What We Can Learn from the Candidacy of ‘Beto’ O’Rourke

What happened to Beto?

One short year ago, Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke was riding high, primed to upset Sen. Ted Cruz in in the 2018 Senate election. The media adored him, crowning him the next great hopeful (albeit, the last great hopeful in a long line of hopefuls) and gushed over his supposed talents in many magazines and newspapers. He had tons of cash, breaking records in fundraising, and oversaw a vast army of devoted volunteers in his campaign. “Beto” signs and “Beto” bumper stickers were everywhere. His campaign was so big that HBO made a full-length documentary about him.                                                                            

Even when he lost the Senate election, O’Rourke still had so much momentum and support that he went ahead and ran for president. The first month, he again raised a record amount of money. For a time, he was the hip young frontrunner sitting alongside the elderly, very un-hip Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Sure, he was white, privileged, and unoriginal, but he seemed like a safe, likeable person.

And then came the fall -- well, maybe less a fall and more a steady deflation. It was nothing O’Rourke did specifically that set his fortunes downward; it was general fizzing. After a phenomenal first month, he couldn't raise as much money for his campaign. Members of the media seemed to notice that there was nothing noteworthy about him. While Biden offered to continue Obama’s legacy, Warren and Sanders offered soft socialism, and Harris, Booker, and Buttigieg offered diversity, O’Rourke offered… a culturally appropriated nickname. He was a blank slate ready to say whatever the crowd wanted him to say.

Photo credit: crockodile

As the months have passed, and his star continues to fade (a recent poll has him at 2.8%), O’Rourke has recently become desperate. Besides blaming Trump for the El Paso shooting and making a fool of himself at the first primary debate by responding to a question in Spanish, he declared he would confiscate people’s rifles at the last primary debate. Not only did this confirm the fears of conservative voters, but it upset Democrats who really thought they were fooling everyone when they said they would never do such a thing.

O’Rourke believed he was giving progressives what they wanted, but they have rejected him and conservatives now laugh at him. Why? If posing as a moderate in the past didn’t work, and posing as a hardcore progressive now doesn’t work, what gives? What do Democratic voters want?

A better question to ask is what made O’Rourke popular in the first place? Most people assume is was his moderate stance and the Democratic masterplan to turn Texas blue, which in turn motivated the news media to praise him at every turn. All of this is true, but there was something else about O’Rourke that people fail to appreciate: he mostly acted indifferent to politics.

At first, this seems like a huge problem. After all, candidates are supposed to show the voters just how much they care and share their inspiring vision of the world under their leadership. If they run because they like the attention and authority -- in other words, they run as narcissists looking for the ultimate ego-trip -- they would put off voters.

Or would they? Perhaps hardliners with articulated political positions (i.e., most conservative voters) would find fault with a candidate with no agenda, but for those who think little about politics (i.e., most Democrat voters) this actually makes the candidate relatable and cool.

Barack Obama had this kind of appeal. He campaigned on the nebulous concepts of hope and change, remained foggy on specific policies, and let the fawning media buoy him to victory. No one can really remember Obama’s key political achievements outside of the Affordable Care Act, and even that is quickly becoming a memory as progressives push for single-payer and conservatives slowly dismantle it. What people do remember is that Obama was suave, intelligent-looking, and aloof. Politics somehow seemed beneath him.

O’Rourke had a similar appeal. No one could really say what he would do as a senator, seeing that he had an empty record as a congressman, but they liked the cut of his jib. He was in a band, spent a few years loafing around in New York, had a DUI coupled with a good story about second chances and white privilege, and he didn’t seem so serious and uptight like Ted Cruz. Playing the air drums to The Who and riding on a skateboard won him far more votes than anything he ever said.

Had he run against anyone except Ted Cruz in any state except Texas, O’Rourke probably would have won his race. Therefore, it made sense for him to run for president.  If Americans wanted a candidate with whom they could have a beer, it would easily be him (Warren’s pathetic livestream notwithstanding). For people who leaned left by default and hate discussing politics, they could ignore the unfashionable crowd on the stage and vote for Beto O’Rourke.

