The Democrats are blessed with a large number of candidates whose experience, politics and personality make them qualified to assume the office of the presidency. Even if we rule out the most well-known but all fairly ancient Democrats—the septuagenarians Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders—the Democrats’ cup runneth over with talented candidates.
Unfortunately Beto O’Rourke is not one of them.
Yet, Beto is the one that the mainstream news media want to focus on. The other day, MSNBC’s pseudo-progressive Chris Matthews pumped up O’Rourke’s candidacy. This week, The New York Times ran a front-page feature focused focused on his potential candidacy. The only other possible candidates mentioned in the article are those the writer believes Beto particularly threatens—Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker and Joe Biden
What’s more, strong anecdotal evidence exists that large numbers of probable Democratic voters are intrigued by Beto. Other than Biden, Bernie and Hillary, O’Rourke attracted the most support in a recent national poll, although he won a mere 9% of participants. My Facebook universe of more than 3,500 friends, which is decidedly Democratic and progressive, generates at least two dozen updates a day about the 2020 election. About a sixth of the posts wail over the possibility of Hillary running and another sixth propose Bernie as the top choice. A handful of posts mention other candidates, while the remainder—about two-thirds—propose Beto as the top candidate.
Yet what has he done? Not much, as it turns out.
He served three undistinguished terms as a back bencher in the House of Representatives. Between forming an environmental coalition, speaking out (sometimes inaccurately) on many issues and paying her interns a decent wage, the spunky Alexandria Octavio-Cortez has already had a greater impact as a congressional representative than Beto did in six years, and she hasn’t even taken office yet. Before he ran for office, he had an undistinguished career in business.
Beto, like JFK, both Bushes, Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, Jerry Brown and Mitt Romney, does have the advantage of coming from a politically connected family. His mother is the stepdaughter of the Secretary of the Navy under JFK, while his father served as county commissioner and county judge and is a longtime political crony of former Texas Governor Mark White. We can assume that Beto called in decades of chits in first running for office as an unknown mediocrity.
When the news media and social media gush about O’Rourke, they focus on one fact and two feelings. First and foremost, they mention his charisma, which is, to quote Webster’s “a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure.” Charisma is an amorphous feeling that has been applied to JFK, Reagan, Clinton, Obama and George W. Bush (only in comparison to his 2000 opponent, Al Gore). No one likes to use the “c” word when talking about Donald Trump, Adolph Hitler, Huey Long or Mussolini, but we know that large numbers of people were irrationally devoted to these individuals. Some individuals with charisma were decent leaders, but most were fairly mediocre like JFK or Clinton, or full scale disasters like Ronnie and Georgie. Then there are the manipulative, lying demagogues. Many Democrats seem very likable, especially Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Corey Booker. Others have the gravitas that I prefer in a leader, including Kamala Harris, Jay Inslee and Sherrod Brown. All have greater credentials and have accomplished more in their lives than Beto.
Beto-heads like the fact that O’Rourke raised so much money from so many small donors for his failed campaign to unseat Texas Senator Ted Cruz. That’s the fact. We’ll never know, however, what portion of the small givers were as much anti-Cruz as they were pro-O’Rourke. A lot of people despised Cruz before they ever heard of Beto. Remember that Cruz is considered unctuous, hypocritical and untrustworthy by large numbers of people, and is even disliked by many of his allies in the Senate. No one has ever written that Ted has even a modicum of charisma, charm or even likeability.
Finally, supporters of O’Rourke believe that his great showing against Cruz in Texas demonstrates that he can beat Trump nationally in 2020. The implicit reasoning behind this feeling seems to be that the nation as a whole is more liberal than Texas. Yet Texas has a lot of minorities. Its demographic future seems to be similar to the path taken in Nevada, Virginia and Colorado, all states that are turning or have turned blue. Besides, it is Trump not Cruz who commands the so-called Republican base of evangelicals, those opposed to immigration and racists. They preferred Trump over Cruz in the 2016 primaries. If Beto couldn’t beat a despicable Cruz, why does anyone think he can handle the more formidable Trump?
Compare Beto to the last newcomer anointed as a charismatic Democratic savior who leaped ahead of more experienced Democrats, Barack Obama. First of all, Obama had far more relevant experience. He had been a prominent Senator who had made noises during his four years representing Illinois, and a Constitutional law professor before that. When we focus only on domestic affairs, Obama turned out to be a good president, but during his first few years in office he made several mistakes stemming from his lack of experience as an administrator. Can we expect the less experienced and less well-educated O’Rourke to do any better than Obama?
It’s not just that Beto is at best marginally qualified to be president. It’s that the Democratic bench is so deep and talented that it makes little sense to put the nation’s future in Beto’s hands.
In a related column tomorrow, I will consider some of these other Democrats from the standpoint of what should be the most important factor in 2020—electability.