Can You Become President Just by Being Really, Really Charming?
Beto O'Rourke's campaign promises to be driven more by personality than ideology. Will Democrats go for it?
Photo of Beto O'Rourke by Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Beto O'Rourke sometimes seems like he was wished into existence by the Resistance. Passionate, earnest, sweaty, skateboarding, live-streaming, tireless, young, handsome, calf-cramping—he's the kind of politician who says "fucking" on stage. The former Texas congressman inspired a feverish devotion from some fans during his 2018 campaign against Republican Senator Ted Cruz and tapped into the nominally red state's progressive energy mostly by sheer force of will and charisma. Though he lost, it was close enough that people started immediately talking about a follow-up presidential campaign. O'Rourke had successfully turned out new voters and given Democrats hope in a place where they had no hope before, and demonstrated that he could be both the face and engine of a political movement—isn't that what Democrats need to unseat Donald Trump?
So his 2020 candidacy, announced officially Thursday morning, didn't come as a surprise. It followed closely after a soft-focus Vanity Fair profile that was long on the details of his personal life—which included a childhood in the shadow of his politician father, a young adulthood spent finding himself and loving punk, and a return to his hometown of El Paso—and short on his rationale for claiming the Democratic nomination beyond a sense that he could beat Trump. "I think I’d be good at it," he tells writer Joe Hagan at one point. “Man, I’m just born to be in it, and want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment.”
There's a kind of circular logic at work at the heart of Betomania: A major part of why O'Rourke is a good candidate is that he would be a good candidate. That means that he can inspire people to come to rallies and give donations and ultimately vote. "This is going to be a positive campaign that seeks to bring out the very best from all of us, that seeks to unite a very divided country," he said in an announcement video. "I could care less your party, persuasion, your religion, anything other than the fact that we’re all Americans, we’re all human beings, and we do everything within our power for one another, for this great country, and for ever generation that follows," he told a crowd at his first official campaign stop in Iowa.
Whether you find this rhetoric soaring or eye-rollingly bland depends on your level of cynicism about politics. Many observers on the left have noted that amid all this standing-on-a-dirt-road-in-your-shirtsleeves stuff, there is not much in the way of policy goals—in fact, O'Rourke's bare-bones website has no "policy" section at all, though it has plenty of merch (and some sweat). This is in contrast to other candidates, who have staked out individual positions on taxing the rich, healthcare, corporate power, and providing aid to low-income families. Even the more obscure candidates have tried to distinguish themselves through proposals about the future of work or student loans. Heck, Howard Schultz has his own ideas, they're just dull and bad ones.
It's not that vague, personality-driven campaigns don't succeed—Barack Obama became famous for his Beto-esque speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and ran as an inspirational figure rather than a policy wonk. But Obama could point to his opposition to the Iraq War as a concrete issue stance that distinguished him from other Democrats. (He also ended up being very technocratic in office.) O'Rourke is even less defined, and has much less experience in elected office than any of the other top-tier candidates. (In the Vanity Fair article, former Obama aide Ben Rhodes—not exactly disapprovingly—called him a "backbench House member.") His voting record as a congressman is not exactly illuminating either: He was a more conservative than the average House Democrat, voting with Republicans on bills friendly to the finance and oil industries, but that can be explained at least in part by him perhaps preparing to run for higher office in Texas.
Thought O'Rourke may have been a moderate in Congress, he isn't campaigning as one. The Vanity Fair profile describes him as being in favor of immigration reform, some variation of the Green New Deal, raising taxes on the wealthy, and expanding Medicare coverage (though it sounds like he would stop short of Medicare for all). Those are all liberal positions—though they aren't unique. Pick a random Pod Save America listener and they might have the same views.
The case for O'Rourke is that he has more charisma in his fingernail than that random PSA listener. He could actually win, and if he replaced Trump his lack of experience or his particular views would matter less than his ability to sign legislation, appoint judges, and roll back Trump's executive orders. Leftists would much rather elect someone more radical and more committed to change than Obama was, but if O'Rourke won the White House it's unlikely he'd be the thing standing in the way of a progressive agenda (the main obstacle will likely continue to be the Senate).
The 2020 primaries will give Democrats an almost bewildering array of options. The declared candidates represents views ranging from democratic socialist to mainstream liberal as well as a rainbow of personal identities. O'Rourke is offering something slightly different from the field so far—if he wins, it will show that primary voters weren't hungry for a specific vision or someone who could personally showcase the diversity of the party, but rather someone who could stand before a crowd and make everyone feel good about themselves and their country. It will get derided as the politics of empty celebrity, but no one has ever accused America of being immune to that.
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