Unfortunately, O’Rourke took the wrong lesson from his senatorial campaign and made the fatal mistake of actually trying, ruining his cool image as a skater rock star dabbling in politics. He started his campaign too early, flailed his limbs like an idiot in his announcement video and made countless dumb statements in interviews afterward. Instead, he should have waited a little longer to announce his bid, maintained a calm demeanor, avoided the difficult questions -- as Obama did.

In pop-psychology terms, O’Rourke traded his abundance mentality for a scarcity mentality. He went from having it all and exuding confidence to having nothing and showing fear. Democrat voters could smell this fear, and this inevitably turned them off.

And this is what the Democrat primaries (and to some extent, all elections) are all about. They’re not about a candidate’s positions, or experience, or their personal background; they’re about the feelings they give. Formerly the domain of reason and argumentation, politics now mainly involves emotions, and this means that facades, not ideas, will win the day. O’Rourke made people feel edgy yet safe in supporting him; now he just makes them feel silly.

The other lesson from O’Rourke’s decline is that, despite the popular image of activists “resisting” Trump and the typical rants on social media, most Democrat voters are not angry, nor are most Republican voters. That does not necessarily mean they are moderate either. People simply want a candidate like themselves, someone who like sports, has fun, makes jokes, and doesn’t have great ambitions. O’Rourke filled this role until he didn’t. Thus, in the latest bit of news, he is now fending off a pseudo-threat from a fellow Texan congressman on Twitter.

Considering that Warren, Biden, and Sanders now lead the field, the Democrats will struggle mightily with Obama’s ghost. Whatever one may say about any of their supposed virtues, they would make terrible drinking partners. By contrast, teetotaler Trump would be much better company any day. Maybe O’Rouke’s disenchanted disciples will see this too and pledge their support to the real star in this race.

Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher in the Dallas area. He is the editor of The Everyman and has also written essays for The Federalist and The Imaginative Conservative. Follow him on Twitter.

What happened to Beto?

One short year ago, Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke was riding high, primed to upset Sen. Ted Cruz in in the 2018 Senate election. The media adored him, crowning him the next great hopeful (albeit, the last great hopeful in a long line of hopefuls) and gushed over his supposed talents in many magazines and newspapers. He had tons of cash, breaking records in fundraising, and oversaw a vast army of devoted volunteers in his campaign. “Beto” signs and “Beto” bumper stickers were everywhere. His campaign was so big that HBO made a full-length documentary about him.                                                                            

Even when he lost the Senate election, O’Rourke still had so much momentum and support that he went ahead and ran for president. The first month, he again raised a record amount of money. For a time, he was the hip young frontrunner sitting alongside the elderly, very un-hip Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Sure, he was white, privileged, and unoriginal, but he seemed like a safe, likeable person.

And then came the fall -- well, maybe less a fall and more a steady deflation. It was nothing O’Rourke did specifically that set his fortunes downward; it was general fizzing. After a phenomenal first month, he couldn't raise as much money for his campaign. Members of the media seemed to notice that there was nothing noteworthy about him. While Biden offered to continue Obama’s legacy, Warren and Sanders offered soft socialism, and Harris, Booker, and Buttigieg offered diversity, O’Rourke offered… a culturally appropriated nickname. He was a blank slate ready to say whatever the crowd wanted him to say.

Photo credit: crockodile

As the months have passed, and his star continues to fade (a recent poll has him at 2.8%), O’Rourke has recently become desperate. Besides blaming Trump for the El Paso shooting and making a fool of himself at the first primary debate by responding to a question in Spanish, he declared he would confiscate people’s rifles at the last primary debate. Not only did this confirm the fears of conservative voters, but it upset Democrats who really thought they were fooling everyone when they said they would never do such a thing.

O’Rourke believed he was giving progressives what they wanted, but they have rejected him and conservatives now laugh at him. Why? If posing as a moderate in the past didn’t work, and posing as a hardcore progressive now doesn’t work, what gives? What do Democratic voters want?

