What do we want in a Democratic candidate for president? Well, there is no “we”; different people value different things.
Some people want the candidate they think is most likely to beat Donald Trump. Some people want the candidate who has the most leftist policies. Some people want the candidate who has the Most Sensible policies. Some people want the candidate who can best win over moderate voters. Some people want a candidate who is a woman, or a person of color, or both. Some people want a candidate who is “authentic,” or “energetic,” or “charismatic,” or “young.” Some people want a candidate who makes their calves cramp. Some people want to feel like they did when Barack Obama ran in 2008. Some people, for some reason, want Joe Biden. Exactly one person wants John Delaney.
The Democratic primary will pit these preferences against each other. Some candidates have several of these qualities; none of the announced candidates have all of them. But the argument for Beto O’Rourke, who announced his run for the presidency early this morning, is likely to hinge in large part on his energy and charisma. He’s cool! He was in a band! He stands on coffee shop counters! Absolutely the characteristics I value in a president!
The idea is that Beto is a Good Politician, and will therefore inspire people, and is therefore very electable, although no one actually knows who’s electable and who isn’t. He got closer than anyone thought he would to beating Ted Cruz in Texas, and lots of people came to his rallies. Therefore, run for the presidency, please.
Let’s put aside the question of whether Beto is a good politician for the moment and consider the matter of what he actually believes. On policy, Beto has, at best, a lot of work to do, and at worst, absolutely shit all. Beto could work very hard to produce a robust and solid policy platform that’s both good on the merits and distinguishes him from other candidates, but it’s unlikely, because specifics are just not his brand. He agrees that the problems are bad, and thinks we need to have a long, hard look at the solutions. Next question.
On immigration, for example, Beto gave an embarrassing interview to the Washington Post in January. Asked about an ad of his that noted most undocumented immigrants are here because they overstayed their visas and what he would do about that, he said: “I don’t know.” He then suggested the U.S. could work with Mexico to better track entries and exits. But the vast majority of people who come into this country on visas and overstay don’t come from or through Mexico. There are hundreds of thousands of people who come from places like Germany, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and Canada who overstay their visas and never pass through Mexico. It betrayed a complete lack of understanding of the broader issues at work, as well as his instinct to immediately posture about how he wouldn’t be soft on immigration.
A few weeks later, Beto published a post on Medium describing his immigration policy. It wasn’t great—it didn’t mention ICE at all, for example, or explain exactly which undocumented people would be eligible for a path to citizenship—but it at least had some specifics. But there are many other issue areas where he remains woefully vague, like healthcare. The New York Times noted today that he “hasn’t committed to a specific way to get” to universal coverage, despite claiming that’s what he wants; in December, Bloomberg reported “he doesn’t support ‘Medicare-for-all’ because expanding the program could adversely affect current recipients,” which is not true and is a lie told by the healthcare industry to frighten people. Today, he said in an Iowa radio interview that he supports a Medicare buy-in or public option, which sucks dreadfully and is not a way to achieve universal coverage.
In the past, Beto has also proved himself much more conservative than the coverage of him would have you believe. As David Sirota documented in the Guardian, he voted for Republican legislation many times as a member of the House, including on a bill the American Immigration Lawyers Association said would “water down hiring standards” for Customs and Border Patrol agents by exempting them from polygraph tests; a number of bills deregulating Wall Street; and a bill his fellow Democrat Raúl Grijalva said “waives liability for companies that start forest fires or cause other damage.” He voted for a bill to allow the death penalty in the murder of a police officer, despite going viral for an impassioned speech about police brutality. Just a few months ago, he called the choice between fossil fuels and renewable energy a “false choice,” yet said today we need “incredibly bold action” on climate change. He also said he hadn’t seen a better way to address this pressing issue than the Green New Deal—without actually saying he supports it or would fight to pass it.
So it’s safe to assume policy will not be the defining characteristic of Beto’s candidacy. Instead, as the new Vanity Fair profile of him revealed, his campaign will be based around the fact that he thinks he’d be so darn good at running for president.
