The Vanity of Beto O’Rourke

O’Rourke on the cover of Vanity Fair the day before officially announcing his candidacy for president. Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.

On Monday, Beto O’Rourke released his fundraising figures for the first 24 hours after his campaign’s launch, reporting a $6.1 million haul. This number beats even Bernie Sanders’s, whose $5.9 million raised set a new standard for the primary. And it crushes the amount raised by each of the other candidates. But while this feat is impressive, beneath the surface of the announcement lies a less flattering story of O’Rourke, one that cuts to the heart of his run.

O’Rourke, unlike other major 2020 candidates like Sanders and Kamala Harris, waited until several days after announcing to release his fundraising numbers and another couple of days, until this morning, to release any details about number of donations and average contribution—he still has yet to release his number of unique donors. His release of this more detailed information comes only after he was confronted about his fundraising numbers while at a campaign event yesterday. We now know that the money came from 128,000 unique contributions, putting the average donation at $47. By contrast, Sanders raised his $5.9 million from over 225,000 individual donors, with an average contribution of $27.

This disparity between O’Rourke and Sanders is also evident in their numbers from previous campaigns. O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign raked in 53.91% of its money from large contributions and 45.98% from small contributions, while Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid garnered 41.62% of its fundraising total from large contributions and 57.7% from small contributions. More strikingly, from 2013 through 2018, small donations constituted 75.55% of the total amount raised by Sanders’s Senate campaign committee.

O’Rourke’s numbers underline his significant early support from wealthier Democrats. This is unsurprising, given that much of the hype regarding a potential O’Rourke presidential run following his loss to Cruz was from wealthy Democrats and Democratic campaign bundlers, who “tap their extensive networks of business associates, family and friends to help collect or ‘bundle’ the huge sums needed to mount a White House bid.” O’Rourke displayed his willingness to court wealthy donors back during his Senate run, particularly when he broke the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge — “a commitment to ‘not knowingly accept any contributions over $200 from the PACs, executives, or front groups of fossil fuel companies’” — he had signed after failing to return 29 large contributions from oil and gas executives. On the day O’Rourke’s campaign launched, in fact, CNBC ran a story detailing how former Obama campaign bundler Louis Susman had already started working “in coordination with the campaign” to court wealthy party donors. The same article reported that O’Rourke had spoken with “Robert Wolf, a longtime party donor and a veteran on Wall Street” the day before.

O’Rourke’s decision to wait before releasing his fundraising total, a move seemingly designed to erase early post-announcement criticism by redirecting the conversation, and to only release further details after being pressed to do so reflects the broader lack of substance of his run. O’Rourke wants voters to focus on his charisma, his looks, his temperament, his relatability, and his impressive fundraising numbers (in their most pristine and vacuous form), because he has nothing serious to offer in terms of policy. While a candidate like Andrew Yang is in the race not to win but to inject important ideas into the discussion, O’Rourke is in it not because he has anything to offer but because he sees an opportunity to win. The driving forces of O’Rourke’s candidacy, then, are not a commitment to empowering ordinary Americans and pushing for progressive ideals; rather, they are narcissism and opportunism.

Many people were blind to O’Rourke’s less desirable traits during his race against Ted Cruz, whether due to credulity regarding O’Rourke himself or because it simply did not matter much who opposed Cruz as long as he was defeated. But after O’Rourke lost and pundits started playing up the possibility of a 2020 bid by this charismatic and inspirational young politician, his flaws came into focus. This was largely the consequence of reporting by left-wing journalists like Branko Marcetic, Zaid Jilani, Elizabeth Bruenig, and David Sirota, all of whom did a fantastic job exposing O’Rourke’s deficiencies. A fundamental takeaway from their reporting is that O’Rourke has far too often sided with the Democratic establishment and even the Republicans.

As a baseline example, O’Rourke was a member of the pro-establishment New Democrat Coalition but never joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus. As Sirota notes, during 2017 and 2018, O’Rourke “was among the top fifth of all lawmakers voting against his own party’s positions” and “voted for the Trump administration position roughly 30% of the time” — as a comparison, Sanders voted with Trump about 14% of the time. Meanwhile, “O’Rourke’s congressional district votes more Democratic than most districts in Massachusetts,” so his record cannot be justified by invoking a conservative constituency.

In terms of specific policy stances, O’Rourke did not sponsor the free college or the Medicare for All bills in the House. He voted against a bill preventing offshore “drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico,” and he voted to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade deal derided by progressives for putting business interests above the interests of ordinary people. He supported weakening protections for consumers, opening the path for more oil and natural gas exports, weakening Obamacare, and implementing a set of Republican tax cuts (different from Trump’s major 2017 tax cuts). He backed “a proposal that was part of the Trump administration’s plan to assemble a deportation force,” he “frequently aided the GOP in some of its efforts to deregulate Wall Street” (including by voting to roll back an important part of Dodd-Frank), and he supported including attempted killing of a police officer on the list of crimes that could warrant the death penalty.

