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Beto O’Rourke says Trump administration is gunning for war with Iran

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke on Thursday equated support for former Vice President Joe Biden — who leads the field in current polling — with a vote for a bygone era, rather than bold leadership on issues like climate change and immigration.

“I understand the nostalgia around the vice president’s candidacy,” O’Rourke told PBS NewsHourmanaging editor and anchor Judy Woodruff in an interview. “We’ve got to look boldly to the future of this country.” He added, “half steps, half measures or only half the country will not get the job done.”

In his losing bid to unseat Texas Sen. Ted Cruz last November, the former Texas congressman pledged to run a positive campaign. This time, O’Rourke acknowledges the path to victory is much harder, with over 20 candidates vying for the Democratic Party nomination, including the former vice president, who has amassed a significant lead. To win, O’Rourke said, “We’ll have to go far beyond anything that I’ve been a part of before.”

O’Rourke dismissed the notion that his White House run has so far failed to capture the public interest that propelled his Senate campaign. “[At] the outset of any race that I’ve run, no poll would have predicted our performance,” he said.

The Texas Democrat is known for his “eyeball to eyeball” campaigning style and commitment to taking questions at every public event, a strategy he’s counting on to eventually convince voters that he’s the right contender to take on President Donald Trump. “I think that we will win this nomination one community, one voter, one caucus goer at a time,” O’Rourke said.

Other highlights from the interview

  • On Iran: O’Rourke accused the Trump administration of” gunning for war in Iran.” Hours earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shared an U.S. intelligence assessment that blamed Iran for a second tanker strike in the Gulf of Oman. O’Rourke suggested that American conflicts with Iran can and should be resolved peacefully and diplomatically with help from allies. “I want to make sure that we rejoin our partners, our friends and alliances that this president has turned his back on so that we can achieve our foreign policy goals in the Middle East, with Iran and throughout the rest of the world,” he said.
  • On climate change: O’Rourke unveiled new details of his $5-trillion plan to reach a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions standard by 2050, admitting that getting there may require implementing a carbon tax. “We might have to do that,” he said, “in order for us to meet those absolute caps on emissions..”

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Could Texas turn blue? It seemed a far-fetched question, until Democrat Beto O'Rourke took on Republican Ted Cruz in last year's hotly contested Senate race. O'Rourke lost, but, even in defeat, he was propelled onto the national stage, and now a run for the White House.

    The former three-term congressman joins me now.

    Beto O'Rourke, welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    Thank you for having me on. I'm grateful.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, out of the 23 Democrats seeking the nomination, why should voters choose you?

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    You talked about Texas in your introduction.

    I was extraordinarily lucky enough to be part of one of the greatest movements we have seen in that state. A state that had ranked 50th in voter turnout came out in record numbers, not just Democrats led by young people, who turned out another a rate of 500 percent over what they had in the last midterm, but independents and Republicans as well.

    I won more votes than any Democrat had in the history of our state. And we ensured that the 38 Electoral College votes that have not been won by a Democrat since 1976, when Jimmy Carter did, were now unlocked for this country.

    That way of helping to lead a grassroots movement, no PACs, all people, is the way in which we're going to defeat Donald Trump in 2020, and the way by which we will bring this deeply divided country together around our common challenges of climate and of the economy, of ensuring that everyone has health care and is well enough to live to their full potential.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You — I think a lot of people looked at that race and said, Beto O'Rourke, he has got some kind of magic. They looked at how you challenged. You came close, closer than anyone expected.

    This race, though, has been tougher for you. You so far haven't broken into what they're calling the top tier.

    Is that magic gone?

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    I will tell you, at the outset of the Senate race, or, for that matter, the outset of any race that I have run, no poll would have predicted our performance.

    If you look at any presidential poll of June the year before the election takes place, that has rarely, if ever, predicted the final outcome.

    So, if we wait for polls to give us permission to do the right thing, we might not ever act. I think that we will win this nomination one community, one voter, one caucus-goer at a time. And so I'm showing up to listen to people about the things that are most important to them, to build those commitments and that movement, not just to secure the nomination and to defeat Trump, but to make sure that we're up to the greatest challenges that we have ever faced in this country.

    So, either as a candidate, or as president, I won't allow polls to dictate doing what is right for this country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But there were stories that were almost a year before the Texas race that were saying, you know, you could win that one.

    This year, it's tougher, isn't it? I mean, can you recreate what you were able to do? What's different? Why…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    I think we will have to go far beyond anything that I have been a part of before, and we will have to do so in the midst of an extraordinary field of candidates.

    As long as we show up everywhere, include everyone, then we cannot only win these elections, but we can form the movement and the consensus to get the job done once in office.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Front-runner in the polls — you said, we don't look at polls, but, right now, the front-runner is Joe Biden. You have said he represents the past, that there were problems during the Obama administration.

    Other than the deportations, which we know you didn't like, what were the problems with the Obama administration?

