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Opinion

It's Time to Snap Out of the #Beto2020 Fantasy

Beto O’Rourke hadn’t even finished conceding to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in El Paso on Tuesday night before the Twitterverse got busy nominating him for president. O’Rourke’s own “definitive no” back in October to the notion of challenging Donald Trump next time around didn’t stop the “#Beto2020” hashtag from mutating overnight into coastal elites’ new rallying cry, and why not? Remember, O’Rourke only disavowed trying for the White House if he beat Cruz—not if he lost.

If “#Beto2020” amounts to magical thinking at its glibbest, which we’re pretty sure it does, you have to understand the Democrats’ quandary. After the jar of Ms. Jekyll and Dr. Formaldehyde that Hillary Clinton turned out to be on the campaign trail, the party is so eager to find another Obama that the only literal one in sight was looking like a good bet to fantasists. (Unlike O’Rourke’s, Michelle Obama’s own definitive “No” came with a very convincing shudder.) When you’ve been gifted with a rising superstar as winsome as Beto—no other newcomer to the national political scene got such floods of besotted media coverage, not even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—why send him back to the farm team just because he couldn’t defeat Ted Cruz, the least appealing U.S. senator since Joe McCarthy went to his reward?

Inside Texas, O’Rourke started out as such a long shot that the pros were nonplussed when he managed to turn the race not only competitive, but close. (For the record, he ended up losing by scarcely three points; Cruz trounced his forgettable 2012 opponent by 16.) Outside Texas, on the other hand, anyone infatuated with Beto’s charm, good looks, lankiness, skateboard skills, punk-rock past, live-streamed campaign diary, sincere teeth, and upbeat message must have wondered why the crocodile incumbent didn’t just give up and endorse him.

After all, the special sorrow of Ted Cruz is in being so unlikable that it’s not altogether clear whether even Ted Cruz likes Ted Cruz. He may worship Ted Cruz, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into enjoying Ted Cruz’s company. That only makes it more undeniable that a majority of Texas voters—a dwindling majority, but a majority nonetheless—must have voted for the crocodile incumbent because they (yeesh!) agree with him on the issues.
While experts have predicted for years that Texas will go blue eventually, thanks largely to that sleeping-giant Latino vote, even Beto’s sneakered foot on the gas couldn’t accelerate the process sufficiently.
Higher turnout among Latinos and millennials might have changed the outcome, or at least narrowed Cruz’s margin of victory. O’Rourke energized both of those notoriously voting-averse constituencies, but he plainly didn’t energize them enough. While experts have predicted for years that Texas will go blue eventually, thanks largely to that sleeping-giant Latino vote, even Beto’s sneakered foot on the gas couldn’t accelerate the process sufficiently. But he did accelerate it some, since enthusiasm for him probably helped at least a couple of GOP congressional districts flip Democratic.

All the same, it says a lot for O’Rourke’s addictive charisma that Betophiles were in no mood to put up with rational explanations for his defeat. Since they needed someone to blame, and blaming the candidate was an obvious non-starter, they blamed Beyoncé, who’d waited until mid-afternoon on Election Day to back O’Rourke on Instagram and Twitter. “Homegirl couldn’t tweet a day earlier???” one disgruntled fan wanted to know. Another wondered “why didn’t you use your influence months ago.”

Here at Playboy, our hats have been off to Bey for so long that our heads have virtually forgotten what wearing one feels like. But even her powers of sorcery have limits.

To his credit, O’Rourke did run as an unapologetic progressive. Whether he was campaigning in deep-red rural counties or bluer-than-blue urban ones, he never changed his tune. In a state where a law declaring flag desecration a capital crime would probably enjoy wide support, he even defended NFL players’ right to kneel in protest during the national anthem. Yet his knack for peddling a liberalism that sounded inclusive instead of divisive—and was too self-evidently heartwarming to be subject to killjoy critical inquiry—was utterly dependent on his unguent personality, not the sharpness of his arguments or any demonstrated ability to turn words into deeds.
He was so blatantly one of the good guys: someone you could always count on to do the right thing. However, people you can always count on to do the right thing don’t often get a lot done on Capitol Hill.
Ultimately, he was asking Texans to vote for him because, unlike Ted Cruz, he was so blatantly one of the good guys: someone you could always count on to do the right thing. In our experience, however, people you can always count on to do the right thing don’t often get a lot done on Capitol Hill. We won’t deny that we started out being as susceptible to Betomania as anyone in Hollywood, but Mr. Smith Goes to Washington routines have a way of wearing thin with us. O’Rourke’s eternally boyish version of one depended on people forgetting he’s spent the past six years there in the House of Representatives, without a lot to show for it.

One downside of his accentuate-the-positive approach that grew evident was that it tied his hands when it came to attacking Cruz head-on. When you’re running against Ted Cruz, keeping a shiv handy in your toolbox ought to be a no-brainer, no matter how much love and happiness you’re peddling otherwise. But O’Rourke pivoted to the tactic so late in the day that, on top of being transparently un-Beto-like, it was something arguably worse: ineffectual. It’s no wonder he scooted back to being adorable in the race’s closing days, which worked a lot better for him. Just not well enough, unfortunately.

All that aside, it would still have been a huge thrill if he’d won—and not only because Ted Cruz would have had to go back to playing Tick-Tock on all fours in high-school productions of Peter Pan. But O’Rourke’s chances of winning were probably always an illusion, which is why liberals’ embrace of him may have actually damaged the party’s Senate prospects elsewhere.
When you’re running against Ted Cruz, keeping a shiv handy in your toolbox ought to be a no-brainer, no matter how much "love" and "happiness" you’re peddling otherwise.
How so? Suppose that at least some of the phenomenal $38 million O’Rourke raised in 2018’s third quarter alone had been funneled instead to Claire McCaskill or Heidi Keitkamp, two Democratic incumbents in states with much smaller electorates and less costly media markets. (To prevail, Beto would have needed to change the minds of around a quarter of a million Texas voters; the comparable figure for Heitkamp in North Dakota was 32,000 and change.) But we’ll never know.

Even so, daydreaming of “#Beto2020” will probably go on being liberal America’s happy place for a while. Unlike him, the dozen or so Senate Democrats contemplating a run may have actually won a statewide election at least once in their lives, but they can’t match that chipper grin. Now that the midterms are behind us, the Democrats are sure to revert to their fatuous belief that winning the presidency is the only race that matters. O’Rourke is tailor-made to revive their eternal, flaming fantasy of electing another John F. Kennedy. Never mind that, with the big-time exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK was a fairly feckless chief executive. A Texan almost as unappetizing as Ted Cruz was the POTUS who posthumously shoved through the civil-rights and other legislation most associated with liberalism’s 1960s high-water mark.

Still, what’s an unemployed 46-year-old punk rocker to do? Beto will be out of a job as of January, and he can’t go on playing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on air drums for the rest of his life. After you’ve enjoyed the kind of popular adulation he has, it’s awfully hard to go cold turkey. Besides, to be fair, a historical precedent does exist for a U.S. politician losing a high-profile Senate race and moving into the White House just two years later. But his name was Abraham Lincoln, and even Beyoncé—hell, even Willie Nelson—ain’t gonna convince us that O’Rourke is in Abe’s league.