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O’Rourke’s Presidential Campaign Makes No Sense

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke announced his intention to seek the Democratic presidential nomination today. This passage from his Vanity Fair profile [1] 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 [2], 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 [3], “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 [4] 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.

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18 Comments To "O’Rourke’s Presidential Campaign Makes No Sense"

#1 Comment By prodigalson On March 14, 2019 @ 1:11 pm

It makes even less sense when you consider he already lost a senate run against Ted Cruz. Ted Cruz was immolated by Trump. So if you can’t beat Cruz in Texas how do you beat Trump nationally?

This is another personal ego campaign like the Starbucks CEO.

#2 Comment By BD On March 14, 2019 @ 3:49 pm

I get that when Democrats these days say they’ll “reach out across the aisle” it seems hopelessly naïve considering what the GOP is now, but what do we expect candidates to say instead? That they’ll just do an end-run around the Constitution to get done what they need to? Because even if that is about to become the new norm (not that Republicans who mostly backed this emergency declaration farce will have much to say about it), you really can’t campaign on it.

#3 Comment By Mac61 On March 14, 2019 @ 4:42 pm

I have heard from Democratic Socialists in my workplace — a college, of course — that they consider O’Rourke a “centrist” because he has said that he is a capitalist. In today’s Democratic Party, that means Beto has staked out turf on the far-right fringes of the party.

#4 Comment By Carl Seely On March 14, 2019 @ 5:05 pm

I’m not really a Beto fan, but does he really need a signature issue? Other than locking Hillary up, I’m not sure Trump offered one. He came very close to knocking off an incumbent Senator in a red state…that ain’t chopped liver. I suspect he’d make a formidable candidate.

#5 Comment By Nick Upstead On March 14, 2019 @ 6:55 pm

Seems like huge reputation risk as well. He has to explain why a number of women and people of color will be worse than him at a job. I don’t see how you can do this and not be tarred as a racist/sexist in the modern Democratic Party. Maybe that label only stick during the election… but if it follows him or he makes a misstep involving it he’s dead.

#6 Comment By George Taylor On March 14, 2019 @ 7:38 pm

In a political party that’s elevated identity politics to an art form, including body shamming, ugly shamming etc., it’s interesting that most of the Beto focus is that he’s “dreamy” a handsome man and makes a great cover boy.

#7 Comment By treehugger On March 14, 2019 @ 7:46 pm

Honestly, what is the rationale for *any* of the candidacies? Other than to stumble around uttering the phrase “moral issue” and trying to be the one who gets crowned as best vessel for the current Zeitgeist, which is to say, the best performer.

That said, even by that measure, Beto may be the worst. His persona is kind of like a really bad amalgam of Spicoli and Jerry MacGuire, except not-at-all funny and painful to watch.

#8 Comment By SF Bay On March 14, 2019 @ 8:28 pm

O’Rourke was a big fish and in a small pond . Now he’all end up as a minnow in an ocean of more experienced more qualified candidates. He will be out in a hurry. This is a career killing mistake.

#9 Comment By jk On March 14, 2019 @ 9:15 pm

Ah yes, milquetoast personified.

#10 Comment By Interguru On March 14, 2019 @ 10:37 pm

Beto’s strength is that he put together an awesome campaign machine out of nothing. As in 2018 Democratic voters will not nominate those who checked off the most progressive boxes, but those who could, and did win. The press, always looking for clickbait is obsessed with three rookie members of Congress, but it is not clear how far the rest of the party will go in their direction.

#11 Comment By Kasoy On March 14, 2019 @ 11:16 pm

Beto aims to get more national exposure for his future political ambitions & widening his national Democratic base support & fund raising base: for Texas senator or governor. A remote possibility is VP position in 2020. In the much longer term, WH. It makes very good sense that he is running though he may drop out early due to lack of funds.

Beto has ZERO chance of winning the primaries against Sanders or Biden. Has very little chance of becoming VP. If a White Male Democrat wins the primaries, SURELY the VP position will most likely go to a COLORED WOMAN (Kamala or surprise, M Obama).

M Obama joining the Democratic ticket is the ONLY WAY they will have a real chance of beating Trump. If they still lose out to Trump-Pence, Democrats have no othet choice but to gain control of both houses of Congress, replace electoral college with popular vote for 2024.

#12 Comment By rayray On March 15, 2019 @ 10:39 am

As others have pointed out, it’s an ambitious political move that, while hugely unlikely to play out with him as the nominee, helps raise his national profile.

No big fan of Beto, but given the bin of broken toys that was the Republican line up in the last election, the Democratic Party is looking good.

As for Democratic issues and policy points, I think it’s pretty clear that Sanders and Warren will come out swinging hard and clear.

#13 Comment By Tough Tony On March 15, 2019 @ 11:08 am

I’m a Democrat and I agree with every word of this. I truly appreciate Larison’s cool-eyed objectivity as he applies it insistently even to topics afield from foreign policy.

I must ask commenter George Taylor, however, about the meaning of the term “identity politics” as he uses it here. How can the Dems have been the party that has raised identity politics to an art form, when it is the other party whose electorate is 90% composed of citizens who identify as “white” and a similar proportion who identify as “Christian?”

Meanwhile, the Dem electorate is made up of slightly more than 40% “white” and 60% large majorities of literally every other ethnic and religious group.

It would seem, as a matter of logic, that “identity politics” is more or less routinely misapplied. I leave open the chance that I’m misunderstandingterm, but I never get an answer when I pose this question. Please advise.

#14 Comment By Allen On March 15, 2019 @ 11:22 am

It’s all just a scam to draw attention to his new job as spokesperson for Lucky Charms cereal.

#15 Comment By TomG On March 15, 2019 @ 1:00 pm

As a Texas voter who doesn’t like Cruz I was eager to see who this new kid on the block was. Incredibly disappointing–empty shirt who had more money thrown at him than had any rational strategy other than to win by spending the most.

There is a younger, intelligent, articulate candidate that would debate Beto into the floor–Pete Buttigieg. He is speaking to small groups but articulates well what he brings to the table.

#16 Comment By liberal On March 15, 2019 @ 1:03 pm

Kasoy wrote,

If they still lose out to Trump-Pence, Democrats have no othet choice but to gain control of both houses of Congress, replace electoral college with popular vote for 2024.

I despise (currently) pointless anti-majoritarian devices like the Electoral College, but if we’re talking descriptive, not normative, the fact is that this would require a constitutional amendment. Ain’t gonna happen.

#17 Comment By aaron On March 16, 2019 @ 12:35 pm

I was indifferent towards Beto until I learned he was a member of the cDc. Now I kinda like him.

#18 Comment By polistra On March 17, 2019 @ 4:34 am

The presence of “inexplicable” candidates is a good indicator that the nomination is already locked in.

When the primaries are genuinely open, with no automatic successor, serious candidates get into the fight in a serious way.

When the outcome is guaranteed, it’s a good time for young or outsider candidates to pre-audition. Test the waters, try for publicity. If results seem promising, set up organizations to pave the way for next time.