Given his low and static polling, it’s hard to tell what, exactly, Beto O’Rourke hopes to accomplish by staying in the presidential race. But while his actual goal seems a bit elusive, he is increasingly playing a very specific role: the human straw man, the embodiment of every seemingly irrational conservative fear about what the left really wants.
Consider O’Rourke’s appearance at Thursday’s CNN town hall on LGBTQ issues, at which he told moderator Don Lemon that churches and other nonprofits should lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage, a position tantamount to declaring war on Catholic parishes and evangelical congregations across the country, not to mention any number of Orthodox Jewish and Muslim groups. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, or leaving out some important nuance, here was his full exchange:
Don Lemon: Do you think religious institutions like colleges, churches, charities—should they lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?
Beto O’Rourke: Yes. There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break, for anyone, any institution, any organization in America, that denies the full human rights, that denies the full civil rights, of everyone in America. So as president, we’re going to make that a priority. And we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.
And the video.
O’Rourke’s comments drew a warm round of applause in the friendly room, and riled conservatives, who have spent years worrying that Democrats might try to do such a thing. Vlogger Ben Shapiro, to take just one example, suggested that religious conservatives might be forced to move out of the country or “pick up a gun” if the candidate’s plan ever comes to pass. Some on the left were also critical: Atlantic writer Adam Serwer called the idea “plainly unconstitutional.”
This is not the first time O’Rourke—a politician, it should be noted, without a constituency: no district, almost no support in the polls—has promised to make conservatives’ worst nightmares come true. After adopting gun control as a marquee issue following the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, earlier this year, O’Rourke promised a mandatory gun buyback program for assault weapons, memorably telling a moderator, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” Not long after, Trump and Republicans blamed his comments for making it harder to get a gun control deal done in Congress. (Yes, that’s a bit rich coming from the GOP, but I’ll come back to that).
These are not the only far-left positions Beto has staked out recently. He’s strongly pro-reparations, for instance. But his comments about churches and guns are especially remarkable, in that he’s essentially adopting unpopular stances that Democratic politicians have spent years claiming are unfair caricatures of their actual beliefs. He is turning himself into a walking straw man, the non-fringe guy Republicans can reliably point to when they want to say, “See, the libs really do want to take your guns and shut down your churches.”
Religious conservatives have worried about the possibility that same-sex marriage could be used as an excuse to strip churches of their tax exemptions for several years now. The fear is rooted in a bit of history: In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that the IRS could revoke Bob Jones University’s nonprofit status over its opposition to interracial dating and marriage. During oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that legalized same-sex marriage nationally, Justice Samuel Alito grilled Donald Verrilli, solicitor general under President Barack Obama, about whether creating a constitutional right to gay marriage could similarly lead to conservative churches and religious colleges losing their tax-free statuses. Verrilli said he wasn’t sure, adding that “it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is going to be an issue.” This set off a wave of panic among religious conservative groups, which led Obama’s IRS commissioner to publicly announce that, no, the government would not try to nix anyone’s tax exemptions over positions on marriage.
Now, O’Rourke has thrown kerosene on the issue all over again, and for what? For many religious institutions, this is a legitimately existential issue—paying property taxes, business income taxes (assuming they do more than break even), and losing the ability to collect tax-deductible donations would be a massive financial blow. For LGBTQ rights activists, it would perhaps be a moral victory, but one that would also risk triggering an explosive culture war over faith that could transform gay marriage back into a deeply polarizing topic when it’s been trending in the other direction. Meanwhile, I’ve seen no evidence that O’Rourke’s position has much support among a wide swath of Democratic voters or leaders. Yet there is now video of a telegenic presidential candidate bringing form to religious conservatives’ worst fears, like some sort of tax-policy Babadook.
As for guns: It barely needs mentioning that the National Rifle Association’s entire fundraising and political strategy at this point consists of trying to convince its members that Democrats are coming to steal and melt down their rifles. The typical response from Democrats has been to say that, no, they just want some sensible regulations that will prevent needless deaths. As Hillary Clinton put it at the party’s national convention: “I’m not here to repeal the Second Amendment. I’m not here to take away your guns.” While this has not led to any political breakthroughs, it has been effective at shaping public opinion: Gun control measures like background checks and limits on assault rifles are extremely popular. Mandatory gun buybacks, on the other hand, are not.
Of course, the most ardent gun control opponents have always assumed that Democrats are lying about all this and are secretly plotting mass gun confiscation. Some point back to a 1995 video in which Sen. Dianne Feinstein said that, if she could have rounded up 51 votes to ban all assault rifles, she would have. (They also badly misconstrue that moment as her saying she wanted to ban all guns). But I humbly submit that having a fresh video of Beto O’Rourke saying “hell yeah” refreshes their message a bit.
The thing about all of this is that, politically, it is deeply unhelpful. I would personally argue that stripping churches of their tax-exempt status is a horrible idea on the merits for a long list of reasons it would take a whole second article to spell out. (Short version: Racial segregation has a unique and monstrous history in the U.S. that has required the government to take active measures to stamp out, à la Bob Jones, but generally speaking, the government absolutely should not be in the business of siding with one religious belief system over another, something that would create a troubling precedent a conservative administration might turn against other minorities, such as Muslims, one day.) I would, however, be perfectly comfortable with a mandatory buyback program. But neither is going to happen any time in the foreseeable future, and if anything, talking about them makes it harder to make actual progress on issues of gay rights and guns by activating conservatives’ fears about slippery slopes.
Do I think that O’Rourke’s comments about AR-15s single-handedly made a gun deal that much harder in Congress, as some GOP senators have claimed? No—and for what it’s worth, Trump has lately been using impeachment as a reason to avoid negotiations. But do I think his mouthing off took a bit of the heat off Republicans by giving them an excuse not to engage? That, by making himself a convenient figure on which Republicans can hang bad-faith attacks about Democrats’ intentions, he has hurt the causes he’s supposed to be fighting for? Yes, I do. That’s what straw men are good for, after all.
Update, Oct. 12, 2019, at 7:55 a.m.: The O’Rourke campaign’s rapid response director, Lauren Hitt, has sent me a statement attempting to clarify the candidate’s comments from Thursday: “There’s been a lot of confusion about Beto’s position on tax exempt status for religious institutions. In short, he would support revoking the tax exempt status for a religious institution that fired an employee or refused to hire someone b/c they were in a same-sex marriage. He would not, however, revoke tax-exempt status for a religious organization he simply disagree with.” This would still be a somewhat controversial position that would open up questions about the rights of churches. But if O’Rourke really was only talking about specific instances of employment discrimination, perhaps it would have been smart to say so onstage.