To be sure, the fact that Joe Biden commands a 30-point lead over the field of Democratic presidential candidates shows that voters prefer the former vice president. And yet, the over-invested O’Rourke followers continue to insist that everyone should withhold judgment. There is something in O’Rourke’s unformed promise that they seem unable to shake. Even as O’Rourke himself fashionably apologizes for the perception of having too much fashionable “white privilege,” as demonstrated by announcing his candidacy on the cover of “Vanity Fair,” his previous backers are uncertain in their support. Those who wish for a dreamy reincarnation of John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama in O’Rourke fooled themselves into thinking that all of this apologizing will be the secret sauce for 2020. So, where better for O’Rourke to apologize for his campaign’s performance to date than on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” as he did earlier this week? O’Rourke’s strategists likely convinced him that this would offer the best chance of not just reaching still-winnable voters but also impressing his plentiful number of sympathizers in the media.
O’Rourke may still think he can win Texas — appealing to another fleeting, Democratic dream — but the fact is 1976 was the last year a Democratic ticket took Texas in a presidential general election, and before that it was 1964 with Texan Lyndon B. Johnson at the top of the ticket. In 1988, the flailing Michael Dukakis campaign made a serious play for Texas by selecting one of its senators, Lloyd Bentsen, as his running mate, but to no avail. And the best we can say, in objective terms, about O’Rourke and Texas is that he almost came close to defeating Sen. Ted Cruz (R) statewide last year. But even for a candidate such as O’Rourke, who was recently profiled by Politico for his “long history of failing upward,” staking your campaign on coming close to winning is still a tenuous case to make.
While some in the media seem to be rushing their O’Rourke features out of fear that his collapse is fast approaching, others are making a play for something else. Maybe O’Rourke could resurrect himself at the Democratic convention as a candidate for vice president. Or maybe Team Beto always knew he’d lose the primary and he’s been running for vice president all along. After all, there is no chance O’Rourke could seriously be thought of as a secretary of anything meaningful in the next Democratic administration. For O’Rourke, 2020 is about either being on the ticket or nothing.
O’Rourke as running mate would be a practical outcome and an impressive achievement for someone who, just a couple months ago, was using his live-streamed visit to the dentist to hold forth on something or another. But to achieve that outcome, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party would have to first sift him through their filter of identity politics to make sure he checks the right boxes as determined by the ultimate nominee.
With just over a month to go until their first televised debate, what is striking about the Democratic Party’s field of presidential contenders is its apparent lack of dynamism. Perhaps if Democrats had something of substance to offer voters that went beyond just free college tuition, free health care and voting rights for murderers, they would be able to have a debate of ideas and differentiate themselves from one another. But the field of Democrats vying for the presidency seems to be calcifying rather than capturing the imagination of voters — and therein lies the reason some Democrats feel they must give O’Rourke an obligatory second look.