Beto O’Rourke is the first presidential candidate we’ve had who seems to think he graduated first in his class at Hogwarts. Since millions of kids who grew up on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are now old enough to vote, a lanky charmer who acts like the Sorting Hat picked him out for a special destiny is bound to have an allure denied to the poor politicians who haplessly drone on about all the dull stuff they’ve actually accomplished in life, from the laws they’ve passed to their deployment in Afghanistan. As far as Betomaniacs are concerned, their magic man is the Bobby Kennedy Who Lived, sometimes combined with Barack Obama minus the melanin.
Unless you’re a political illiterate, neither comparison is especially apt, aside from a vague resemblance in looks (RFK) and upbeat demeanor (Obama). Plus, of course, both men’s knack for making devotees and converts swoon. But Bobby Kennedy’s idealism had force because he was a hard-as-nails alley scrapper who’d been transformed by tragedy, thanks to his brother’s death. Besides, the new RFK hadn’t totally dumpstered the old one’s flinty tool kit. When he talked about transcending politics as usual, few people knew more than he did about the nature of the beast he was hoping to transcend.
As for Obama, despite a resume not much less skimpy than O’Rourke’s, he had formidable shrewdness, guile, equanimity, and clarity of purpose backstopping his hopey-changey act, and those were the qualities that took over once he won the White House. As soon as he was in a position to get down to business, he largely abandoned the chore of seducing America with imprecise but soaring rhetoric. Having to set aside the serious work of the presidency to campaign for re-election in 2012 clearly bored the wits out of him, at least until his robotic performance at their first debate accomplished the unwelcome miracle of making Mitt Romney seem almost engaging and human by comparison.
It’s not just that O’Rourke doesn’t project a remotely comparable savviness, pain-tested grit, or plain old ability to concentrate. When a presidential candidate’s supporters can’t shut up about how much he reminds them of somebody else, particularly when one of the idols they’re babbling about has been dead for 51 years, you can’t help wondering if they’ve ever read The Great Gatsby’s warnings about the fatal silliness of wanting to repeat the past. On top of that, defining O’Rourke’s attractiveness as a pleasing facsimile of what RFK or Obama brought to the party can wind up triggering a hunch that maybe he doesn’t have much of an identity of his own.
Defining O’Rourke’s attractiveness as a pleasing facsimile of what RFK or Obama brought to the party can wind up triggering a hunch that maybe he doesn’t have much of an identity of his own.
Does he? Not a settled or commanding one. Instead, he’s a 46-year-old man who wants us to be as excited as he is about what a thrilling, muddled work-in-progress it is to be Beto O’Rourke. Most people running for president try to make a virtue out of their autobiography, but it’s usually a means, not an end—a way of reassuring voters that they know all about struggles, setbacks, and life-changing decisions, demonstrating their hard-earned empathy with ordinary Americans’ troubles and dreams. It’s also, most often, in the past tense, because they’re presenting themselves as fully formed human beings and describing what formed them for our benefit.
It should go without saying that none of these generalizations fit Donald Trump. However, they’re still valid for most of the Democratic contenders vying to oust him—even, or especially, Pete Buttigieg, who’s packed a lot into his 37 years on the planet and is displaying the finished product. But not O’Rourke. He doesn’t try to convince us that he’s representative of our shared adventure as Americans. Instead, he wants to turn us into his enablers as he pursues his metaphysical one, which he believes is inherently dramatic for reasons that are still obscure.
That’s not surprising, because not a whole lot ever seems to have happened to him otherwise. (Hell, even Jared Kushner had a father who went to prison, providing some sort of origins story for his otherwise motiveless malignity.) So far as anyone can tell, O’Rourke has led one of those beautifully feckless, pointlessly self-enamored lives that are only accessible to white guys raised in relative affluence.
When he got into trouble as a kid—a teenage burglary arrest, another for DWI—the apparatus was always in place to get him out of it. In his twenties, he started an Internet software-services company, because that’s what hip twentysomethings without particular goals in life did in the 1990s. Then he ran for El Paso City Council and won. Soon, O’Rourke was lobbying in favor of a neighborhood-gentrification project that got him accused of conflicts of interest when it turned out the deal might benefit his father-in-law financially.
From a liberal perspective, his three terms in Congress were no great shakes. Even under the Trump administration, O’Rourke voted with Republicans more often than the average Democrat, and—like many another Texas congressman, irrespective of party—was a reliable shill for the fossil-fuel industry. But none of that mattered much to liberals or anyone else when he ran against Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate in 2018 and Betomania began. That was because Ted Cruz was, well, Ted Cruz, who has a hard time convincing people that his own daughters love him—even though, for the record, we’re sure they do.
The splashy Vanity Fair cover story that was supposed to make him look like Robert F. Obama, or maybe Barack Kennedy—incidentally proved that his fretful indecision about running was a sham
Being the anti-Cruz turned O’Rourke golden. To borrow one of Trump’s go-to superlatives, the contrast was right out of Central Casting: the willowy, affable, guileless challenger who drove his truck to every last one of Texas’s 254 counties—and vlogged it—versus the vulpine right-winger who may be the only man on Capitol Hill who mistrusts Mitch McConnell’s excessive idealism. Famously, he raised $38 million in just one fundraising quarter, from a nationwide base he’d acquired darn near overnight. And he lost by only three points, which in Texas is no mean feat.
