The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Beto O’Rourke needs to get off the road

Beto O'Rourke is leaving office, holding his last town hall meeting as a congressman from El Paso. But his constituents want him to run for president in 2020. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Beto O’Rourke is an impressive politician in many ways. Eloquent and inclusive, he brought much-needed optimism and idealism to the U.S. Senate race in Texas. He resisted the allure of easy slogans such as “Abolish ICE!” and declined to sign onto a Green New Deal that no one has really defined. He has the rare ability to disagree with ideological opponents without demonizing them. Still. He needs to pull off the highway.

The road trip he is currently undertaking is fine in concept. It’s heartening in many ways to see a candidate or potential candidate in completely unscripted, informal settings. Politicians should talk to real people, not the ones handpicked for a focus group or with time on their hands to go to political events. After two years of President Trump, voters not unreasonably would like to see someone who can relate to ordinary Americans' lives and carry on a conversation that, to be blunt, isn’t just about him. The trip itself is not the problem.

The problem is the stream of consciousness, verging-on-self-parody narration. The voice sounds more like a college freshman than a contender for leader of the free world. Grousing that he’s in a “funk” and pining to “break out of the loops I’ve been stuck in” seems weirdly tone deaf at a time that hundreds of thousands of Americans have a real reason for complaint, namely a month without a paycheck.

When others are paying tribute to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., he’s telling us his cellphone ran out of juice and comparing his Senate campaign unfavorably to his current jaunt. (“The schedule had become too intense, too much in a day to spend enough time to hear someone’s story all the way through. Too may [sic] stops, so many people.”)

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

When Democrats in Congress are dissecting and denouncing Trump’s latest proposal’s poison pills (including a draconian crackdown on asylum seekers), O’Rourke’s commentary seems simultaneously self-indulgent and frivolous. (“O’Rourke’s frequent use of short, fragmentary sentences, evocative descriptions of rural America, and insistence on including mundane details about charging his phone or ordering blackberry cobbler at a diner have inspired satirical imitations,” my colleague Antonia Noori Farzan writes.)

The notion that his travelogue is a superior form of politics, more high-minded and genuine than campaign speeches, is a straw man. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is talking to real people and discussing their problems and her ideas to help them and providing serious diagnosis of what ails the country. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) has been talking about the plight of unpaid government workers while former vice president Joe Biden is speaking powerfully about the epidemic of hate unleashed under this president. They have some gravitas. They are talking about things that matter.

And many of those college-educated women and suburbanites who fled the GOP in 2018 — the ones who have real jobs and serious responsibilities — aren’t necessarily impressed with a guy who jumps in his car, heads out on his road without his wife and small kids, and pours out his innermost thoughts in a public diary. Among their beefs with Trump was his failure to do his job, perform competently and meet the basic requirements of civility and common sense they must display in their own lives.

President Barack Obama, to whom some would compare O’Rourke, certainly appealed to young voters and could culturally connect with them in a way older politicians could not. However, Obama didn’t act and speak like a 20-something; he didn’t curse or overshare. He was a grown-up.

O’Rourke hasn’t decided if he will run. If he does, he will have more than a year before the first votes are cast to establish himself as a serious candidate, give better responses than “I don’t know” on major issues and explain his vision for the future. This road jaunt will all be a distant memory if he quits it soon and learns from it.

One lesson O’Rourke should take away: He needs a sober and experienced friend or adviser to tell him when something is not a good idea. Every candidate needs such a person. Some need it more than others.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Is this the beginning for Beto?

Carter Eskew: Preseason is over for Beto O’Rourke

Elizabeth Bruenig: Why this progressive Texan can’t get excited about Beto O’Rourke

Jonathan Capehart: Democrats must follow this one rule for 2020