The case against the case for Beto O’Rourke

(Chip Somodevilla, Getty)

If Beto O’Rourke is the Democratic nominee in 2020, I will vote for him, and not just with great reluctance. Donald Trump and the Republican Party must be soundly defeated, it goes without saying. Moreover, I like Beto, and I see him as a politician with great potential. But he will not be my choice in the Democratic primaries. The problem is not just that there are good reasons for nominating someone else. It’s that people are supporting Beto O’Rourke for bad reasons. They don’t want Beto to run the government. They want Beto to take us all to prom.

Beto O’Rourke was, and is, unremarkable as a legislator. None of his supporters that I have yet heard have pointed to a single thing he has done in government to distinguish himself as the person who should be in charge of it, who should be making the most important decisions there are. I knew of him before his Senate run, but primarily for once claiming that the border fence in El Paso was something “the East Germans would be ashamed of”. Someone raised during the Cold War, as Beto was, should know how flippant a comparison that was. Apart from that, he was just a backbencher in his third term in the House, undistinguished on any national issue. That’s fine; it doesn’t make him a failure. By simple logic, not everyone can be a stand-out.

Like others, I was impressed with, even excited by, his ability to run a competitive campaign in Texas, and impressed with the various ways he did it, reaching out to voters in all of Texas’s counties, and engaging small donors. I liked his answer on NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. That is the common body of reference for us all on Beto O’Rourke. That, and personal details like his appearance, and the fact that he played in a rock band. So then who among us has any reason to believe that he is our best choice to head the entire massive federal apparatus and command the world’s greatest military force?

The obvious Beto comparison, apart from the Kennedys (whom he somewhat resembles), is with Barack Obama. Accordingly, Obama 2008 campaign staffer and administration official Dan Pfeiffer is on hand with “the case for Beto O’Rourke”. It’s long on superficialities and completely devoid of governmental substance. It never says why Beto O’Rourke should be president; it only says why he should perhaps be the nominee.

Pfeiffer, as with Beto’s overt enthusiasts, could have looked up Beto’s positions and his actions as an elected representative, and made a case based on those positions and actions. He has not, though. He has only spoken as a political operative arguing for Beto’s value as a campaigner. He dismisses real concerns about Beto (and Obama) by framing them as hollow gripes dripping with resentment and envy: “He hasn’t paid his dues.” “It’s not his time.” But these are caricatures of the real complaint: that Beto, like Obama, lacks experience. No one is imposing an arbitrary system of seniority or demanding that Beto mind his manners and wait his turn. They are doubting that he has demonstrated that he is the person to do the job.

From the perspective of a Democrat, Barack Obama worked out. He won both of his elections, and he was a decent-to-good president. His competence as president was not too surprising; he is very smart, well-intentioned, serious, willing to learn, and possesses an interesting temperament — calm, reflective, open to opposing ideas. Other presidents have succeeded with different temperaments, but his certainly recommended itself.

But people can make a decision that works out without having good reasons to make it in the first place. Because Obama was a decent president and a good candidate does not mean someone else would not have been better. Nearly any Democrat would have won in 2008; the economic environment was just that bad. But Hillary Clinton offered during the primaries a campaign style more suited, I thought, to an electorate concerned with bread-and-butter issues, while Obama was appealing to those with a fixation on history, elevated but vague ideals, and an undefined “change” for society, not merely the party in power. Obama’s black supporters were reasonably motivated to elect one of their own. His white supporters were not similarly motivated, since they were mostly on the left of the party, and, apart from their litmus test of the Iraq War, Obama wasn’t one of them. On the war with Afghanistan, the only war expected to continue, he ran to Hillary’s right. His white supporters were still responding to what they saw as the ugliness of the Bush administration, and to Obama’s 2004 speech proclaiming, eloquently, that we are more alike than different, and eliding the partisan divisions that were very real.

South Park underpants gnomes (Comedy Central)

The “hope and change” candidacy was part delusion and part fraud. The delusion lay in liberals’ belief that Obama was transformatively post-partisan yet simultaneously a member of the party’s left wing. For the most part, Obama was a conventional center-left Democrat, and his stated positions confirmed that. The fraud came in Obama leading people to believe that he offered something truly different, or could deliver something truly different. Like Bernie Sanders with his “revolution”, Obama was offering a theory of government that depended on magic happening — in both cases, partisan Republicans in Washington and among the rank-and-file suddenly giving up their partisanship and embracing a movement led by a Democrat and dedicated towards Democratic ends. This was never going to happen. It is never going to happen.

