Former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke (D) during a live interview with Oprah Winfrey on Feb. 5 in New York. (Kathy Willens/AP)
Columnist

It’s fitting that Beto O’Rourke announced his presidential campaign on the cover of Vanity Fair. At heart, that’s exactly what his effort is about: vanity.

“Man, I’m just born to be in it,” the Texas Democrat says in perfect hipster speech. Just what is the “it,” exactly? Seems the potential 46th president of the United States doesn’t really know. O’Rourke describes the epiphany he had at an early campaign rally in Houston: “I remember driving to that, I was, like, ‘What do I say?' . . . Every word was pulled out of me. 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?”

Whoa, dude. Really?

O’Rourke’s boyish, surfer dude looks nevertheless belies a serious leftist agenda. His campaign announcement video is a white, upscale progressive’s dream. With his loving and wealthy wife, Amy, silently smiling at his side, he passionately marches through the familiar progressive litany: attacking alleged corporate control of “our democracy,” health care, immigration, and “[confronting] the hard truths of slavery and segregation and suppression in these United States of America.” He then comes to progressives’ Holy Grail: combating climate change — because our “existence depends on it.” No wonder he inspires such devotion that young left-wing fans make amateur music videos extolling him.

Those issues aren’t a coincidence. Pollster David Winston of the Voter Study Group released a paper last year breaking the electorate into five discrete groups based on the issues they ranked as “very important.” Five of the issues O’Rourke name-checked in his video — climate change and the environment, health care, racial equality and money in politics — were among the top six priorities of the most liberal group, the “Democratic/Independent Liberal Elites” (DILEs). It’s clear whom Beto is targeting.

O’Rourke’s manner is compelling — and frighteningly insistent. He echoes the progressive intensity and certainty that his solutions to these issues are absolutely the right thing to do. He speaks of our nation being in “maximum peril” — but most of the issues he cites as proof are not among the top five priorities for more than 85 percent of Americans. DILEs, it turns out, are only 13 percent of all voters, and even the other, more moderate faction of Democrats places higher priority on the economy, jobs, Social Security, Medicare and crime than on most of his collection — all concerns completely absent from O’Rourke’s announcement.

His sanctimonious manner is exactly what conservatives dislike most about progressives. O’Rourke says he wants to “unite a very divided country,” but you can’t do that democratically if you want to force the priorities of 13 percent of the country on the rest.

“Mobilizing” would be a more accurate term to describe the progressive focus on unity, as mobilization is the term that recurs throughout the text of their new bible, the Green New Deal resolution. The United States and the planet are in peril, the document intones, and to save ourselves, we need “a new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II.” Climate change is a legitimate issue, but no matter how white his teeth are or how ordinary he looks, “you will be mobilized” is a frightening concept.

O’Rourke ends his video by stealing one of Ronald Reagan’s greatest lines — with one small change. Reagan ended the 1964 speech that made him conservatism’s shining star by saying that Barry Goldwater’s campaign could be “the last, best hope of man on Earth.” O’Rourke’s video ends by saying “we are … the last, great hope of Earth.” Notice the difference? Instead of saving us, the emphasis is saving the planet. What might happen to us, the people struggling to get by, is left unsaid.

For all of the talk of service and for all the disarming charm, O’Rourke’s candidacy comes down to him. His gift of putting the priorities and passions of the progressive people into poetic prose is why he is on the list of potential presidents. And for anyone genuinely concerned about our democracy, his 21st century narcissistic demagoguery ought to be very frightening indeed.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Beto O’Rourke jumps in. Now here’s the big question.

Greg Sargent: Beto O’Rourke as the anti-Trump? Here are five takeaways from his launch.

Paul Waldman: What the Democratic presidential candidates aren’t telling us

Jennifer Rubin: Eight ways for 2020 underdogs to break through

Carter Eskew: Preseason is over for Beto O’Rourke