Most of the Democratic presidential candidates are framing their candidacies around some kind of conception of the deep damage that President Trump is doing to the country, and by extension, a set of premises about what voters — for now, Democratic primary voters in particular — crave most as an antidote to it.
Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, just entered the presidential race, and judging by his announcement video, he is betting that Democratic voters, above all, want some form of relief from the hate, division and sheer debasement of everything that Trump has unleashed. Here are five takeaways.
O’Rourke casts himself as a “better angels” and “yes we can” Democrat. O’Rourke’s announcement smacks of an effort to recapture the optimistic spirit of unity and generational promise embodied in Barack Obama’s 2008 candidacy. There has been much talk about how O’Rourke will vie with former vice president Joe Biden for a slice of Obama’s legacy. But Biden is promising a restoration of the big-dreaming-but-functionally-incremental liberalism of the Obama years, and will appeal to older moderate Democrats, while O’Rourke will be able to make a play for younger progressives that Biden perhaps cannot, through an Obama-like youthful, inspirational appeal that he displayed in his near-miss Texas Senate candidacy.
Still, this will be complicated by the fact that O’Rourke is more moderate than many of today’s young progressives, and that on policy, he’s largely a blank slate. For now, O’Rourke seems to mainly promise the recapture of a feeling akin to that experienced by many Democrats about Obama in 2008 — the feeling of being swept up in generational history-making.
O’Rourke doesn’t have a big policy idea. Candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have offered a clear diagnosis of what ails us — stagnating mobility, soaring inequality, and concentrated economic and political power. In their reading, Trump primarily represents the entrenchment of corrupt plutocracy, and their answer is an unabashedly ambitious progressive unrigging of the economy.
O’Rourke’s announcement is notable for how little it has to say about those matters. “Corporations” get almost no mention. O’Rourke and Sanders both promise to marshal an unprecedented grass-roots uprising, but only Sanders does so as a means to overwhelming the power of plutocracy.
O’Rourke’s topline diagnosis — the “interconnected crises in our economy, our democracy, and our climate” — hints at the view that our political economy needs a major, multi-front overhaul. But in a way, it also demonstrates that no particular major challenge preoccupies him. There’s plenty of time for O’Rourke to fill in these details. But for now, he lacks a big policy idea around which to build his candidacy.
O’Rourke is in fantasyland about today’s GOP. O’Rourke’s efforts to recapture the unifying, generational-change-oriented “yes we can” spirit of Obama leads him to take a similar approach to our partisan divides. In an interview with Vanity Fair, O’Rourke claims his “ability to listen to people” and his experience “working with Republicans” will enable him to find “common ground” as president.
Candidates always feel the need to say this, but we all know it’s nonsense, and few things confirm that more clearly than Obama’s presidency. The goals O’Rourke sets in this video — universal health care, humane immigration reform, combating climate change — are certain to generate little to no consensus among Republicans.
In fairness, none of the other Democrats have figured out how to talk about this problem. But candidates who seem to proclaim as a virtue that they’ll melt through the partisan divide with the heat of optimism and positivity — as O’Rourke does — have an extra obligation to explain themselves on this front.
O’Rourke wants to bridge the “Sun Belt vs. Rust Belt” gap. In O’Rourke’s video, there’s an interesting juxtaposition:
All of us, wherever you live, can acknowledge that if immigration is a problem, it’s the best possible problem for this country to have. And we should ensure that there are lawful paths to work, to be with family, and to flee persecution.
We can listen to, and lift up, rural America.
We can work on real justice reform, and confront the hard truths of slavery, segregation, and suppression in these United States of America.
One big (and overhyped) debate among Democrats is whether the path to beating Trump runs through taking back the Rust Belt states that Trump cracked, or through Sun Belt states that demographic change is edging toward the Democratic column.
That debate is a proxy for the one over whether Democrats must prioritize either winning back blue-collar, rural, culturally conservative whites (and whether this requires a coded backing off of defending minority rights), or mobilizing young people and nonwhites (by doubling down on immigration and racial issues).
O’Rourke may be the most emphatically pro-immigration candidate running. He argued to the El Paso Times that his personal experience of the border positions him best to win the argument against Trump’s xenophobic and nativist nationalism.
By juxtaposing these discussions of immigration and racial justice alongside a promise to hear rural America’s laments, O’Rourke stands for the proposition that the Rust Belt-Sun Belt divide can easily be straddled, or at least can be overwhelmed through sheer force of positive, inspirational energy.
O’Rourke has his own answer to the “white man” problem. O’Rourke faces the obvious difficulty that the diversifying Democratic electorate may not want a white, male standard-bearer. O’Rourke addressed this in the Vanity Fair interview, acknowledging that “the government at all levels is overly represented by white men,” and that this would be “a very legitimate basis” for choosing a nonwhite or woman.
In effect, O’Rourke accepts that making an identity-driven choice is a reasonable response to the white male dominance of our politics. That’s different from Sanders’s approach, which has been to say that Democrats need to “go beyond identity politics,” though in fairness, Sanders has said that in service of an economic vision that unites working-class people of all races, and he has spoken of the need for fairer racial representation.
O’Rourke’s approach is basically to say, “I’m woke enough to understand why you’d choose a nonwhite or a woman on that basis, but please take into account that I’ll act on that wokeness as president.”
Which, given the circumstances, isn’t necessarily a bad answer. But, without more policy details, it once again turns, as so much about O’Rourke does, on the promise of transcending divisions and solving intractable problems through the sheer power of “better angels" and “yes we can” optimism.