Iowa was key to Obama’s success — his narrative of viability depended on it completely — and accordingly Pfeiffer makes Beto’s affinity for Iowa-style campaigning a linchpin of his argument. Caucuses are voter-suppressive and letting Iowa go first every time is patently unfair, and Pfeiffer shows nothing but delight in the process; but he is right at least that Iowa is a reality that will continue to play an outsized role in 2020.

Pfeiffer approvingly quotes Michelle Obama, as she tried to persuade Iowa voters who liked Obama, but saw him as a better future candidate: “This is Barack’s moment. This is our chance to bring real change. It won’t be the same in four or eight years. If you believe in Barack, the moment is now.”

This is the sort of hard-sell, one-time-offer line that I’d be ashamed to fall for while buying a car, let alone aligning myself with a potential president. She is tacitly admitting that what is working for her husband at that moment is that he is still new, novel, fresh, but also untested, unexamined. She may also be implicitly threatening that her husband will remove himself as an option after 2008 — that he will take his ball and go home. On the former, she has a point; a shorter record leaves less to attack. On the latter, she would clearly be bluffing; who believes that the relatively-young Obama would or could not run again after four or eight more years in the Senate or a stint in a Hillary Clinton cabinet?

It is also messianic. “If you believe in Barack”? This would have to be an act of faith, because none of those Obama-curious Iowa caucusgoers had the depth of information to believe in someone. What kind of insubstantial impression causes a person to “believe in” a stranger? And yet it was Michelle Obama’s closing argument, and it’s Pfeiffer’s as well. In 2016, Pfeiffer himself opined that picking a vice-presidential nominee should place governing over politics. Is it less appropriate to do so for a far more important office?

Pfeiffer salts his narrative with numerous references to traditional candidates, almost certainly pointing above all to his 2008 opponent Hillary Clinton, and then claims that a traditional candidate and campaign “will certainly lose” to Trump in 2020. But election analysis this weak should disqualify Pfeiffer from any opinion on Beto or the 2020 field. He ignores the historic victory of Democrats just last month, the biggest popular vote margin ever achieved by a minority party in the House, dating to the first records in 1942, on the highest midterm turnout of eligible voters in a century. Was that unrelated to Trump? He also ignores the 2.1% popular-vote victory and narrow, flukish Electoral College loss of the traditional candidate in 2016, and the likelihood that Clinton would have won handily but for a single human act, the last-minute insinuation by the FBI director that she was a criminal. The 2016 election result was catastrophic and no Democrat wants to repeat it. But Trump won because of a perfect storm of media malpractice, FBI malfeasance, Russian interference, and miraculously-favorable population distribution. Once, a meteorite struck the Yucatán Peninsula and wiped out most life on Earth. Should we evacuate the Caribbean?

It has never been clearer that the Democrats are the party of civic responsibility and good governance, and the Republicans are the opposite. It has never been clearer. The current president is patently unfit for office, as many of his subordinates and many Republicans in Congress have admitted, publicly or privately. There is also ample public evidence of his criminality and entanglement with hostile foreign powers, and more that could be uncovered by a Congressional investigation, which the Republicans have for two years refused to perform. There would have been sufficient evidence to impeach Trump and remove him from office, and his replacement would have been just as likely to appoint conservative judges, and just as amenable to signing Republican legislation. But the Republicans have not acted against Trump, have actively protected him from investigation, because they believe he has special electoral powers. They have chosen electoral prowess over ability to govern.

Beto O’Rourke is no Donald Trump, obviously, and there is surely an argument to make for him based on what he would do in office, should anyone bother to research it. But when Democrats choose to ignore governance and argue for Beto based solely on how he would be as a campaigner, they have abandoned the high ground of civic responsibility. Beto’s supporters are asking us to force a choice between an impressive campaigner who does ugly things, and an impressive campaigner who does uplifting things. But at some point we will consider who is well-suited to the actual job, right?