Beto O’Rourke, weighing whether to mount a 2020 presidential bid, met recently with Barack Obama at his post-presidency offices in Washington.
The meeting, which was held on Nov. 16 at the former president’s offices in Foggy Bottom, came as former Obama aides have encouraged the Democratic House member to run, seeing him as capable of the same kind of inspirational campaign that caught fire in the 2008 presidential election.
O’Rourke, as Obama did, certainly has the rhetorical skills and charisma to make Democrats swoon. He has some of the same advantages Obama enjoyed, and a few that Obama lacked.
First, O’Rourke comes from red Texas not blue Illinois. As he showed in his hard-fought Senate race against Ted Cruz, he can speak both to the left and to disaffected Republicans. He is clearly progressive, but can talk in a way that does not frighten voters who are more moderate. He can tout his legislative record in promoting health care for veterans — but also vigorously oppose President Trump’s family-separation policy. He supports immigration reform but has avoided silly positions such as abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He is at ease talking about values — as he did when he defended the rights of NFL players to protest (“I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, anytime, anywhere, in any place”). While he is a strong advocate of restrictions on semiautomatic weapons, he can also say with conviction “we have this great proud honorable heritage and proud tradition of gun ownership in Texas.”
Second, he’s young (46 years old) but has been in state and local government since 2005. He certainly seems like a newcomer because he was unknown to most Americans before 2018 (and, hence, hasn’t worn out his welcome or made well-publicized missteps). However, he can handle himself like a far more experienced pol and has proved to be a mega-fundraiser.
In a field that could include 69-year-old Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), 77-year-old Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former vice president Joe Biden (76), Michael R. Bloomberg (76) and 66-year-old Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio (who seems older than he is), O' Rourke will stand out. (At 6 feet, 4 inches, O’Rourke would be taller than most every other candidate as well, which does not hurt.)
If you want to thread the needle between someone who’s not a total novice and someone old enough to join AARP, O’Rourke fits the bill (as would 49-year-old Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey). Instead of sending Hillary Clinton, who was 69 years old in 2016, if O’Rourke wins the nomination, Democrats would have a Beto vs. Trump race. Come to think of it, the last time there was an age disparity of this magnitude was in 2008, when a 47-year-old junior senator from Illinois went up against the late John McCain, then 72 years old.
Third, O’Rourke won’t have a day job beginning in 2019. That gives him the luxury of avoiding thankless votes and, more important, the time to travel around the country and internationally. It’s the latter that may be a critical part of his pre-2020 preparation. We can recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s cringeworthy lack of foreign policy acumen and obvious lack of comfort on the international stage during the 2016 Republican primaries. Now is the time — and O’Rourke has the freedom — to study up, travel and show he can pass the commander in chief test.
There will be progressives with less centrist appeal (Warren, Sanders) and a slew of senators who seem like they’re creatures of Washington. There might be a former vice president who, as he put it, is “the most qualified person in the country to be president” who can honestly say, "The issues that we face as a country today are the issues that have been in my wheelhouse, that I’ve worked on my whole life.” And maybe more than one billionaire, non-politician (e.g., Tom Steyer, Bloomberg). However, if Democrats are looking for the anti-Trump — eloquent, young, inspirational, wonky and approachable — O’Rourke has as good a chance as anyone. Maybe better.