The Battle Over Beto for President Feels Like 2016 All Over Again

An online spat reveals how divisive the upcoming Democratic primaries will be.

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Dec 11 2018, 5:00am

A Beto O'Rourke election night party. Photo by Sergio Flores/Bloomberg via Getty

Remember how deeply unfun the 2016 Democratic primary was? The loud infighting between Democrats—Bernie Bros vs. Hillary Shills—was as annoying as it was savage, and bad-faith punditry ran amok. And saddest of all, there were way too many thinkpieces. Well, buckle up sweetie, because the petty feuding is back: Everybody has an opinion, and it's more clear than ever that it never stopped being 2016.

One prominent online flare-up kicked off last week, when Elizabeth Bruenig, a Bernie-supporting democratic socialist for the Washington Post, wrote an op-ed about Beto O'Rourke, who narrowly lost the Texas Senate race to Ted Cruz and is now considered a 2020 contender. Bruenig argued that although O'Rourke "is already heir apparent to Barack Obama’s empty throne" to some, she can't get behind him because he doesn't openly support progressive platform planks like Medicare for all and the green new deal.

There are plenty of reasons why Beto would be a viable 2020 candidate—as Bruenig pointed out, during his Senate bid, his "team built a grass-roots army that put democracy—talking to constituents, listening to their points of view, inviting them to participate in the process not by mass mail but by name—first"—but she made a reasoned case for why she can't get behind him. But what was apparently a policy disagreement quickly blossomed into something else.

Neera Tanden, a Hillary diehard and the president of the Center for American Progress, accused Bruenig of being part of an "orchestrated" attack against Beto. God forbid a leftist offer a genuine critique!

"It's almost like there's a concerted effort to kill a Beto candidacy because attacks are focused solely on him," another CAP staffer opined in a now-deleted tweet.

The idea of O'Rourke as the 2020 Democratic nominee is obviously a touchy issue for establishment-leaning Democrats and hard-line leftists alike—the cyberdrama of last week was a natural result of the many pieces that have been written for and against his long-shot candidacy. Last month, Pod Save America host and former Obama aid Dan Pfeiffer dismissed the idea that O'Rourke doesn't have enough experience for a presidential run, writing, "Washington was wrong about Obama and there are many reasons to believe it’s wrong about Beto. Not only should Beto run, there is a strong case to make that if he were to do so, he would be one of the strongest candidates in the field."

There are a couple arguments going on here. One is about O'Rourke himself, and whether he's a viable candidate or one worth electing, with many leftists answering "no" to the latter question. But O'Rourke is also a kind of Rorschach test for anyone involved in Democratic politics: Does the party need a fresh face, or does it need more than cosmetic changes?

A recent Vanity Fair piece argued that although Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are generally considered front-runners for the Democratic primary, the party might benefit from a candidate that resembles 1990s Bill Clinton or Obama in 2008—i.e. a young candidate who is genuinely tapped into the zeitgeist. The writer uses Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as an example of a successful up-and-comer who is "an attention-merchant like Trump" and "understands that social media is the most powerful way to both create a narrative and influence the media." O'Rourke has the youth, and he has the charm. As a major Democratic donor crudely put it, "He’s Barack Obama, but white.”

Leftists generally reject all of that, especially the part about O'Rourke being anything new. In a recent op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, DSA member Dan Derozier noted that "O’Rourke’s message covers rhetorical territory familiar from the Obama era: It’s positive and innocuous, but noncommittal. It relies on lofty but meaningless phraseology like Shared Values, Finding Common Ground and Bringing People Together." Plus, O'Rourke is vulnerable to some attacks from his left, which he didn't have to worry about against Cruz—as journalist David Sirota noted on Twitter, O'Rourke "is the #2 recipient of oil/gas industry campaign cash in the entire Congress."

As if to fuel the speculative chatter, the New York Times published a profile of O'Rourke as a 2020 candidate on Sunday, categorizing him as a "wild card" and wondering, "Will a soon-to-be-former congressman, with an unremarkable legislative record and a Senate campaign loss, upend their best-laid plans?"

After Trump's surprise victories in both the 2016 Republican primary and general election, it's harder than ever to evaluate what qualities someone as a strong presidential candidate. As the Times noted, "Traditional qualifications to lead the country do not necessarily matter much, particularly if a candidate can channel the kind of enthusiasm that Mr. O’Rourke earned in a news media environment that prizes viral moments."

What ultimately differentiates the Beto chatter from the Bernie vs. Hillary feud of 2016 is that we're still trying to grasp what a presidential election looks like post-Trump. Is lack of experience a good thing or a bad thing? If you can't own people on Twitter, should you even be allowed to do politics? One thing's for sure, anyone will the ability to breathlessly capture the fickle attention of the media for the next year has a darn good shot.

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