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    Let me begin by what I'm grateful for, which is the service of President Obama, the greatest president of my lifetime in what he was able to accomplish, against some of the longest odds and dealt the worst hand of any incoming president.

    But we cannot be about wanting to go back to that. And I understand the nostalgia around the vice president's candidacy.

    We have got to look boldly to the future of this country. We have 10 years left within which to meet the existential threat of climate change. Our plan calls for us to have net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, to be halfway there by 2030, and to require all of us to commit to the work ahead in order to achieve that.

    When it comes to immigration, we have been talking about reform for 30 years. I want to forever free those dreamers from any fear of deportation by making them U.S. citizens. Half-steps, half-measures, or only half the country will not get the job done. We have got to be fiercely focused on the future.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And are you saying that that's what — excuse me.

    You're saying that's what characterized the Obama administration, half-measures?

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    Not at all.

    But I think some of the appeal of the vice president's candidacy is a return to an earlier era. And while we are grateful for that era, and certainly for the service of President Obama, I think we need to be focused on the future, because, even before Donald Trump, we had challenges in this country.

    And whether those challenges were in immigration, whether they were in health care, or whether they're the fact that so many people have been locked out of participating in this economy and in our democracy, we have got to fix those things to make sure we can meet the greatest set of challenges we have ever faced.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let me ask you some specifics about a few of those.

    You mentioned climate change. And you have talked about harnessing the power of the market. People are asking, how do you do that? Are you talking about putting a tax, some kind of tax on carbon? What exactly do you mean?

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    I think that we need to set defined levels for emissions in every single sector of this economy.

    We need to invest in the technologies that allow us to meet those ambitious goals and to free ourselves from a dependence on fossil fuels.

    So, investments in the next generation of wind and solar and the battery storage technology that will allow us to distribute what we generate onto the grid. It means putting farmers in the driver's seat through regenerative agriculture and planting cover crops to capture more carbon out of the air, in other words, everyone doing everything that they can, so that we can meet the challenge of this moment, and also help to lead the world, to stop us from warming another two degrees Celsius.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But including a tax on carbon?

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    We might have to do that.

    In order for us to meet those absolute caps on emission, which is what we have to do — the scientists say that there's 10 years left to us. So, the shot clock is running down. We cannot allow for any uncertainty. There have to be defined emissions limits in this country, and much of that can be led by the federal government.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You — your political philosophy overall.

    Unlike Bernie Sanders, unlike Elizabeth Warren, they favor Medicare for all, a single-payer health care coverage.

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They favor a version of a universal tuition-free or debt-free college.

    You are not in favor of as much government support as they are. Why not?

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    I'm focused on the goals.

    And when it comes to health care, it is universal, guaranteed high-quality care. That means, if you have no insurance today, we enroll you in Medicare. If you're insufficiently insured, and you can't afford your co-pays or your premium, you can elect to enroll in Medicare.

    But if you're one of the tens of millions of Americans who has employer-sponsored insurance, a member of a union who bargained for health care, perhaps in lieu of wage increases, you have a plan that you like because it works for you and your family, you should be able to keep it. That gets us there as quickly and as surely as possible.

    And when it comes to the affordability of higher education, many of these plans for free college only cover tuition. Our plan for debt-free education covers tuition, room, board, and books, the full cost, and also ensuring that we relieve the burden on those who are carrying that $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loan debt right now by expanding the public service debt forgiveness program and refinancing outstanding student loan debt at far lower rates.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But not as much government support, pure federal government support, as their plans call for?

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    Correct, because I want to make sure that we're also not paying the full freight of wealthy Americans at a time of historic wealth and income inequality.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A story that is in the news today is Iran.

    The secretary of state, Pompeo, says the U.S. assessment is that Iran is responsible for the attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

    Do you believe him, number one? And, second, if it's — if this is Iran that's behind this, what should the U.S. do right now?

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    What I believe is that this is an administration that is gunning for war in Iran.

    What I believe is that we can resolve our differences with that country, which are significant, peacefully, without invading yet another country in the Middle East.

    I want to make sure that we get to the bottom of the facts and find the evidence that the secretary of state is talking about. I want to make sure that we convene the stakeholders in the region to address the instability that we see there.

    And I want to make sure that we rejoin our partners, our friends, and alliances that this president has turned his back on, so that we can achieve our foreign policy goals in the Middle East, with Iran and throughout the rest of the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last question.

    Both Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris and others have said they would pursue a prosecution of President Trump after he leaves office. Would you do that?

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    I will make sure that those who are responsible for the undermining our democracy in 2016, the obstruction of justice in the investigations that pursued the facts as to what happened in 2016 are held accountable and that justice is served.

    If we fail to this that, we will have set the precedent that some people are above the law. I don't know that we need to wait until the next administration.

    Impeachment proceedings begun now will allow us to get to those facts, to follow them as far and as high up as they go, and to make sure that we protect our democracy from future attacks and hold accountable those who are responsible for the last one.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Beto O'Rourke, running for the Democratic nomination for president, thank you.

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    Thank you.

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