Despite narrowly losing his Senate campaign, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has clearly emerged from the 2018 election cycle as a rising star. In the weeks since Election Day, the spotlight on the Texas congressman has only intensified.
The race had scarcely been called for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz when the speculation began about what O’Rourke would do next, and it didn’t take long for plenty of Democrats to imagine O’Rourke as a possible presidential contender in 2020. The national media followed closely behind.
Earlier this month, no less a personality than podcaster, former Obama staffer and liberal tastemaker Dan Pfeiffer published “The Case for Beto O’Rourke.” His argument why O’Rourke should run for president: an ability to inspire enthusiasm among voters; the potential to build a winning national coalition; his au courant approach to fundraising and social media. Or, as one major donor put it more bluntly to Politico: “He’s Barack Obama, but white.”
The Democrats making these glowing comparisons forget that the El Paso congressman shares Obama’s flaws as well, and in doing so they risk overlooking the fact that O’Rourke missed a huge opportunity to create political change in Texas.
While an apt comparison, this should not be taken as a compliment. Yes, Obama and O’Rourke both possess a unique charisma and excel at capturing public attention and generating excitement, particularly among younger people. Both ran modern, well-executed campaigns. But the Democrats making these glowing comparisons forget that the El Paso congressman shares Obama’s flaws as well, and in doing so they risk overlooking the fact that O’Rourke missed a huge opportunity to create political change in Texas.
The trouble begins with his campaign message. Consider this tweet, which set the tone for his statewide campaign: “We're not running against anyone, any party, or anything. We're running for Texas, for this country, for the big, bold, ambitious work we want to accomplish together.”
O’Rourke’s message covers rhetorical territory familiar from the Obama era: It’s positive and innocuous, but noncommittal. It relies on lofty but meaningless phraseology like Shared Values, Finding Common Ground and Bringing People Together. The message describes itself with words like “ambitious” and “bold,” but doesn’t promote any specific policy that could actually be described as such.
Many Democrats don’t see a problem with this. In fact, Pfeiffer’s argument for Beto O’Rourke hinges on it. To him, the choice between energizing the base and courting independent (read: Republican) voters is a false dichotomy. From his perspective, O’Rourke’s inoffensive, ambiguous message isn’t a liability — it’s the key to building a winning coalition at any cost.
But the point of politics isn’t simply to win elections. Politics is about power, and elections are one way to attain it. The real question is, once you attain power, what do you do with it? On whose behalf is power wielded, and for what purpose?
There’s another problem with Pfeiffer’s argument: Absent a guiding political vision, electoral success is fleeting. This is clear from Obama’s presidency. Ideologically rudderless and unwilling to confront power, his congressional majorities were obliterated in 2010 and his promises for change shrink to little more than a defense of the status quo. Post-presidential Obama is nearly unrecognizable to those of us who supported him in 2008. At the Baker Institute earlier this month he lamented that the billionaire class isn’t adequately grateful for their consequence-free bailout, and touted his expansion of American oil production while the country grapples with the early horrors of climate change. So much for hope and change.
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So it’s reasonable to ask: On whose behalf would O’Rourke wield power, and to what end? What lies underneath the charisma?
Beto O’Rourke is clearly passionate about his work. He campaigned tirelessly, crisscrossing the state of Texas for months all for the chance to gain power. So what does the world he wants to build actually look like? The answer is unclear. O’Rourke message, like Obama’s, was less of a platform than a political Rorschach test: The candidate voters see is more of a reflection of their own hopes and dreams than a reality. Beto offered an echo, not a choice.
Imagine if he had offered a vision that situated people’s lived experiences within a broader narrative, that explained why things are the way they are, fearlessly identified the people, policies and systems to blame, and illuminated the path to a better future. This would have been a campaign less like Obama and more like Bernie Sanders.
Imagine if instead O’Rourke had offered Texans a more substantive vision, one that prioritized people’s material concerns over generic platitudes and articulated specific, bold policies rather than only alluding to them. Imagine if he had offered a vision that situated people’s lived experiences within a broader narrative, that explained why things are the way they are, fearlessly identified the people, policies and systems to blame, and illuminated the path to a better future.
This would have been a campaign less like Obama and more like Bernie Sanders, whose popularity is driven by his bold, unequivocal vision for a better world and supported by policies that directly address voters' material concerns — and who, even in defeat, started a political project that laid the groundwork for future winners like newly elected representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan.
This clear political vision could have provided Democrats across the state with sorely-needed political imagination and leadership — a unified message, a banner to rally behind, an identity and a sense of purpose that wouldn’t be limited to one specific campaign. This approach implicitly recognizes that our problems won’t be solved by a single candidate, nor will they be solved overnight. It would mean recognizing that Election Day is not an end, but rather a beginning. In order to build a better world, one must first define it and then demand it. It replaces Pfeiffer’s cynical politics of electoral triangulation with a politics of power.
With that kind of campaign, O’Rourke could have started a movement — a political project that, win or lose, would have outlived one election cycle and provided future candidates and organizers a foundation upon which to build. It could have even been the beginning of a political reawakening for Texas Democrats — the moment they learn to seize their own destiny, instead of pinning their hopes on Republican overreach or demographic change.
But this is kind of hard to do when you're not running against anyone, any party, or anything, isn’t it? It’s hard to plant the seeds for future candidates, to educate and to persuade, if your guiding political principle is to please everyone and upset no one.
Instead of building a movement, thousands of volunteers spent months building an organization for the sole purpose of electing Beto O'Rourke. Now that the campaign’s over, little remains. There's no baton to pass. There won't be any local candidates running on the “Beto platform” in 2020. O’Rourke is all the buzz right now because after all the hard work, money and energy, O’Rourke is all that's left.
This is a shame. His campaign certainly missed an enormous opportunity to create lasting political change in Texas. But there are still lessons to be learned, if Democrats are willing to listen. Before choosing O’Rourke as their next presidential nominee, Democrats would do well to reflect on the perils of preferring style over substance, consider the benefits of expanding their political imagination, and, most importantly, remember that political moments like O’Rourke’s are rare. Democrats shouldn’t waste the next one.