2020 Foresight: Robert O’Rourke, the Fog Machine

Commonly known by his nickname “Beto,” Mr. O’Rourke skyrocketed into the American political consciousness as the megaphone-wielding, charismatic candidate who nearly defeated Texas Senator Ted Cruz. As a consolation prize, Beto is now launching a campaign for the White House. Will O’Rourke be able to answer questions about the lack of a substantive policy platform, or will he rely solely on the power of personality and branding to propel his campaign?

Amy KlobucharElizabeth WarrenJulian CastroCory Booker
Bernie SandersTim KaineSherrod BrownBeto O’Rourke
Joe Biden (VP Stacey Abrams) • Pete ButtigiegMike Gravel

“Born to Run”: A Cult of Personality

Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke kicked off his Presidential campaign with a Vanity Fair cover story, in which he declared that he was “born to be in this.” The quote portrayed his campaign as the fulfillment of some sort of personal destiny. Prior to coming to this decision, Beto and his wife went on a road trip across the American southwest. When asked about the possibility of running, he famously said that he needed to take some time to “walk through the woods” to think about it. All of this, the “young man searching for his purpose” routine, is just part of the Beto O’Rourke experience. He is the “chosen one,” and he is here to save America.

His inability to resist standing on top of tables at local bars may be endearing to some. Beto’s greatest strength is his personal brand; a “punk rock” candidate who embraces things that middle class soccer moms might consider “edgy” or “cool.” For the record, this is the guy who delivered his campaign’s concession speech on national television by blasting a fog machine in the background while standing on a dimly backlit stage. He might have ridden a skateboard at some point in his life! He’ll even autograph your skateboard for you, if you ask. Beto also used to play drums in an objectively terrible band called “Foss.” Did I mention that he stands on top of furniture? What a rebel!

But listen, Beto has a good heart. The only thing he wants is for all of us to get along. He will give us his best impression of Barack Obama’s “there is no red America or blue America” speech, and undoubtedly Beto can deliver one helluva speech. Expect to find him standing on top of a park bench with a megaphone delivering fiery sound bites that speak out against the “smallness” of our current political climate, complete with grandiose, sweeping, vague calls to action. There is a certain demographic of people in the Democratic Party who will get fired up over an O’Rourke campaign. That’s OK. Obviously, if you can’t tell, his aesthetic isn’t exactly my cup of tea. But beyond that, it is important from an analytical standpoint to understand that Beto’s “cult of personality” approach is simultaneously his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. I don’t doubt that Beto has a genuine level of sincerity, or that he believes the things that he says. But it is worth questioning whether he has the substance necessary to provide an answer to America’s political future that goes beyond platitudes, branding, and rhetoric.

Besides, Beto’s image also comes with a field of potential landmines for his campaign to navigate. Are you excited for the senseless 24/7 media coverage that will inevitably ensue after a Presidential candidate randomly drops the f-bomb in the middle of a speech? I know that I am. It’s a matter of “when,” not “if.” For Beto’s fans, it’s all part of the appeal. Swearing is cool, kids do it all the time! O’Rourke is a longtime supporter of legalizing marijuana, which only adds to his rebellious image for voters in a more “advanced” age bracket. But have we ever had a Presidential candidate who felt compelled to deny doing LSD? Usually, that sort of thing just gets taken for granted. But Beto is out here blazing a whole new trail of questions that candidates get asked about drugs. Maybe “Psychedelic Warlord” wasn’t the best choice in pseudonyms? Oh, and then there’s the content of what he actually wrote under that pen name. Don’t expect the steady drip of fun stories about Beto O’Rourke to stop anytime soon, his opponents will attempt to turn his campaign into a three-ring circus.

Beto’s campaign, much like Barack Obama’s, is a “political Rorschach test.” People will see in O’Rourke’s candidacy what they are preconditioned to see, which makes his presence in the 2020 field a fascinating opportunity to take the temperature of the Democratic Party. For some, Beto O’Rourke is the bright and shining new face that the Democratic Party needs to defeat the scourge of Trumpism. For others, Beto O’Rourke personifies the gentrification of a burgeoning working class political movement headlined by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Fighting for the Party’s Soul

Going beyond the aesthetic nature of O’Rourke’s campaign, we then arrive at the most pressing question: what does he actually stand for? It is difficult to work though the weeds (pun intended) of Beto’s policy positions; marijuana is perhaps the easiest thing to pin him down on. He is a candidate who tries to be universally appealing, much more of a cultural figure than a policy wonk; he has a tendency to support everything and nothing, at the same time.

