With climate activists cheering on the Green New Deal, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke is borrowing a different allusion from American history.
"We've called for ... an investment commensurate with John F. Kennedy's moonshot," O'Rourke told NPR. "We're going to invest in the technologies that will allow us to lead the world on this. It should be happening right here in the United States."
O'Rourke continued to evoke the 20th century with a callback to the "greatest generation." He wants America to rise to the challenge of protecting the climate just as it did in resisting Nazism during World War II.
Since announcing his candidacy and out-fundraising most of his fellow competitors on the first day of his campaign, O'Rourke has failed to maintain his momentum in the polls.
The candidate hopes that his face-to-face approach and grassroots fundraising will set him apart.
"This campaign, that is run entirely by people — no PACs, no lobbyists, no corporations, no special interests — is at the heart of bringing people into this democracy to make sure that we meet this challenge," O'Rourke said.
O'Rourke spoke with Morning Edition as part of the show's Opening Arguments conversations, exploring the presidential candidates' core messages.
On whether the oil industry can continue operating the way it is
No, we're going to have to free ourselves from the dependence we have on fossil fuels and that means a greater investment in solar and wind. ... Again, we're making progress in this country, but so are other countries. And I want us to win that race. We've called for ... an investment commensurate with John F. Kennedy's moonshot. We're going to invest in the technologies that will allow us to lead the world on this. It should be happening right here in the United States.
On making sacrifices to combat climate change
We're going to have to make an investment as a country. It is not going to necessarily be easy. But you talked about the "greatest generation" and we just celebrated the 75th anniversary of D-Day — that was this country meeting the existential threat of that day, of Nazi Germany, making the United States and the world safe for democracy.
Here's our generation's opportunity to meet a true existential threat of this moment. And I'm confident that that's going to bring out the absolute best in us. Nothing to be afraid of, something to meet head on, and to overcome and to do it together.
On curbing asylum-seekers
First of all, I would treat every asylum-seeker with the dignity and respect that they deserve as human beings. I would resource the Department of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, the Office of Refugee Resettlement commensurate with the demand and the need that they face.
But I would also go to the heart of the problem in Guatemala, in El Salvador, in Honduras and ensure that we're working collaboratively with communities, with partner nations in the Western Hemisphere to reduce violence at home and address the fact that they are trying to survive. ... In other words, try to ensure that they don't have to make that 2,000-mile journey in the first place. If we meet them after they've done that with walls or cages or whatever this administration is doing, then it is a failure. We should be able to address this challenge there.
On ending conflicts in the Eastern Hemisphere
I'm going to make sure that we end the wars in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and Syria, and Somalia, and Yemen and Libya. We've got to find a way to peacefully, diplomatically convene other players and stakeholders in these regions to resolve otherwise intractable problems or else let's expect to find ourselves at war 10, 15, 20 years from now. ...
I will not put the life of an American service member on the line unless that is the option of last resort. And in those countries, that is not the last resort right now. There are other options available to us.
On whether he can persuade Iran to reenter a nuclear nonproliferation deal
We will have to but it's going to be really hard. Not only does Iran no longer trust us, but some of our closest allies cannot take our word for granted. ... The world wants to know — is the future a democratic one or an autocratic one? And I want to make sure that the United States leads on that, clearly that it's democratic.
We're going to stand up for those values here at home — a badly compromised democracy that must be repaired. But we're also going to stand up for those values abroad. That's how you ensure that you get the kinds of agreements that allow us to improve upon what President Barack Obama was able to negotiate with Iran and get to the next set of policy goals with that country.
Josh Axelrod is the NPR Digital Content intern.
Victoria Whitley-Berry and Eric McDaniel produced and edited this story for broadcast.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When Beto O'Rourke announced he was running for president, there was a whole lot of hype. He even landed on the cover of Vanity Fair. O'Rourke is hoping to ride the national reputation he earned after giving Texas Senator Ted Cruz a run for his money in the 2018 Senate race. More recently, he has been overshadowed by Democratic rivals, though.
NOEL KING, HOST:
So now O'Rourke is rolling out policy proposals to show the substance that his critics say he lacks. To fight climate change, for example, he wants to set a goal of a carbon-neutral United States by 2050. And he wants to be halfway there by 2030 in just over 10 years. He talked to Steve Inskeep as part of our Opening Arguments series.
BETO O'ROURKE: Some country is going to innovate the technologies that we need to meet the challenge of climate change - might be the United States. It might be China. I certainly want to invest in our future and our ability to corner that market and ensure that we command the solutions that this world will need. It's not just a matter of national pride. It's the jobs, the economic growth that is connected to that. And it's also ensuring that we meet this challenge for the generations that follow.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: You've compared the challenges of now to the Greatest Generation challenges of the Depression and World War II, which was a time of sacrifice.
INSKEEP: When you talk to scientists about what would be necessary to get to zero carbon emissions, they often talk about people having to change their daily behaviors. Drive an electric car. That's not such a bad change. Live in a smaller house. People might feel uncomfortable with that. Have fewer children. Eat less meat. Are you not going to demand any sacrifice from anyone in order to get to zero carbon emissions?
