• Ryan O'Connell

Is Beto O'Rourke Ready for Prime Time?

Updated: Mar 22, 2019

March 21, 2019

Is Beto O’Rourke the next Jack Kennedy....or is he “all hat and no cattle”, as they say in Texas? Robert Francis O’Rourke certainly has strengths. The Texan is handsome and charismatic, and, like any good Irish-American politician, he has the gift of blarney. O’Rourke generates excitement among voters, he draws crowds and he can raise large amounts of money. As a native of El Paso, he speaks Spanish fluently. That should be a major asset, as Hispanics now constitute almost 20% of the U.S. population.

O’Rourke has a flair for the dramatic, and he clearly enjoys campaigning and connecting with voters. He relishes the retail aspects of politics. Last week, as he kicked off his campaign, making the rounds in Iowa, the candidate stood on a table in a coffee shop. He literally stood out among the crowd.

O’Rourke hails from the second-largest state in the union. He ran a strong campaign against Sen. Ted Cruz, although he lost, and he is now well known in his home state. If O’Rourke became the Democratic nominee, he might have a shot at winning Texas’ 36 electoral votes. That would be important for his campaign and historic for the Democratic Party.

Beto Stands Out Among the Crowd

But O’Rourke also has flaws. He has little executive experience, and his approach to campaigning reflects this. O’Rourke seems to make a fetish out of improvising. He did not build up a large staff when he ran for the Senate against Ted Cruz. And while he spent several months pondering whether to launch a presidential campaign, O’Rourke did not use that time to recruit key staffers. In the meantime, rivals such as Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren scooped up much of the available talent. That was a missed opportunity for O’Rourke.

Instead, O’Rourke speaks about his abilities as a campaigner in almost mystical terms. He prefers to rely on his gut instincts rather than on advisers. When he ran against Ted Cruz, O’Rourke boasted that he did not use pollsters. However, polls can help a candidate to focus his campaign and use his time efficiently. Pollsters can also alert candidates if they have to change or fine-tune their message.

In her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama emphasizes the extraordinary amount of planning and logistics that are essential for a successful presidential campaign. She stresses how much she and her tightly scheduled husband relied on their top staffers for advice--including suggestions on mid-course corrections--and to survive the physical demands of a grueling campaign.

So running a thinly staffed national campaign would be a high-risk strategy for O’Rourke. It’s true that Donald Trump ran a chaotic, no-frills operation, relying on his instincts, and he still won the election. However, numerous press accounts indicate that Trump did not intend or expect to win. Trump’s campaign also benefited significantly, whether deliberately or not, from the highly targeted propaganda operations conducted by the Russian government.

A Launch with Mixed Results

In any event, O’Rourke made quite a splash with his long-anticipated announcement, garnering extensive media coverage. The good news is that three late-night TV show hosts--Colbert, Meyers, and Kimmel--devoted a lot of air time to O’Rourke’s launch. Here’s the bad news: they all made fun of his announcement video and some grandiose quotes in a Vanity Fair profile.

The video captures O’Rourke’s promise as well as some weak points. The scene is intimate; the candidate is at home, sitting on a couch with his wife Amy. O’Rourke speaks eloquently and passionately, in cadences that are at times reminiscent of Barack Obama. He is inspiring and positive; he comes across as down-to-earth and authentic.

However, the video is shot perhaps too close-in. O’Rourke uses hand gestures to be emphatic, but he sometimes looks a bit goofy, as his arms flap around the frame. (The TV shows lampooned this part of the video). Furthermore, Amy looks adoringly at her husband, but she doesn’t have a speaking role. That seems tone-deaf, particularly after female voters played such a key role in the 2018 midterm elections.

O’Rourke prides himself on not being scripted, but he has already committed some gaffes. In the Vanity Fair article, when the reporter asked O’Rourke why he is running for president, the candidate replied, “Man, I was just born to be in this”. O’Rourke was trying to stress his passion for serving his country, but the remark seemed arrogant, as though winning the presidency was his own Manifest Destiny. The comment provided ammunition to those who criticize him as a rich white guy who feels entitled. Still, coverage is coverage, and much better than lack of attention. Two other moderate, seasoned politicians Jay Inslee (Washington) and John Hickenlooper (Colorado), launched their presidential campaigns shortly before Beto did. Both have compiled successful records as governors. Yet so far, they have gotten lost in the deluge of Democratic candidates: 14 and counting, with one potential candidate still bidin’ his time before making a decision.

O’Rourke has also demonstrated his ability to raise money, collecting a cool $6 million in the 24 hours following his launch. He narrowly edged out Bernie Sanders ($5.9 million) and left others, even Kamala Harris, far behind ($1.5 million.) We’ll see if that’s sustainable, but he’s off to a good start.

Possible Lines of Attack Against O’Rourke—The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Some Democrats have suggested that O’Rourke should not be the nominee because he is a white man. Their rationale is that the candidate should represent the increasing diversity of the party, so the nominee should be a woman or a person of color. We should recognize this ugly line of “reasoning” for what it is: blatantly racist thinking.

Let’s reverse the logic and see how comfortable you are with the results. The Democratic Party is still 60% white, with 40% split among Latino, black, Asian and other groups. If the candidate should represent the party, which had an even higher percentage of white voters in 2008, then Democrats should not have chosen Barack Obama as their nominee…right?

Democrats did not select Barack Obama as their standard-bearer in 2008 because he was black. They chose him over Hillary Clinton because he was the better candidate. Obama ran a well-organized, stirring campaign, and he put forth strong policy positions. In 2020 Democrats should again choose their candidate based on merit, not racial identity or gender.

A derivative line of attack is that O’Rourke can’t represent the party because he is wealthy, with an estimated net worth of about $9 million. That’s reverse snobbism, which ignores history: John Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt keenly grasped the key challenges of their time and pursued liberal policies.

The subtext here is that some of the more progressive members of the party think that O’Rourke is too moderate, partly because he has not jumped onto the Medicare-for-All bandwagon. To their credit, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker have also declined to endorse that proposal, which could cost $33 trillion over 10 years. O’Rourke has clearly described himself as a “capitalist”, which may also have irritated some progressives.

However, O’Rourke is legitimately subject to criticism for being vague on some policy issues. As Gail Collins reported in The New York Times, O’Rourke tended to respond with platitudes last week, when voters in Iowa asked him pointed questions on various issues. O’Rourke has had several months to bone up on the specifics. He may find out that charm and smooth talk go only so far with voters.

So let’s see if O’Rourke rustles up some cattle…or will he just wave his hat?

The Wall Street Democrat

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