Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke announced his intention to seek the Democratic presidential nomination today. This passage from his Vanity Fair profile sums up why I think most Democratic voters aren’t going to rally behind him:
O’Rourke is careful to pay homage to progressive icons, crediting Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren with advancing the national conversation on health care and consumer protections, but sells himself as something slightly different: a youthful uniter, willing to listen and learn from the most recalcitrant right-wing voters and work with Republicans [bold mine-DL]. “If I bring something to this,” he says, “I think it is my ability to listen to people, to help bring people together to do something that is thought to be impossible.
Obama used a version of this message in his first run for president, and as president he clung to the unfounded belief that he could find common ground with his political opponents. My impression is that most Democrats regard that approach as deeply misguided and one that failed to yield any good results. I don’t think many of them are looking for a repeat of that experience. I don’t think most Democratic primary voters want someone who is “willing to listen and learn from the most recalcitrant right-wing voters” as their nominee, and if that ability to “listen” and “bring people together” is the only thing that O’Rourke is offering that is significantly different from the other candidates it seems clear that he doesn’t really have anything to offer them.
As much as Obama ran on inspirational slogans and his own biography in his first campaign, he also presented Democratic voters with a substantive alternative to Clinton. Virtually alone among the 2008 candidates, Obama could honestly say that he had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, and that both set him apart from his main competitors and helped to neutralize criticism of his lack of experience. O’Rourke doesn’t have a signature issue in the same way that Obama did, and he doesn’t have anything else he can point to in his record that the many other more experienced candidates lack.
For example, O’Rourke has a fairly decent record on foreign policy. As Ryan Costello pointed out, he has supported the JCPOA and voted in favor of ending U.S. support for the war on Yemen. But all of this is also true of the many Senate colleagues that he is running against. If you’re a Democratic voter and want a candidate opposed to illegal and unnecessary wars and supportive of diplomatic engagement, you already have something of an embarrassment of riches in the 2020 field. As Josh Vorhees explains, “Beto is missing one important thing, though: an actual reason to run.”
Democratic activists and donors are aware that O’Rourke would be a credible challenger for Texas’ other Senate seat when Cornyn comes up for reelection in 2020. According to a Quinnipiac poll from February, O’Rourke is already running neck-and-neck with Cornyn. His decision to forego that race and chase a long-shot bid for president cannot endear him to many of the people whose support he would need. O’Rourke’s presidential campaign doesn’t make any sense, and in pursuing it he is frittering away a decent chance for a Democratic Senate pick-up in a traditionally Republican-leaning state.