care they need.”
O’Rourke hits some of his classic riffs
The Texan worked in some of his well-honed lines later in the debate.
He lamented how money in politics “buys influence, access and, increasingly, outcomes.” He said that he would “ban political action committee contributions to any member of Congress or to candidates for federal office,” adding that he will “listen to people, not PACs.”
He ripped Trump’s tariffs as a “huge mistake,” bemoaning them as a massive tax increase on American consumers and a major hardship for farmers in Iowa and across the U.S.
Notably, O’Rourke also recalled his near-upset last year of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — an effort that marked the most successful statewide campaign by a Democrat in the Lone Star State in decades. He said that bid showed a pathway forward in 2020.
“There’s a new battleground state, Texas,” he said. “And it has 38 Electoral College votes.”