In the national spotlight, O’Rourke’s ideological amorphousness could prove to be too great a liability. Or it could be his biggest strength.
Four months since Election Day 2018, Beto O’Rourke’s much-hyped announcement that he’s running for president begs the question of, “Why?” As we all know, O’Rourke narrowly lost to Ted Cruz. But in doing so, he accumulated envious amounts of political capital and goodwill as a happy warrior running more for Texans rather than against Ted Cruz. The guy proved himself to be an undeniably talented campaigner who excelled at evoking a vision of hope, reconciliation and post-partisanship in the Trump era (standby for the inevitable 2008 Barack Obama comparison).
But the fact remains that O’Rourke is a former three-term congressman who wielded no discernible influence in Washington, D.C., before his Senate campaign. And while he is by no means the only presidential candidate with a thin résumé, one has to wonder whether what worked for him in Texas in 2018 will translate to a national effort in 2020.
First, it’s worth considering how we got to this point. On the night of November 6, he became perhaps the most successful losing politician in modern political history and prompted instant speculation when he declared in his concession speech, “We’ll see you out there on down the road.”
Since then, Hopelessly Online folks have been tracking his every movement, every statement, every Instagram post, every email blast, trying to suss out his plans for the future. Amid it all were relentless attempts to both convince O’Rourke to challenge longtime Texas Senator John Cornyn and to export his magnetic political persona to the rest of the country.
All the while, the former El Paso city councilman played it cool. As he weighed his options, O’Rourke embarked on what can best be described as one part gap year/one part midlife crisis, during which he tried to shake his self-described post-campaign “funk.” He spent some time with family and friends in El Paso. He went on a road trip and toured a community college in New Mexico and a state university in Oklahoma. He went to the dentist. He wrote discursive personal essays on Medium.com. He wistfully reminisced about his days spent in New York City. He hung out with Oprah.
Yet through all the “Will he or won’t he” intrigue, it was painfully clear that Beto had caught the bug that infects nearly every above-average politician: He wants to run for president. That was confirmed in an exclusive Vanity Fair cover story that ran on Wednesday in which the reporter finally got O’Rourke to admit, “Man, I’m just born to be in it.”
Of course, there was no shortage of political hands and party insiders stroking that ambition. He had met with Obama and has maintained backchannel communication with the former president’s top advisers. There’s even speculation that a Beto bid was the main thing keeping former Vice President Joe Biden from formally jumping into the race.
Sure, it was fun to see O’Rourke relentlessly ignore the consultant and donor class while they poked and prodded about whether he might be up for some sightseeing in Ottumwa. But it all became a little much after a while. After the weeks stretched into months, the schtick wore thin and even his some of his most fervent supporters grew tired of his malaise. It soon became clear that Betomania might just have an expiration date.
It didn’t help that all the rampant presidential speculation fueled suspicion on the left that he would be used as a tool for the neoliberal elites and prompted far more critical national coverage in the months after he lost then he ever drew in the unfathomable number of overwrought profiles about his Senate bid. An explicit O’Rourke-ian ideology has been elusive if not nonexistent. This is the same guy, after all, who told VICE News one year ago that “I could care less, to be honest with you, about Democrats or the Democratic Party or about parties at all. I’m just going to do my best, give it all I can, and that’s all I can focus on.”
In December, one reporter found that he had run afoul of a campaign pledge not to take money from oil and gas executives. Soon after, another journalist almost broke the Internet by doing a thorough accounting of his voting record in the House, which found that while representing one of the bluest districts in the country he had repeatedly cast votes that sided with Republicans on everything from tax policy to Wall Street regulations to his bread-and-butter issue of immigration. Yet another reported on his vote in support of what was seen by critics as a “Blue Lives Matter” messaging bill. He drew renewed flak in the New York Times for his refusal to back fellow Democratic candidate Gina Ortiz Jones, who was challenging his Republican pal Will Hurd in the swingy district next to his. She lost by fewer than 1,000 votes and Hurd has since declared that he would vote for Trump over Beto.
He has flirted with, though never fully embraced, single-payer health care. He has voiced support for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal, but has not gone so far as to condemn fossil fuel industries that drive his home state’s economy. He has forcefully spoken out against the denigration of Latino immigrants, the U.S. borderlands and Trump’s proposed wall while also supporting Trump’s waiver of polygraph tests for new Customs and Border Protection agents and joined 76 House Democrats in voting for an omnibus bill that included wall funding in 2018.
O’Rourke, who raised a record-breaking $80 million, has a built-in base of national supporters. But will they rally around Beto 2020? That question hinges on how the first Democratic presidential primary of the Trump era pans out. Some believe that the outcome will hinge more on concrete populist stances that Beto has in the past proven allergic to, like whether to abolish private health insurance and replace it with a pure single-payer system, whether to break up Big Tech (to say nothing of Wall Street) and whether to soak the rich via a wealth tax or a 90 percent marginal tax rate.
O’Rourke’s ideological amorphousness could prove to be too great a liability. Or, much like Obama’s vaguely aspirational platitudes helped catapult him to the presidency, it could prove to be his biggest strength. Democrats won back the House in November by capturing the affluent suburbanites who detest Trump. Now they see a potential path to the White House that doubles down on that demographic in an effort to win Sunbelt states like Georgia, Arizona and even Texas. O’Rourke proved that he had crossover appeal by outperforming Democrats in almost every county, especially rapidly growing suburbs.
Of course, it all depends on how O’Rourke defines himself — as the voice of the middling Gen X professional in suburban Phoenix, the champion of the factory worker about to bottom out in Kenosha, all of the above or nothing at all.