These two things—his unwillingness to commit himself to specific policies and his belief that he’s a singularly gifted politician—are connected. That’s why he keeps saying things like this, per the Texas Tribune:
“In Texas, Ted Cruz called me a socialist. I’m too liberal for Texas,” O’Rourke said during a recent visit to Wisconsin. “Outside of Texas, people say, ‘Is he really a Democrat? I think he’s a closet Republican.’ I don’t know where I am on a spectrum, and I almost could care less. I just want to get to better things for this country.”
“I just want to get to better things for this country.” Could you imagine a more meaningless statement for a candidate to make, particularly with regard to their ideology? How does that distinguish you from a Republican, who I’m sure would also claim they want Better Things, let alone other Democrats? You don’t necessarily have to say you’re a socialist or a liberal or a progressive, but in the absence of a label you do need some actual policies or vision or, heaven forbid, ideology that lets voters know what you’re all about. But Beto is betting that saying things like “I want America to be good instead of bad” is enough to get elected.
Jonathan Chait made the argument in New York magazine today that this particular aspect of Beto’s candidacy is actually fine, and that running for president because he’s a good politician is “a good reason,” just “not one he can say out loud”:
O’Rourke has already drawn a fair amount of mockery for his closing quote, “Man, I’m just born to be in it, and want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment.” But he’s not claiming to be entitled to the presidency. He is saying he has natural gifts as a political communicator, and believes he should put them to use for the purpose of beating Donald Trump and otherwise making the world a better place.
This is a good reason to run for the presidency! Politics is a team sport, and enacting political change requires effort from a wide array of actors: policy advisers, legislators, bureaucrats, and activists. The president of the United States is only one of those actors, albeit the most important by far, and his or her most important role is serving as a messenger for the party. Being an effective, telegenic communicator is a crucial job qualification and a vital asset.
It is true that the president is only one of many important avenues for change in national politics; Democrats should certainly focus less on which candidate will disappoint us in 2021 and more on building power in the states. But for everyone not named Beto O’Rourke, the question is not whether being a gifted communicator is a “good reason” to run. It is whether you, the voter, want a Democratic candidate whose reason for running is being good at talking. Beto is running to be the Democratic nominee for the presidency, not to convince a bunch of consultants that he’d be a good candidate.
We also can’t assume Beto’s skill in his Senate race will translate to a presidential race. Beto ran a very good Senate campaign in Texas, where he would have been an immeasurable improvement over Ted Cruz. The same calculus does not apply to a Democratic presidential primary, where there are more options than you can count off the top of your head and many, many candidates who represent very slight variations on the same policies already.
People like to compare Beto to Barack Obama, because of his charisma and supposed skill as a politician, despite a fairly short political resume. In fact, comparing Beto to Obama is unfair to Obama. Obama’s message in 2008 was much stronger and more intuitive, even if it did prove to be pretty much bunk. Obama was the candidate of hope and change, of saying, “Yes, we can,” and everyone understood what that meant. It meant a break from the Bush era, which was longer and much darker for anyone to the left of Condoleezza Rice than the Trump era so far. It meant the first black president. It meant changing how things were done in Washington (haha). It simply meant believing change was possible at all after eight years of utter despair.
All that hope-y change-y stuff fizzled when Obama got in office, but if you’re grading on the strength of the message alone—which you are, if your argument for Beto is that he’s a good politician—Beto can’t compare. He has only the sheerest gloss of the Obama rhetoric—no red states and blue states, and so on—but none of the other stuff that actually got people “fired up, ready to go,” and no understanding of how and why that worked.
But the thing is, that hope-y change-y stuff did fizzle, and a generation of people who grew up under Obama learned how galling it is to be promised big change and end up with the Affordable Care Act and a $6,000 deductible. Many people in my generation can’t imagine the future because of climate change, have thousands in student loan debt, shitty or no healthcare, and will never be able to afford a house. I don’t know how many of us can be fooled again.
We don’t need more soaring rhetoric about this being a “defining moment of truth.” We need someone who will tax the rich and pass Medicare for All. And that’s never going to be Beto O’Rourke.