However, credit where credit is due: O’Rourke’s initial fundraising hauls suggest that he will be one of the top tier candidates. Although there are some questions as to how much of those $6.1 million in day one funds came from small donors, the instant financing punch is nonetheless impressive. The campaign is emphasizing a small dollar donor approach, rejecting donations from Political Action Committees. Campaign finance is, however, far more nuanced than a simple ban on PAC money. Unlike Bernie Sanders, O’Rourke will also enjoy support from the wealthy financiers that backed Barack Obama’s record-setting campaign.

Just look at the people who have been most vocal in their support of his candidacy thus far: former Wall Street executives and Clintonites who work at think tanks love O’Rourke. These are exactly the same people who got everything so drastically wrong in 2016, running a candidate who focused more on poll testing policy positions than actually campaigning in battleground states. Forgive me for being a bit skeptical that they now suddenly have all of the answers in 2020. O’Rourke never joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and preferred to identify as a member of the New Democratic Caucus (which embraces the ideals of Bill Clinton’s “third way” approach to politics).

It also goes without saying that O’Rourke’s candidacy poses certain questions for social justice activists. A woman running as a cultural phenom with no policy platform or record of legislative successes wouldn’t be taken seriously, possibly with the exception of an incredibly successful businesswoman like Oprah. His quip about “sometimes” popping in to help raise his children was problematic; it came across as flippant and disrespectful to his wife. O’Rourke has also acknowledged that he benefits from white privilege, being allowed to appropriate a Hispanic nickname in order to advance his political career. During his “punk rock phase,” O’Rourke was not prosecuted for allegedly fleeing the scene of a drunk driving accident. He also just happens to be the son of a judge. These two things are entirely unrelated, I am sure. O’Rourke was also an enthusiastic supporter of gentrifying downtown El Paso during the early stages of his political career.

Beto’s ability to “bring Americans together” will be tested as he navigates the numerous fault lines of the modern Democratic Party. Although the party elite have universally said positive things about his nascent campaign, he is going to engage in a difficult balancing act. Can he win over supporters of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who are attracted to a specific policy platform? Can he challenge Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand for the party’s core of social justice activists? Will Beto be able to win the support of more moderate voters who may gravitate towards Biden or Klobuchar? Or will the “jack of all trades” truly be the “master of none”?

Notable Policy Positions

  • The first progressive litmus test for all candidates in the 2020 field is, of course, the concept of Medicare-for-All. Throughout his 2018 Senate campaign, Beto O’Rourke’s true policy position remained unclear. As a Presidential candidate, he has distances himself from the Sanders-backed proposal while endorsing an alternative called “Medicare for America.” Rather than a full-on single-payer system, O’Rourke’s preferred approach would preserve employer-based insurance while transitioning the uninsured and individuals on Obamacare exchange plans into the new Medicare program. Enrollment in Medicare for individuals under 65 would require paying premiums, based on income level.
  • On immigration, Beto made a splash by hosting a dueling rally opposite of Donald Trump in El Paso. Although it was certainly a spectacle, O’Rourke’s speech gave little in the way of substantive policy positions (this is going to be a recurring theme, folks). Comprehensive immigration reform, the DREAM Act, and voicing opposition to making immigrants exit the country to get on a path to citizenship — you know, the works. O’Rourke has also advocated for tearing down sections of the existing border wall, which is the most punk rock position on immigration in the entire 2020 field.
  • While he has not endorsed a specific platform on climate change, Beto O’Rourke has voiced support for the concept of the Green New Deal. He believes in the goal of getting to net-zero emissions, stating that we “have no more than twelve years to take incredibly bold action on this.” Stay tuned for more details (maybe).
  • O’Rourke has previously argued in favor of scaling back the federal social safety net, arguing that we should raise the social security retirement age and begin a means-testing process to determine eligibility for social security and Medicare. This was as recently as 2012.
  • To his credit, Beto O’Rourke partnered with Rep. Ro Khanna to introduce legislation that would ban members of congress from accepting donations from Political Action Committees. O’Rourke supports a “voter voucher” system as an answer to providing public financing for political campaigns. He believes that the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision should be overturned, and has supported legislation that would enact more stringent disclosure requirements for campaigns.
  • He was one of the first politicians to support nation-wide legalization of recreational marijuana, and Beto’s opponent in his first congressional campaign ran attack ads insinuating that he was encouraging kids to do drugs. Meanwhile the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) gave Beto O’Rourke a 75% rating which their own system indicates is a “tough-on-crime” stance. As the legalization of marijuana becomes more of “yesterday’s fight,” the rest of Beto’s record might not play well with the criminal justice reform activists of today.

