Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke campaigned during his 2012 congressional race on a platform that called for “significant” spending cuts and tax increases to balance the federal budget, along with possibly changing Social Security to address the United States’ “extravagant government” and “out of control” debt.
A CNN KFile review of interviews, debates, newspaper articles and ads from O’Rourke’s 2012 race reveals more about his past views and beliefs as he seeks the Democratic nomination in 2020.
O’Rourke at the time endorsed cuts to defense and domestic spending in the middle and long term, along with seriously considering changes to Social Security and tax laws that would do away with some tax breaks. Those past positions are at odds with the current and more progressive liberal base of the party that has largely embraced increased government programs like cost-free college and “Medicare for All.”
The deficit and national debt are no longer major parts of O’Rourke’s political message, and though sometimes light on specifics, he’s signaled support for the Green New Deal and, at times, universal health care coverage – two proposals that would require increased government spending.
The deficit and debt became a lightning rod in the race in which O’Rourke, who had just left the El Paso city council, unseated eight-term incumbent Rep. Silvestre Reyes in the Democratic primary for Texas’s 16th district. Republicans, who controlled the House of Representatives at the time in the summer of 2011, had demanded a deficit reduction plan from then-President Barack Obama in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.
Chris Evans, O’Rourke’s campaign spokesman, said O’Rourke opposed efforts in Congress to increase the retirement age.
“On Social Security, Beto was acknowledging that it’s very possible Congress would look at that debate around raising the age in the future. He does not say he supports it or recommends it. Beto was interested in looking at possible ideas for ensuring the solvency of Social Security for future generations,” Evans told CNN in an email . “He ultimately found a solution that he endorsed and co-sponsored called the Social Security 2100 Act, which extends the solvency of the program without raising the retirement age. While Beto has not taken any action to raise the retirement age, he has opposed efforts to raise the retirement age and voted against measures to privatize Social Security.”
During the 2012 race, O’Rourke attacked Reyes for his failure to vote for the Budget Reform Act of 2011, which created a super committee to develop a deficit reduction plan.
Reyes voted against the bill, saying in a mailer it “put everything on the chopping block – veterans’ benefits, Social Security benefits, Medicare, Head Start, financial aid.”
Reyes subsequently ran ads criticizing O’Rourke, saying he wanted to cut Social Security.
A 2012 campaign fiscal fight
O’Rourke attacked Reyes on the issue during public debates, like one in November 2011, during which he lambasted Reyes for not getting specific on what areas he would cut.
“This is precisely why people are so frustrated with Congress right now and why it has the lowest approval rating in US history,” O’Rourke said. “The question was, ‘We have an out of control debt, where would you cut?’ I don’t know if anyone heard an answer. We heard about voting against Iraq, we heard about bringing Nancy Pelosi here to El Paso. I want to know where our congressman would cut.”
“Those are the kinds of tough decisions that we send him, and our next congressman up to Washington, D.C., to make,” he added. “Those are the kinds of tough decisions that I made as city council representative, who was part of passing a balanced budget every single year. That means that we had to look at where the revenues were coming in from. That means we had to look at what programs we were going to cut and what programs we’re going to keep.”
O’Rourke raised cutting military spending and bringing troops home from Afghanistan, but also singled out Social Security as an area for reform, specifically citing means-testing and extending the retirement age.
“Social Security, the people who paid into social security and who are earning their checks back from investment in social security, that needs to be protected. That’s inviolable. But going forward for future generations, for my kids’ generation, five, three, and one year old. Right now, we need to look at things like means testing,” O’Rourke said.
He continued, “We need to look at perhaps a longer a later age at which my kids are going to retire. That’s a tough decision. It’s not easy to say it’s going to be politicized by my opponent, but those are the tough things that you’re going to want me to weigh in on when I’m in Washington, DC.”
Speaking at a March 2012 primary debate, O’Rourke said the US didn’t have a choice but to cut spending to avoid ruin.
“There are certainly places in the federal budget where we have to look at reorganizing, where we have to look at cutting,” he said. “And we really don’t have a choice. You have a $16 trillion debt. We’re running $1 trillion annual deficits and we cannot continue to spend ourselves into ruin. We need to elect people who are gonna go up there and make some tough choices.”
On his campaign issues page, O’Rourke announced his support for term limits – saying it would make members of Congress less beholden to special interests and allow for more ambitious policies like reducing the national debt and balancing the budget.
“Whether it is saving Social Security, balancing the federal budget, reducing the national debt or reforming tax policy so that everyone pays their fair share, we need our federal representatives to make tough, principled decisions for our country’s future,” his page read.
In an interview available on YouTube from October 2011, O’Rourke said, though short-term spending was needed to help the economy, in the long-term cuts were important for fiscal sustainability, calling the US government extravagant.
“Are cuts important over the long term?” O’Rourke said. “Absolutely. You have kids, I have kids, as we have, uh, as our kids have kids, um, their ability and options and opportunities in life are going to be significantly curtailed if we don’t get our national debt under control because every dollar they pay in, in taxes is going to go right out to China or to someone else who’s financing our extravagant government.”
One plan worth looking at, O’Rourke said, called for means-testing for Medicare recipients, tax reform to increase revenue, and cuts to domestic and defense spending. The plan was commonly referred to as “Simpson-Bowles,” named after former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, who co-chaired a commission established by Obama in 2010. The bipartisan commission made a number of recommendations on reducing the deficit, sparking criticism from the left about proposed cuts to entitlement programs and from the right about proposed tax increases.
“Long term and middle term, you have to have a plan to address that debt but that’s a plan that extends from —- to 2035, 55 and 75,” he said. “We look at the Simpson-Bowles Commission that is comprehensively taking a look at all of these issues and offering up some tough choices that Congress at some point is going to have to make or we can continue to look the other way and just say, you know what? It sucks, but I’m going to let my kids pick up the mess. I’m not willing to do that.”
Reyes countered with an ad with seniors, saying O’Rourke would make cuts to Social Security benefits.
O’Rourke put his own video on his campaign YouTube page, where he said preserving Social Security required future generations “retiring at a later age, paying a greater percentage of their income into Social Security and making other necessary adjustments to make sure that that program is around for all those that work and contribute to the benefit of this country.”
In a May 2012 questionnaire, first reported by the Wall Street Journal last week, O’Rourke countered that Reyes preferred to ignore the issue.
“Congressman Reyes represents those in Congress who would rather stick their heads in the sand than solve the difficult problems in front of us,” O’Rourke said. “If we don’t fix it, it will go broke in 20 years, and that means my generation and those that follow will work their entire lives and pay into that fund and not get paid back what they are owned.”
O’Rourke didn’t abandon his rhetoric after beating Reyes in the May primary with just more than 50% of the vote and avoiding a runoff.
Speaking with the El Paso Times in October 2012, O’Rourke said addressing the national debt would require “painful medicine” that included “significant” increases to taxes and spending.
“It will require significant cuts and tax increases,” O’Rourke said. “And I’d be looking at every single exception in the tax code. It doesn’t do any good to trick someone. You have to be true to your word. If you aren’t that way, they’ll remember you. It’s better to be honest and direct.”
O’Rourke went on to defeat his Republican opponent that November, winning with 65% of the vote to start the first of his three terms in the House before running for US Senate in 2018.