But perhaps even more important than O’Rourke’s uninspiring voting record is his utter lack of a concrete message or guiding ideology. As Jilani points out in his piece, O’Rourke has a tendency only to stake out definitive positions on the easiest issues, the ones that do not challenge the establishment consensus. While he was a relatively inactive legislator — he passed only three bills throughout his time in Congress — and “was missing in action” when it came to publicly advocating for major progressive goals, he had no issue taking the most generic of Democratic stances by defending kneeling NFL players. As Jilani puts it, “He was well-spoken, optimistic, good-looking, and he was quick to endorse cultural memes important to the national liberal base… He has ticked the right emotional boxes for liberals, and they feel like by supporting him they are projecting an image of a younger, more optimistic, and more progressive America.”

Jilani relays O’Rourke’s interaction with one of his Senate primary opponents, a committed progressive and “Berniecrat” named Sema Hernandez, which excellently exemplifies how devoid of substance O’Rourke is. “O’Rourke’s wealth and connections helped him crush Hernandez,” although she still won an impressive “24 percent in Texas’s Democratic Senate primary, despite raising less than $10,000 to O’Rourke’s $9 million.” In an interview, she described her post-primary meeting with O’Rourke: “He kept staring at me with his hand to his chin. I told him, ‘How do you expect people to vote for you, if you vote against us? If you vote for a seven hundred billion dollar military budget that is not earmarked for Vets? When that money could have been used for Medicare for all or college for all or a list of other things.’… I expected a candid response and I got his campaign speech. I wanted to get to know him as a person and instead I got what you see on television, a politician. I treated him with respect, I was honest and blunt. After all of that I wanted more.”

O’Rourke’s lack of commitment to any particular policy agenda has been further exposed since Jilani’s article was published in early December. For instance, in the wake of a disastrous O’Rourke interview in January, CNN Editor-at-large (and no friend of progressives) Chris Cillizza wrote, “The problem that emerges in the story for O’Rourke is that he comes across as something of a lightweight — all style and no substance.” A day prior to O’Rourke’s announcement, Josh Voorhees similarly remarked in Slate, “O’Rourke would enter the race as a man without a clear political ideology, a signature legislative achievement, a major policy issue, or a concrete agenda for the country.” Moreover, O’Rourke was the only major candidate not to send a list of policies after announcing to Washington Post reporter Jeff Stein, who requests lists from all candidates. To O’Rourke’s mantra of “No PAC money, no corporations, no special interests” should be added “no platform.”

O’Rourke’s vagueness and apparent malleability generally sees a friendly reception in the mainstream. The establishment is looking for someone with bland politics that will conform to their preferred policies but can nevertheless inspire people with charisma, youth, and empty slogans of “hope” and “change.” They want a reincarnation of Obama circa 2008, a cover act for the greatest hits collection of their favorite rockstar. The logic of backing such a candidate was summed up by journalist Matt Taibbi, writing about Obama, in 2007: “You can’t run against him on the issues because you can’t even find him on the ideological spectrum.” On charisma alone, O’Rourke, like Obama before him, seems capable of rising to the top and sweeping the field.

But while O’Rourke’s malleability is understandably appealing to a liberal establishment that has repeatedly hedged its bets on triangulating candidates, it should be repulsive to the general public. It reflects the selfishness and opportunism driving his campaign, climatically expressed in an article that appeared in the properly chosen magazine — Vanity Fair — the day before his campaign officially launched. The piece is fawning, with gems like “He has an aura.” and “Former girlfriends describe O’Rourke as curious, wry, bookish but adventurous.” His pose in the cover photo recalls Ronald Reagan on the cover of Time in 1981, perhaps a nod to his and Reagan’s relatability and charm but also a fitting omen for what could come with his ascent.

Above all, though, it is the cover quote — “I want to be in it. Man, I’m just born to be in it.” — that perfectly encapsulates everything wrong with O’Rourke. When read in the context of his lack of policy positions, the quote makes clear that for him this race is first and foremost about him and his personal aspirations. O’Rourke’s message here sharply contrasts with Bernie Sanders’s, whose slogan “Not me. Us.” and whose urging “It ain’t Bernie. It’s you.” both reflect a sincere effort to mobilize people to fight for well-defined progressive goals. With “VANITY” hanging over O’Rourke’s head, the conclusion is inescapable: his run is a vanity project; it’s about him, not you.

Update (4/4/2019 1:40 PM): O’Rourke’s fundraising numbers for the first quarter of 2019 show that he raised $9.4 million in the first 18 days of his campaign. This total came from 218,000 individual contributions, with the average contribution being $43. By contrast, Sanders raised over $18 million in about six weeks, with around 900,000 individual contributions from 525,000 unique donors and with an average contribution of $20. Most amazingly, Sanders’s campaign received more individual contributions on the first day of his campaign than O’Rourke did in the first 18 days of his.

Correction (4/4/2019 1:40 PM): Politico originally reported that O’Rourke received donations from 128,000 individual donors on his first day. Yet O’Rourke did not disclose the number of individual donors to his campaign at the time and still has not disclosed that number. The information above has been updated to reflect that fact.

Update (4/17/2019 5:24 AM): It now appears O’Rourke effectively lied about his first-day fundraising total. This from the New York Times: “Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign touted, loudly, that he actually had out-raised Mr. Sanders in his first 24 hours as a candidate: $6.1 million to $6 million. But the new federal disclosures show that Mr. O’Rourke relied upon a bit of accounting finesse to score that headline: Nearly $300,000 of his first-day haul was actually general-election funds raised above the limit that he can spend in the primary contest.”

Socialist. Bernie 2020. Web Editor for the Wash U Political Review. Twitter: @socialistsmyth

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