Since 1980, only two Democrats have won the U.S. presidency. The first was Bill Clinton, the second Barack Obama. Six others tried and failed. Of the announced and presumed candidates for the 2020 Democratic primary, only one reasonably resembles Clinton and Obama, and that candidate is Beto O’Rourke.
He is young. He is relatively inexperienced in national politics. He comes from the middle of the country, and he has a charisma reminiscent of both Clinton and Obama.
Beto is the Luke Perry of 2020, a Gen X rock star who stands above the fray of identity politics, socialism, and the culture wars. In his announcement, before a small crowd in an Iowa coffee house, that habitual habitat of the Gen X hipster, he made an appeal to all Americans, including Republicans.
With the exception of the more seasoned, but less famous Amy Klobuchar, Beto is the first candidate to fill in the moderate lane of the Democratic primary. Sooner, rather than later, Joe Biden either will or won’t join him there.
The case for O’Rourke initially seems fairly flimsy. The former congressman came to prominence in a failed campaign for the U.S. Senate in Texas against Ted Cruz. Had people in Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Boston been able to vote in Texas he might have won, but alas, they could only send him money. However, his loss was fairly close, and he did get a lot of money. He also captured a kind of zeitgeist, and more than anything, he comes off as authentic. This is a quality lacking so far in most of his competitors.
As far as the polling goes, Beto enters the race in the mid-single digits, not a terrible position in a field where the established frontrunners — Bernie Sanders and probable candidate Joe Biden — are sitting in the mid- to high twenties. But if Beto is going to catch fire, it will probably have to come at the expense of these other two white dudes in the race. This is, after all, a Democratic Party seriously struggling with the question of whether another white male president is acceptable. But that somewhat uncomfortable question may in and of itself hold some promise for O’Rourke.
That’s because, for all the sturm und drang about the evils of white men in America coming from the far left of the Democratic Party, it is not clear at all that this rhetoric reflects the feelings of the majority of the party’s voters. If most Democrats, like all reasonable people, are not going to base their vote on race or sex, then Beto’s unwillingness to self flagellate about his demographic categories may well play to his advantage.
In fact, the demographic that might matter most for Beto is his Generation X bona fides. Other candidates, like Cory Booker, can claim Gen X status, but none so fully fulfill the Gen X attitude and experience like O’Rourke does. The videos of his punk band, like Bill Clinton’s saxophone performance on the “Arsenio Hall Show” decades ago, show a coolness, a Beat disdain for the norms. A fair observer looks at his past and his skateboarding present as effortless and cool.
For the past half-century, the gold standard for a Democratic presidential candidate has been John F Kennedy. Young, attractive, with a burgeoning family and a strong, intelligent, and supportive wife — Beto checks off these boxes with aplomb. He checks off another Kennedy box: he’s relatively conservative or at least moderate in a field that has thus far veered to the far left faster than a greyhound chases a mechanical rabbit
Even President Trump seemed to struggle a bit in dragging Beto yesterday. He poked fun at O’Rourke using his hands too much during his announcement, asking if he was crazy or just like that. But Trump is also known for peculiar gesticulation. As the timeless musical “Kismet” tells us, “When you tell a story, amorous or gory, you can tell it best if you gesticulate.”
At the end of the day, what Beto has to do is tell a story. Judging from his stream of consciousness blog posts, he is comfortable doing that. So much of politics today is driven by numbers. But as a friend who is a baseball and politics fanatic recently noted to me over coffee, analytics work a lot better in baseball than in politics.
In baseball there are more than 1,000 games every year, each creating data points within a fixed setting where the rules are clear. In politics, we have elections every two years and no set of fixed rules. One knock on Beto is that he doesn’t use polls and analytics effectively. Okay, he just feels it. But guess what, folks: Donald Trump just felt it, too. And none of Robby Mook’s algorithms meant to lock down Hillary Clinton’s victory got the job done. The narrative beat the numbers.
The recipe for success over the past several decades for Democrats seeking residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has been to be young, vibrant, and cool. No Democrat seeking the nomination embodies these traits better than Beto.