After a long tease, Beto O’Rourke announced on Thursday his run for the presidency. His kickoff video was quintessential O’Rourke:
His call for a grass-roots campaign, his inclusive message and his determination to paint challenges as opportunities are likely to ignite a fierce, youthful following.
The anticipation for his run has been far greater than for any other candidate, and the immediate reaction is likely to be enthusiastic if not frenetic. Look for huge crowds in Iowa this weekend for his first presidential campaign swing and a money total that dwarfs the haul that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pulled in when he entered the race.
O’Rourke has an engaged base of supporters, an established persona and loads of passion. He could well drag Sanders down in the polls, stealing away young, aspirational voters. Compared with Sanders’s angry-man routine and other candidates telling us that practically everything in the United States is terrible and must change, O’Rourke might come as a breath of fresh air.
There is no question that O’Rourke enters the race with a sense of delirium that equals if not surpasses Barack Obama’s first campaign. While Republicans mocked “hope and change” as rhetorical froth, that’s exactly what most voters want — hope and change. The country is on edge, and Americans are at one another’s throats. Government is polarized and paralyzed. President Trump has insulted, angered and frightened a large percentage of the electorate. Why wouldn’t voters want optimism and good cheer, the promise of reconciliation?
The question for O’Rourke, the Democrats and the country is whether he has the discipline and tenacity needed for a long campaign. We don’t yet know if he has enough humility to know what he doesn’t know and learn what he needs to. He thinks he can reinvent presidential campaigning. Maybe he can. Maybe voters don’t so much care about policy proposals and ideological labels. Maybe they simply want to stop feeling angry and anxious.
Nevertheless, you have to have enough staff, money and support strategically placed at the right time and place to win week after week as the campaign moves around the country. If the Senate race exhausted him and strained his family, he might find the presidential race brutal.
A top-tier candidate will have to get on the stage and get through interviews — and do better than everyone else. And no one, not even O’Rourke, knows whether a white, male three-term former congressman who lost a Senate race can pull this off against a diverse, talented field in which just about everyone has more experience in politics than he does.
Pete Buttigieg will remind you that he has been in the military and has run a city for eight years. Joe Biden was in the Senate forever and then served as vice president. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), according to a recent study “based on 15 metrics that take into account the number of bills a legislator sponsors, how far each of those bills advances through the legislative process from introduction to (possibly) becoming law and its relative substantive significance,” ranked as the top-performing Democrat and fifth-highest in either party. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) seems to have bold and detailed plans for everything. Two governors have a long list of accomplishments and can talk in granular detail on lots of topics.
O’Rourke’s first challenge is to show he knows enough and can hold his own among potential candidates including a former vice president, two governors, one mayor, one former mayor and a fleet of senators who have plenty to say. He’s more than capable of learning what he needs to and doing homework, if he decides he needs to. He needs solidity.
O’Rourke’s easygoing and sunny outlook is a genuine asset, and most Democratic voters want a president whom they can be proud of, who seems confident and hopeful. A puff piece from Vanity Fair, however, should raise some concerns — the juvenile profanity that may be off-putting to some voters, the excessive introspection and the winging-it attitude. Describing one of his campaign stops in the Senate race, he told the magazine, “I don’t ever prepare a speech. ... Like, by some greater force, which was just the people there. Everything that I said, I was, like, watching myself, being like, How am I saying this stuff? Where is this coming from?” Will this sort of talk make voters swoon or elicit guffaws? “I want to be in it. Man, I’m just born to be in it” he says. What to his followers will sound bubbly will sound to others like entitlement or self-indulgence. (Twitter lit up with sneers, but as he said in the VF piece, Twitter can be “mean.” “No human, least of all me, is strong enough to completely withstand the impact that has on you, and it can’t be healthy,” he — a social media phenomenon — said without any sense of irony.)
He’s generally regarded as less ideologically doctrinaire than some in the race, an important quality if you want to win the general election. More power to him if he can resist the flight to the left and remind Democrats that they need support from voters who are much less progressive than, say, Sanders to take back the White House. Nevertheless, he’ll have to shake the criticism that he’s trying to be all things to all people, or simply hasn’t thought through issues in enough detail.
More than any other major candidate, O’Rourke is an unknown quantity. Political gold or fool’s gold? We will find out fairly soon.