As expected, Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s first day on the presidential campaign trail drew crowds in Iowa and huge media attention. Sure, the latter focus on the superficial (and, yes, he’s got to minimize the arm-flailing) and the process stories. (The New York Times noted, “It is an open question whether he will be able to scale up his skeletal organization and hand over control to the sort of political professionals he largely shunned in his Senate race. The lead-up to Mr. O’Rourke’s official announcement Thursday has been highly improvisational, in part because he was personally directing much of the planning.” His supporters don’t care, but he’ll need to professionalize his approach in order to win — and to convince voters that he knows how to manage a sizable operation.)
However, the media is following him en masse, so he has an opportunity to say things of consequence to a national audience. He does not have a single defining issue, although he seems passionate about climate change and immigration. He is not going to present a long list of super-important bills he passed. So can he add something other than hope, reconciliation and kindness — which are no small things but insufficient for nearly two years of campaigning?
Here’s an idea: The former Texas congressman must be a unifying figure in his own party and a unifying figure for the country at large. He’s not an extremist and deplores “labels,” but labels do help voters understand who you are. So why not give them a label — radical patriot? Passionate problem-solver? Zealous pragmatist?
This is not just packaging. His most critical message to the country may be that one can be idealistic, forward-looking and passionate without being divisive, without widening the gaps between groups of Americans. “Moderation” has a bad name in some corners of the Democratic Party. But moderation doesn’t mean fuzzy compromise or lackluster effort. It means, in its best sense, the zealous pursuit of solutions that the most people possible can support. It’s finding common ground, because that is the only way to solve challenges you care about.
That’s something O’Rourke has the skills to communicate and around which he can thematically organize his campaign. And in contrast to “I alone can fix it” or a 14-point plan for every ill, perhaps he can act as a movement leader in identifying goals. He did compliment the Green New Deal as a great motivator, a vision of what we need to accomplish, and fast. In that regard, he should lay out some missions for the country, and then pledge to work on the details: universal health-care coverage, an economy based on green energy, a living wage for anyone who works 40 hours a week, a coordinated approach to defend against cyber threats, remove racial bias from our criminal justice system, democratize higher education — i.e. wealth and privilege should not be a barrier to college — and comprehensive immigration reform. These could be on his to-do list, certainly. His campaign needs to connect his “soft” message of hope and respect with the progressive goals that Democrats want. With the first, and only with the first, can they attain the latter.
What is special about O’Rourke is his ability to convey a progressive message in ways that keep the country unified. He should show voters the ends he seeks, and tell them they will be achieved only with wide support — and then offer himself as the guy who’s able to deliver.