With Beto O’Rourke, There’s No There There

The stakes are too high in 2020 for another charismatic, ideologically empty politician, standing for everything and nothing in particular, like Beto O'Rourke.

Beto O'Rourke campaigns in Iowa on March 15. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Why exactly does anyone want Beto O’Rourke to run for president?

It’s certainly not because of his legislative record, which is quite limited. Throughout six years in the House of Representatives, he passed three bills — two related to veterans affairs, one to renaming a federal building and courthouse.

Nor does it seem to have much to do with any particular agenda he’s hoping to implement. Despite taking the odd progressive position here and there, O’Rourke is assiduously vague and slippery on policy specifics. As the Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson observed a few months ago: “When it comes to many of the biggest policy issues facing the country today, O’Rourke’s default stance is to call for a debate” — even when it comes to areas he himself is fond of emphasizing, such as border policy and immigration.

Nor is it because he espouses any particular set of beliefs that reflect a discernible popular or ideological constituency. In fact, O’Rourke explicitly rejects labels. Apart from assuring everyone he’s not a socialist (no surprise there), he says he’ll “leave it to other people” to characterize his political identity — refusing even to embrace the (already quite vague) descriptor “progressive.” “In Texas, Ted Cruz called me a socialist. I’m too liberal for Texas,” he 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.”

A politician who wants things to get better. At long last.

Given his general lack of legislative achievement, policy commitments, or distinct ideological edges of any kind, how exactly do we account for the Beto delirium that’s swept through certain quarters of the media and Democratic Party elite over the past few months (as well as the $6.1 million his campaign reportedly raised in its first twenty-four hours)? More than a few quite influential figures have pitched O’Rourke as a uniquely gifted politician, perfectly in sync with the times and primed to assume the mantle of political destiny.

Pod Save America’s Dan Pfeiffer, for example, wrote last November that he’d “never seen a Senate candidate — including Obama in 2004 — inspire the sort of enthusiasm Beto did in this race,” concluding: “Millions of people already believe in Beto O’Rourke, and that moment, for them and him, may be upon us.” “He’s game changing,” said Robert Wolf, a past executive at the UBS investment bank who also happens to be a Democratic mega-donor. Such hyperbole (and much more in the same vein) aside, Beto-mania may have reached its zenith with last week’s fluffy, 8,500 word Vanity Fair profile — with a cover photo shot by Annie Leibovitz and timed perfectly for O’Rourke’s official campaign announcement.

Despite its considerable length and tone of breathless enthusiasm, we learn very little about what O’Rourke really believes or what, if anything, he would specifically seek to do as president. Indeed, it’s many thousands of words before we finally arrive at anything approaching a coherent political belief:

“I just don’t get turned on by being against …. I really get excited to be for. That’s what moves me. It’s important to defeat Trump, but that’s not exciting to me …. What’s exciting to me is figuring out something that has eluded us for so long: How do we make sure every single person can see a doctor in this country?”

We’re informed, in addition to this, that O’Rourke wants to “shore up the Affordable Care Act and make Medicare part of the health-care marketplace,” eventually making “health care for all a reality” (in the days since the profile was published, he has already rejected an actual single-payer model). We also learn that he supports the idea of higher incomes tax for the wealthy (refusing to offer any kind of number, where others have), and that he thinks the Green New Deal is a totally rad idea — at least “in spirit.”

On the other hand, we do learn a great deal about such things as O’Rourke’s impressive shelf of presidential biographies (“arranged in historical order [thus suggesting] there’s been some reflection on the gravity of the presidency …”), his fondness for rock memoirs, and his partiality to recordings by Nina Simone and The Clash. Quite a few adjectives are offered to describe O’Rourke’s personal qualities, but these, too, come with a crippling lack of specificity. We learn, for example, that he has a knack for seeming “free of political calculation, as if his charisma were a mere side effect of Beto just being Beto” — the evidence for this being that O’Rourke was seen air-drumming to The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” while “waiting for burgers at a drive-through the night he debated Ted Cruz at Southern Methodist University.”

Indeed, much of the piece’s portrait of O’Rourke (both as a person and a politician) hinges on derivative cultural signifiers that tell us just as little as the candidate’s laboriously vague statements on health care and border policy; for example: “Beto O’Rourke is quintessentially Generation X, weaned on Star Wars and punk rock and priding himself on authenticity over showmanship and a healthy skepticism of the mainstream.”

If Authenticity™ and Charisma™ are supposed to be the cruxes of O’Rourke’s personal style, we also learn that his message is one of “honesty” — though what exactly he intends to be honest about is apparently none of our business, his own declarations on the matter being positively postmodern in their indeterminacy:

“If I bring something to this …. I think it is my ability to listen to people, to help bring people together to do something that is thought to be impossible …. I may have an ability to work with people who think differently than I do, come to a different conclusion that I’ve come to on a given issue, and yet find enough common ground to do something better than what we have right now.”