Path to Victory

In a large field of candidates, O’Rourke faces the unique challenge of attempting to occupy multiple lanes simultaneously in a party that is increasingly fractured after 2016. Indeed, this is the inevitable strategic flaw of trying to “please everyone.” Beto has displayed a reluctance to specifically call out financial interests; Wall Street bankers, the pharmaceutical lobby, private prison owners, etc. He doesn’t want their money going to Political Action Committees, but he doesn’t necessarily want to piss them off too much either. This is problematic for Beto’s appeal to the Sanders/Warren wing of the electorate, as is his amorphous political platform and history of fiscal conservatism. As Beto’s persona and personal history are vetted under the national political spotlight, he may lose some appeal to the party’s core of social justice and racial justice activists. Although he can lament the ways that he has benefited from white privilege or male privilege, Beto won’t be able to make meaningful inroads with these voters unless he starts outlining a platform to address the issues that they care about.

First thing’s first, Beto O’Rourke has to take down Joe Biden. The Obama campaign operatives have started lining up behind O’Rourke, but Biden must be dispatched with haste in order for Beto to become the “heir apparent” to Obama’s legacy. If Barack Obama truly wants to endorse the O’Rourke campaign, he can’t do so as long as former Vice President Biden is still in the race. I mean, it would be quite rude.

Beto’s path to victory requires him to continue his campaign’s strong fundraising operations. Keep an eye on the Federal Elections Commission’s first quarter campaign finance reports, which will come out April 15th, 2019, for an early measurement of the Sanders vs. O’Rourke fundraising competition. With enough financial support, Beto O’Rourke will be able to drown his opponents in a deluge of campaign dollars.

Ideal outcome for Beto: he maintains a torrid fundraising pace and is able to lead the field, allowing him to outspend his opponents in the early primary and caucus states. O’Rourke wins 2/3 of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. Joe Biden fails to gain traction and drops out after a poor showing in South Carolina. Barack Obama endorses O’Rourke’s campaign prior to the Super Tuesday contest, which includes Texas, and O’Rourke posts a strong showing that makes him the odds-on favorite to win the nomination.

After that, Beto O’Rourke would shift his attention to defeating Donald Trump. At this point it becomes a rather profound political science question; can the “smallness” of Trump’s world view be defeated by a campaign that focuses on style over substance? Perhaps, to O’Rourke’s credit, there is more credence to his chances than I have given him. Would Beto O’Rourke be able to turn Texas into a Presidential battleground state? That alone could be an earth-shattering development. Otherwise, it seems likely that O’Rourke would seek to recreate the Obama coalition of voters by targeting the Obama-Trump states that Clinton lost in 2016. Perhaps the details don’t matter, and that the American electorate would forgive a lack of substance when contrasted with Donald Trump. Maybe it’s about fighting fire with fire, a battle between which narrative will dominate American politics rather than a battle of substantive policy platforms. Hillary Clinton had a platform and yet she lacked an articulate, coherent message, ultimately losing to a candidate that focused on style over substance.

Trustee (Area 2) for the Woodland Joint Unified School District. Former Legislative Aide/Policy Analyst. Change is a process, not a conclusion.

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