Opinion writer

That Vanity Fair cover story probably didn’t do Beto O’Rourke any favors — well, other than help him raise a ton of cash. The story emphasized the angst-ridden O’Rourke, the one suffering from an overabundance of self-regard (“born to be in it”). His comments about his wife and child-rearing caused him some grief in the opening days of the campaign. However, O’Rourke may be the rare candidate whose first day in the race isn’t his best.

O’Rourke has done several smart things.

First, he’s figured out he needs a professional campaign and is foregoing the fly-by-night (or drive-himself-by-night) sort of operation he used in his Senate race. The Post reports: “One Democratic strategist said that, in an early conversation, he got the sense that O’Rourke and his team were trying to decide whether they could run a presidential campaign largely as an extension of the Senate campaign. By spring, such thoughts seemed to have disappeared.” He’s getting some top-notch talent: “The clearest indicator of the change in thinking was O’Rourke’s decision to recruit and hire Jen O’Malley Dillon, who was deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama in 2012, as his new campaign manager.”

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke addresses his supporters at his kickoff rally in El Paso on Saturday. (Jose Luis Gonzalez)

Second, O’Rourke has adamantly refused to get sucked into the leftward scramble on issues such as health care. He’s supporting a House plan that unlike Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) Medicare-for-all wouldn’t outlaw private insurance. As CNN reported, O’Rourke told an audience in New Hampshire in late March, “What it says is, if you like your employer-sponsored insurance, you like the network that you’re in, you like the doctors that you can see, you’re happy with that, you can keep it. If you do not like your employer-based insurance and want to enroll in Medicare, you can. If you have no insurance whatsoever or if you are underinsured today, you can enroll in Medicare as well.” That sort of plan is a whole lot more popular than Sanders’s single-payer plan and it’s cheaper, too.

Third, what little he has said about foreign policy sounds reasonable. Every Democrat is going to promise to end long wars. However, he sounded cognizant of the need for U.S. international leadership. He explained in his El Paso kickoff rally Saturday that to achieve goals such as reversing climate change, the United States must “once again reassert our role on the world stage.” He then outlined a very traditional, responsible foreign policy vision

[W]e’ve got to strengthen these historic friendships and alliances, so many of them forged in sacrifice. The service of men and women who put their lives on the line and lost their lives to this country, let’s make sure that that sacrifice was not squandered. Let’s make sure that we strengthen those alliances. Let’s end these love affairs with dictators and strongmen all over the world. Let’s earn, let’s earn the respect of the people around the world, not just by how we treat those in other countries, but how we treat those within our country, and how we treat those who are at the border of our country. If we do that, we can make sure that we once again become the indispensable nation convening the other nations of this planet around some of our shared challenges like climate change, like nuclear disarmament, like ending all of these wars that we are currently engaged in, we can do for ourselves what no other country can.

In other words, democracy and our strategic needs go hand in hand. Retreating from the world, as those on the right and the far-left appear to want, won’t solve our problems. If O’Rourke can talk sense to voters and use his perch to make a case for responsible internationalism, he’ll do his party and the country a favor.

Finally, at a time President Trump is proposing the exact wrong policy to stem asylum seekers — cutting aid to Central American countries — O’Rourke argued: “We can try to solve the problems of Central America here at our front door at the Texas-Mexico border, or we can invest in the opportunities to help the people of Central America where they are at home. It is our choice.” Well, that’s a refreshing dose of reality, one that recognizes our enlightened self-interest means doing what Trump is incapable of — engaging constructively in the world.

O’Rourke has a long way to go — as do all the candidates — to fill out his message, provide reassurance that he’s tough enough to stand up to Trump and create a presidential-caliber operation that will survive a grueling 20 months. However, he’s done something a successful candidate and president must: Learn. It’s no small thing in a world of yes-men and fawning supporters to recognize what you don’t know, figure out when you are falling short and then course correct.

Read more:

Dan Balz: Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign can’t be like his Senate campaign

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The reality and limits of Beto-mania

David Von Drehle: Democrats have to decide what to do with the two old men

Helaine Olen: Beto O’Rourke and Gen X’s traditionalism

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