(Lofty proclamation tempered with post-partisan platitude seems to be a hallmark flourish of O’Rourke’s rhetorical style, as when he declared during his Senate campaign: “We’re not running against anyone, any party, or anything. We’re running for Texas, for this country, for the big, bold, ambitious work we want to accomplish together.”)

From start to finish, with several able assists from O’Rourke himself, the Vanity Fair story reads more like a piece of political fan fiction than a serious (let alone even slightly critical) profile of someone who wants to be president with any specific purpose in mind, right down to its cringeworthy final sentences:

“The more he talks, the more he likes the sound of what he’s saying. ‘I want to be in it,’ he says, now leaning forward. ‘Man, I’m just born to be in it, and want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment.’ A month later, Beto O’Rourke announces his run for the White House.”

To return to the initial question then: why exactly do so many influential liberals believe Beto O’Rourke 2020 is a good idea?

A partial answer is that O’Rourke reflects more or less the only presidential archetype Democrats have been able or willing to conjure since the Clintonite turn in the 1990s. Though material conditions for vast parts of their electoral base have continued to deteriorate, and though the country’s politics has in many respects continued to move rightward, personally charismatic Democrats with decidedly centrist politics have won the White House four times since 1992.

Back in 2008, Barack Obama — by most measures, a far more talented politician than either Clinton or O’Rourke — ran and won as a kind of universal political cipher, rhetorically attacking special interests while also praising Ronald Reagan and pitching himself to the middle of the middle. He stood for everything and anything, and therefore nothing in particular — nothing, at least, that wasn’t already mostly acceptable to Washington’s conservative-minded policy consensus. Obama himself was quite conscious of it: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views,” he wrote in The Audacity of Hope.

That, of course, is the real rub with candidates who say they’re neither left nor right, or those who gesture vaguely towards both: without a discernible program, set of values, or a clearly defined ideology, political leadership tends to default to whatever context it’s situated in. When that’s an atrophied Washington establishment, flooded with big donors, lobbyists, and hack politicians, we can usually expect some aggregate of the interests of all three to be what passes for progress, especially when the occupant of the Oval Office eschews the language of contestation in favor of hollow liturgies about bringing people (read: Beltway interest groups) “together.”

Lacking Obama’s compelling personal story and Clinton’s skillfully contrived folksiness, O’Rourke’s general pitch nevertheless has much in common with the one championed by the previous two Democratic presidents.

If some elite liberals are trying to get the rest of us excited by O’Rourke’s candidacy, then, one reason is that it conforms so closely to the mold of politics with which they’re most familiar and comfortable — a politics which is avowedly about very little but nevertheless inspires tremendous fervor among the devoted.

He is ideologically vague and deliberately so. He is politically ambidextrous, talking endlessly about the need for debate, compromise, bipartisanship, and reaching across the aisle. He combines high-minded sentiments about historical destiny with ethereal notions about hearing from all sides and taking seriously all points of view.

O’Rourke is therefore as much a brand and a product as he is a prospective national leader: an unfolding cultural narrative in which to become emotionally invested for mostly apolitical reasons, like the question of which team will win the Super Bowl or who will finally sit on the Iron Throne at the end of season eight. Fronting for an all-too-conventional style of Beltway politics, his personality is a tabula rasa upon which sundry groups in the Democratic coalition are invited to inscribe most anything they please and see themselves reflected. If we are to go by Vanity Fair’s account, his cultural tastes usefully align with those of several key demographics and are squeaky clean with just a wee bit of #Edge. Most important of all, he is adept at seeming to say a whole lot while actually saying very little, trading in substance-free feel-goodisms with the smarmy bravado of an over-caffeinated self-help guru or door-to-door salesman — a quality admired above all others in the gilded, marketing-obsessed environment of Washington D.C.

When politics has been stripped of program or ideological commitment — as it increasingly has been for many elite Democrats — all that is left is to recast the whole enterprise as a grand exercise in fan fiction: one that devotes tremendous energy to crafting a series of catch-all personalities who audition to play protagonists in the nation’s collective psyche. While meeting with students at the University of Texas at El Paso last year, O’Rourke himself in fact compared the battle against Trump to “every epic movie that you’ve ever seen, from Star Wars to The Lord of the Rings.”

For a privileged few, the 2020 presidential election may be just this: a notional spectacle whose stakes are so low that they can be communicated through appeals to mass-market fantasy. For the majority of Americans, though, the stakes are all too high, and there’s precious little time for another round of fan fiction.