That summer and fall, he also led a charmed life when it came to infatuated media coverage. Only Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez matched him in provoking journalistic gush, although AOC—beginning with her very sharp, totally un-diva-like performance during Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony last month—now seems impressively determined to outwit, outplay, and outlast her own 2018 vogue. O’Rourke, on the other hand, has apparently been under the misapprehension that his vogue is not only permanent, but—along with his undeniable fund-raising prowess, which the pros have no choice but to take seriously—the only credential he needs to instantly look like everybody’s ideal anti-Trump.
Even before he announced his candidacy last week, however, he got smacked with a new phenomenon that must have blindsided him: skeptical, sometimes downright derisive media pushback. It began in January with his self-dramatizing road trip before he’d officially decided, where he wrote such maundering, TMI-addicted drivel that his travel diary inspired a whole genre of Beto O’Rourke parodies. Then the splashy Vanity Fair cover story that was supposed to make him look like Robert F. Obama, or maybe Barack Kennedy—and incidentally proved that his fretful indecision about running was a sham, because Vanity Fair locks in that crap months in advance—drew fire for his cocky assertion that he was “born” to run for the presidency. Prince Charles can legitimately say that he was born to be king, but on this side of the Atlantic, we know hubris when we see it.
Progressive outlets got busy reminding their readers that his Congressional voting record had been namby-pambily centrist at best and crypto-conservative at worst. More of his youthful misdeeds got dredged up, including his stint as a hacker calling himself Psychedelic Warlord and a creepy fantasy he’d written at age 15 about offing a couple of children by plowing into them with his car (not a good look for a dude with a DWI in his future). And just in general, his mania for playing footsie with his otherwise virginal brain began attracting widespread mockery.
The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah imagined a President O’Rourke’s reaction to a North Korean nuclear strike: “As a white man, maybe it’s time for me to listen to what these missiles have to say. . . the president is a woke bae.” In the same segment, Noah also said that going after O’Rourke for his teenage peccadillos was “insanity” —but guess which one was the laugh line? What linked both takes was his irritation that O’Rourke had spent most of his first week as a candidate apologizing for one thing or another, including his acknowledgment that he’s been a beneficiary of “white privilege.” Yeah, like that’ll make his critics drop the subject. So long as sad-eyed, now crestfallen Beto feels bad about it, right?
He lucked out in 2018 because coming across as more humane, more appealing, and more pensive than Ted Cruz was a breeze. Now he’s wading into a field of brainy, tough candidates
Few things are as potentially damaging to a politician’s electoral prospects as a growing perception that he—or more recently, she—is a weirdo. As a rule, his or her home life shouldn’t be entered into evidence, but The Washington Post did just that in a profile of O’Rourke’s marriage to Amy Sanders and the three kids they’re raising. Or that she is, mainly, while Dad pursues his bliss by taking to the road.
Sanders didn’t come off especially well—clearly, to love Beto O’Rourke largely means putting up with him—and neither did her inanity-spouting, self-entranced husband. The only member of the family your heart went out to was the couple’s son, Ulysses, because any father who’d name his firstborn after the hero of Homer’s Odyssey is a) pretentious and b) maybe just a tad narcissistic. Because so much of the O’Rourke clan’s daily doings are flogged to death—sorry, vlogged to death—on social media, the Post’s most withering appraisal was to call the marriage “the political equivalent of The Truman Show.”
What O’Rourke should remember, but possibly can’t believe, is that these are only the preliminaries. Media sniping is one thing, but his rivals for the nomination have yet to start coming after him in earnest, and when they do, it won’t be pretty. He lucked out in 2018 because coming across as more humane, more appealing, and more pensive than Ted Cruz was a breeze, and Democrats from Miami to Spokane were universally rooting for O’Rourke to prevail. Now he’s wading into a field of brainy, tough candidates who can nearly all out-woke him if need be and out-wonk him in their sleep. At least a couple of them have fan bases as dedicated as his own.
He doesn’t even have a monopoly on charisma in this bunch, and that was always his ace in the hole. Most likely, it’s going to be a piece of cake for Kamala Harris to make him look befuddled, Bernie Sanders and/or Elizabeth Warren to make him look vapid, and something like half the people onstage in any Democratic debate to make him look too entitled, too rich, too male and too white to represent America’s future. We’re omitting the potential Cheshire cat in the race, Joe Biden, because Biden hasn’t yet clambered out of his Cheshire litter box. But to whatever extent he and O’Rourke end up competing for the same slice of the primary vote, our guess is that Biden will probably end up seeming like a smarter bet to the moderates for whom “electability” is 2020’s be-all and end-all.
Sure, the contest is so wide open that even a mealy-mouthed prediction like that one is on the rash side. All of the candidates now running have different strengths and skill sets, and nobody has a clue which mix-and-match recipe will be most attractive to voters a year from now. With only one or two exceptions, though, the people O’Rourke is running against all share one trait that he’s never shown much talent for: a relentless focus on the goal line. Maybe the real reason he spends so much time aimlessly driving around is that he’s never learned how to read a map.