In an alternate universe, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke narrowly defeated Ted Cruz in a shocking upset for the U.S. Senate last year. He is currently in his first year as a senator, and the dozens of Democratic presidential candidates are all courting his endorsement and searching for a way to mirror his Senate campaign in their own runs. And if the Democratic nominee isn’t able to topple Donald Trump in 2020, O’Rourke is viewed by the punditry as a top-tier candidate in 2024.
In the universe we live in, O’Rourke himself is a presidential candidate, deciding to run after being best known for a high-profile loss and six lukewarm years in Congress. Unfortunately for him, he stumbled ass backwards out of the gate and has spent the proceeding four months trying to recover from it. He’s even had his own mini-“reset.”
O’Rourke is now polling in the low single-digits, having been usurped by South Bend, IN, Mayor Pete Buttigieg as the top center-left white guy in the field. And on Wednesday night, O’Rourke was completely overwhelmed in his first real appearance on the national stage, finding himself dressed down by multiple candidates.
From his opening salvo in the debate, in which he managed to say very little in two different languages, O’Rourke looked deeply unprepared for the task ahead of him, and it didn’t get better from there. He was pantsed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, of all people, for his support for keeping private insurance around, a position which O’Rourke shared with many others on the stage but which still drew attention to his spectacular flip-flop on Medicare for All.
Things reached a climax during the immigration portion of the debate, in which O’Rourke touted his plan for reform and was subsequently called out by fellow Texan Julián Castro for a glaring omission from the platform—the repeal of a law that criminalizes unlawful entry into the United States rather than treat it as a civil offense, like a parking ticket, as Castro would. Castro specifically pointed out parts of the U.S. code which already do what O’Rourke is staking his plan on, and then dropped the hammer by telling him he didn’t do his “homework” before coming to the debate.
By the end of the debate, near which O’Rourke gave a rambling anecdote about a painting as a reason for why Donald Trump should be impeached, he was the obvious loser of the night, even in a field which included Tim Ryan. It remains to be seen if Castro or de Blasio receive a bump in the polls after showing up O’Rourke, but O’Rourke getting embarrassed (and embarrassing himself) on a national stage could very well be the beginning of the end of his political career.
Of course, O’Rourke himself didn’t think that:
I’ve argued in the past that O’Rourke should’ve just run for Senate a second time, but even if he dropped out of the presidential race and chose to do exactly that at this point, no one should be convinced he could come anywhere close to recapturing the magic of his last race.
Put simply, O’Rourke’s hubris got the best of him. The media helped do this, to be sure, with the obsessive coverage of his 2018 campaign and the aftermath in its search for the next Barack Obama. But Beto really thought he could make the Lincoln-esque leap from an unsuccessful Senate run to becoming president two years later. He really thought he could do this. He thought wrong.