O'ROURKE: Yeah. We're going to have to make an investment as a country. It is not going to necessarily be easy. Here's our generation's opportunity to meet a true existential threat of this moment. And I'm confident that that's going to bring out the absolute best in us - nothing to be afraid of, something to meet head on and to overcome and to do it together.
INSKEEP: Your state's big industry - oil - is going to be fine.
O'ROURKE: My state's big industry is going to have to transition into its other big industry. We generate more wind power than any other state in the union. As we free ourselves from that dependence on fossil fuels, we're going to see more of my fellow Texans and fellow Americans transition into renewable energy jobs; high-demand, high-skill, high-wage occupations. And I think it's really important that we invest in the training to make sure that we have the skilled workforce that's ready to take on this global challenge.
INSKEEP: Are you not going to tell anyone in America, you just need to live in a little smaller house? It needs to be closer to work. And therefore, it's going to have to be smaller. You might want to think about having your third kid.
O'ROURKE: As president, I'm not going to tell you what kind of home that you live in or what you're going to have for dinner, but I hope to inspire you to do everything within your power to meet the greatest challenge that we have ever faced with the knowledge that if we fail to do that, to make every use of American innovation and service and, yes, sacrifice over the next 10 years, then the fires and the storms and the floods and the droughts that we see right now will pale in comparison to what our kids and grandkids experience.
INSKEEP: Why does your plan say that you will rely heavily on executive action?
O'ROURKE: Because we don't have time to waste. And there's some things that are under the purview of the administration - for example, ensuring that we do not have any new oil and gas leases on federal lands. Not only is that the best thing to do, that's clearly the responsibility of the president and the necessary departments and agencies that can make sure that we're meeting this challenge.
INSKEEP: In 2014, as you know, President Obama attempted to legalize the status of millions of people in the United States illegally through executive action. And you approved of the idea but disapproved of the method. Your quote was, the motive is noble, but the means are really hard to stomach. Do you still believe that?
O'ROURKE: I do. But to the spirit of your question, we need congressional action. Our laws must reflect our reality, our values, the fact that we are a country of immigrants and asylum-seekers and refugees from the world over. And we lose that at our peril.
INSKEEP: So you will take the actions that you found hard to stomach...
INSKEEP: ...Five years ago.
O'ROURKE: Yeah. I'm going to do what's right, regardless of how difficult it is. But I would also go to the heart of the problem in Guatemala, in El Salvador, in Honduras, and ensure that we're working collaboratively with communities and address the fact that they are trying to survive one of the worst droughts we have ever seen in this part of the world. In other words, we should be able to address this challenge there.
INSKEEP: You've already moved over a little bit to foreign policy here in referencing the Western Hemisphere. Let me go beyond that to the rest of the world. If you're elected president, what part of the world would be most important for you to get right?
O'ROURKE: Let's make sure that the people to whom we are connected by land, by language increasingly, by family is a priority for the United States. As we've prioritized other parts of the world, as we find ourselves in endless wars - 28 years and counting in Iraq through six successive presidential administrations, 18 years and counting in Afghanistan - we have disregarded this hemisphere. And whether you look at the moral imperative, which is compelling enough for me, or our own economic self-interest, we've got to re-prioritize the Western Hemisphere and Latin America.
INSKEEP: You're going to back out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
O'ROURKE: I'm going to make sure that we end the wars in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria, in Somalia, in Yemen, in Libya. We've got to find a way to peacefully, diplomatically convene other players and stakeholders in these regions to resolve otherwise intractable problems.
INSKEEP: You just named a string of messy conflicts in which the United States, to some greater or lesser degree, is involved and said you want to sit down with the players and resolve it. If you're in that room, if you're convening that meeting, what ability or qualification do you have that would make you the person who could command that room and get things done that other people have been unable to do, other presidents have been unable to do?
O'ROURKE: My entire life, my entire service in public office, every way that I've ever campaigned has been about bringing people in and finding the common ground to pursue a common cause.
INSKEEP: Let's just note for the record you rolled up your sleeves just now, so this discussion is getting serious. Go on. Go on, Mr. O'Rourke.
O'ROURKE: You know, I was in the minority every single day for the six years that I served in Congress. And yet, I needed to make sure that I delivered for the constituents who placed me in this position of public trust. So when I learned that we had a crisis in this country in veteran suicide, I didn't allow partisanship or my place in the minority to stop me from being able to do something. We wrote a bill and found a Republican colleague with whom to get it passed in the House, in the Senate, that opened up mental health care access to veterans who had been denied it and got the one person in this country with whom I agree on almost nothing - Donald Trump - to sign it into law. So I think I've been able to demonstrate that I will work with anyone, anytime, anywhere to further the interests of this country. And I deeply believe that we can do this without having to use United States military at every turn.
INSKEEP: An opening argument from Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke. Thanks for coming by.
O'ROURKE: Thanks for having me on.
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