What is Beto O'Rourke doing?
I’ve asked myself this question countless times since last winter. I asked it when Beto O’Rourke began to tease the idea of running for president as a former backbench congressman whose main selling point was that he almost didn’t lose his bid for a Senate seat in Texas. I asked it when he chose to publish meandering journal entries about his feelings and the weather as he road-tripped across America, attempting to give literary weight to his eventual decision to enter the race. I asked it when he live-streamed a dentist cleaning his teeth. And I asked it as he revealed early on that he lacked a coherent policy vision or unique proposition—other than his recent social media stardom—that would justify entering a race teeming with talented candidates.
But lately I’ve tweaked the formulation of my question—now it goes: “What the hell is Beto doing?” O'Rourke has veered from mere self-indulgence to recklessness. In his desperation to repeat the viral glory that followed his spontaneous soliloquy defending NFL players kneeling during the national anthem in his Senate race, he’s become increasingly inclined to shoot from the hip. In the past month, he’s made shocking pledges to enthusiastically seize people’s assault-style rifles and strip churches of tax-exempt status for opposing same-sex marriage. These provocative remarks haven’t helped him in the polls or improved his standing on the left, but they have made him a conservative boogeyman and provided nightmare fodder for right-wing ad campaigns designed to fuel turnout.
In light of this, there is a case to be made that O'Rourke is running the worst 2020 campaign of any candidate in the race. Lacking a clear sense of purpose, he’s scrambling to find a way to stand out from the pack by creating new wars, which members of the Democratic Party—moderates and left-wingers alike—are not trying to wage in this political moment. Just as importantly, these inflammatory moves are obliterating his chances at a real shot at pivoting to a 2020 Senate race against John Cornyn, a powerful but vulnerable Republican, in Texas. Given how hard it will be for the Democrats to retake a majority in the Senate in the next election—an essential condition for passing any Democratic president’s legislative agenda—that’s no small sin.
Had O'Rourke mounted a thoughtful campaign to shift the Overton window (the spectrum of acceptable ideas in public discourse) on issues like gun control from day one, and presented his ideas with care, his recent antics could’ve made some sense. But that’s not the case. As with virtually everything else in his campaign, the engine is what his gut feels is right on any given day, and the fuel is a thirst for social media approbation.
Many of the themes of O'Rourke’s political style can be traced back to his life before politics. After completing prep school and earning an undergraduate degree at Columbia University, he spent his twenties traveling, partying, and drifting. He tried his hand at many kinds of work: musician, nanny, magazine founder, web designer, art mover, an employee at his mother’s furniture store. He also got in a bit of trouble: he was arrested twice, once for “attempted forcible entry” at the University of Texas in El Paso, and once for drunk driving (he hit a truck, and a witness told the police that he attempted to flee the scene). The picture that emerges from O'Rourke’s twenties is one of a Kerouacian desire for self-discovery and a yearning for reinvention. It also illustrates a privileged existence free of consequences for indecision or bad decisions, buoyed by his parents’ wealth and his elite education.
O'Rourke did not achieve a clear sense of self as he entered politics. As a member of the El Paso City Council, he crusaded for a downtown development plan that was conceived of by his father-in-law Bill Sanders—a real estate mogul worth half a billion dollars. Among other things, critics accused O'Rourke of siding with the city’s business class and his family members over the immigrants he allies himself with so often in rhetoric. Later he won a seat in Congress by painting his incumbent opponent Silvestre Reyes as a corrupt Washington insider, but with the crucial aid of a super PAC underwritten by his father-in-law.
O'Rourke’s ideological profile didn’t really come into focus on the Hill either. As a member of the House, he voted very conservatively for a Democrat. He voted against his own party 167 times on legislation and sided with the GOP on bills that undermined Obamacare, Wall Street regulations, and consumer protections. That’s noteworthy for two reasons: First, he represented a deeply blue district, meaning that he was voting to the right of his constituents on many issues. Second, when he made a bid for Ted Cruz’s seat in the Senate he actually pivoted to the left with his rhetoric on issues like climate and immigration.