A better question to ask is what made O’Rourke popular in the first place? Most people assume is was his moderate stance and the Democratic masterplan to turn Texas blue, which in turn motivated the news media to praise him at every turn. All of this is true, but there was something else about O’Rourke that people fail to appreciate: he mostly acted indifferent to politics.

At first, this seems like a huge problem. After all, candidates are supposed to show the voters just how much they care and share their inspiring vision of the world under their leadership. If they run because they like the attention and authority -- in other words, they run as narcissists looking for the ultimate ego-trip -- they would put off voters.

Or would they? Perhaps hardliners with articulated political positions (i.e., most conservative voters) would find fault with a candidate with no agenda, but for those who think little about politics (i.e., most Democrat voters) this actually makes the candidate relatable and cool.

Barack Obama had this kind of appeal. He campaigned on the nebulous concepts of hope and change, remained foggy on specific policies, and let the fawning media buoy him to victory. No one can really remember Obama’s key political achievements outside of the Affordable Care Act, and even that is quickly becoming a memory as progressives push for single-payer and conservatives slowly dismantle it. What people do remember is that Obama was suave, intelligent-looking, and aloof. Politics somehow seemed beneath him.

O’Rourke had a similar appeal. No one could really say what he would do as a senator, seeing that he had an empty record as a congressman, but they liked the cut of his jib. He was in a band, spent a few years loafing around in New York, had a DUI coupled with a good story about second chances and white privilege, and he didn’t seem so serious and uptight like Ted Cruz. Playing the air drums to The Who and riding on a skateboard won him far more votes than anything he ever said.

Had he run against anyone except Ted Cruz in any state except Texas, O’Rourke probably would have won his race. Therefore, it made sense for him to run for president.  If Americans wanted a candidate with whom they could have a beer, it would easily be him (Warren’s pathetic livestream notwithstanding). For people who leaned left by default and hate discussing politics, they could ignore the unfashionable crowd on the stage and vote for Beto O’Rourke.

Unfortunately, O’Rourke took the wrong lesson from his senatorial campaign and made the fatal mistake of actually trying, ruining his cool image as a skater rock star dabbling in politics. He started his campaign too early, flailed his limbs like an idiot in his announcement video and made countless dumb statements in interviews afterward. Instead, he should have waited a little longer to announce his bid, maintained a calm demeanor, avoided the difficult questions -- as Obama did.

In pop-psychology terms, O’Rourke traded his abundance mentality for a scarcity mentality. He went from having it all and exuding confidence to having nothing and showing fear. Democrat voters could smell this fear, and this inevitably turned them off.

And this is what the Democrat primaries (and to some extent, all elections) are all about. They’re not about a candidate’s positions, or experience, or their personal background; they’re about the feelings they give. Formerly the domain of reason and argumentation, politics now mainly involves emotions, and this means that facades, not ideas, will win the day. O’Rourke made people feel edgy yet safe in supporting him; now he just makes them feel silly.

The other lesson from O’Rourke’s decline is that, despite the popular image of activists “resisting” Trump and the typical rants on social media, most Democrat voters are not angry, nor are most Republican voters. That does not necessarily mean they are moderate either. People simply want a candidate like themselves, someone who like sports, has fun, makes jokes, and doesn’t have great ambitions. O’Rourke filled this role until he didn’t. Thus, in the latest bit of news, he is now fending off a pseudo-threat from a fellow Texan congressman on Twitter.

Considering that Warren, Biden, and Sanders now lead the field, the Democrats will struggle mightily with Obama’s ghost. Whatever one may say about any of their supposed virtues, they would make terrible drinking partners. By contrast, teetotaler Trump would be much better company any day. Maybe O’Rouke’s disenchanted disciples will see this too and pledge their support to the real star in this race.

Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher in the Dallas area. He is the editor of The Everyman and has also written essays for The Federalist and The Imaginative Conservative. Follow him on Twitter.