The presidential campaign has given O'Rourke yet another opportunity to forge a new identity. When asked by a reporter if he was a progressive Democrat, he had a remarkable reply. “I don’t know,” he told Politico in March. “I’m just, as you may have seen and heard over the course of the campaign, I’m not big on labels. I don’t get all fired up about party or classifying or defining people based on a label or a group. I’m for everyone.”
How can a politician be for everyone? Well, they can’t; millions of Americans have unbridgeable, different views on everything from abortion rights to fair taxation, and the poor and the rich have different interests. But it was simultaneously a sincere admission that he doesn’t have a clear worldview, and a clumsy attempt to depict himself as a Democrat capable of winning votes from people outside the Democratic base.
O'Rourke’s argument for why he’d be a unity candidate has come in the form of a super-charged authenticity politics designed to capitalize on his charisma: pensive diary entries and intimate videos on social media; speaking to crowds while standing on diner counters with his sleeves rolled up; a lot of talk about honesty and setting aside differences.
It didn’t work. O’Rourke wasn’t able to recapture the astonishing momentum of his Senate race, even with early praise from Barack Obama and his aides, and a strong initial round of fundraising. But after a gunman killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso in August, O’Rourke’s commitment to speaking his mind only deepened. He started to use the word “fuck” a lot and turned further inward.
“I’ve just been focused on saying what’s on my mind, being myself,” O’Rourke told the New York Times in the wake of the El Paso shooting. “And not really in the slightest being interested in polls, or how things poll, or what you’re supposed to say.”
That mindset manifested itself at a debate in September, when O’Rourke argued for a mandatory buyback of assault-style rifles by crying out, "Hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” It was a breakout moment, but not in a productive way. The NRA called O’Rourke the “AR-15 salesman of the month,” gun stores used the comment as a marketing tool, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers sponsoring bipartisan gun control legislation worried it jeopardized their agenda, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was compelled to say, "I don't know of any other Democrat who agrees with Beto O'Rourke.”
In reality, other 2020 Democrats have supported the idea of a mandatory buyback to varying degrees, including Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, but they’ve taken pains to avoid stoking conservative paranoia about the government coming door-to-door to seize people’s guns. There is also the question of whether O’Rourke is tapping into an issue that’s appropriate for an “I’m for everyone” politician. The polling on support for a mandatory buyback in America is decidedly mixed. While some polls show a narrow majority favor the idea, many others find support well below 50 percent. Data for Progress shared polling data from mid-September with VICE which found a mandatory buyback “very unpopular.” Support for such a program stood at around 37 percent, while 54 percent of respondents opposed it. Crucially, those who opposed it felt much more strongly than those who supported it.
During an LGBTQ town hall in October, O’Rourke whipped up more controversy when he argued that religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage ought to lose their tax-exempt status. “There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone … that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us,” he said. This is an idea that no other 2020 Democrats support since it would violate the First Amendment by allowing the state to create an ideological litmus test for tax breaks. It earned condemnation on the left as “perhaps the worst idea of the Democratic primary,” and conservatives homed in on it as a rallying cry to warn against the imminent tyranny of a Democratic presidency. O’Rourke partially walked it back later, but the right-wing talking points were already out. Had he prioritized serious ideas on advancing LGBTQ rights over a cheap trick for trending on Twitter, the whole mess would never have occurred.
O’Rourke’s quest for his next favorite “transcendent moment,” like someone looking for a fix, has gone from solipsistic to actively harmful. His recent gadfly behavior isn’t expanding into the social democratic space that lawmakers like Sen. Bernie Sanders have found that there’s a real appetite for—it’s just causing problems. And another run for Senate in religious, gun-loving Texas is likely a lost cause at this point. There never was an obvious reason for O’Rourke to enter the race. Now it seems like there’s no obvious reason to stay in.