Let me draw your attention to the most horrifying paragraphs of this Vanity Fair profile of Beto O’Rourke, the Texas congressman who announced his presidential campaign Thursday morning:
O’Rourke is careful to pay homage to progressive icons, crediting Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren with advancing the national conversation on health care and consumer protections, but sells himself as something slightly different: a youthful uniter, willing to listen and learn from the most recalcitrant right-wing voters and work with Republicans. “If I bring something to this,” he says, “I think it is my ability to listen to people, to help bring people together to do something that is thought to be impossible.
“My sense is, following some success that I had in Congress, and working with Republicans to actually get things signed into law, including both President Obama and President Trump’s administrations, that 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.”
If you finish that passage and think you’ve just read something positive about a Democratic presidential candidate, then—to warp the old Jeff Foxworthy bit—you might be Beto O’Rourke’s constituency.
If, on the other hand, you shuddered in something like horror, get ready for a nightmarish year of watching this candidate attract the most superficial, issue-ignorant, aesthetically inclined simpletons disguised as thoughtful voters. Watch them flock to him like moths to a flame. As Matt Christman put it, in his own vision of dystopia:
The Democratic nomination is gonna come down to Beto vs Biden in an epic battle between the dumbest boomers and the dumbest millennials let’s goooooooooooooooo.— Matt Christman (@cushbomb) March 14, 2019
This development is very bad, and it's very bad because unlike some of the other bad candidates running, Beto could actually win.
In 2008, I was swept up in the energy surrounding Barack Obama's campaign. I volunteered at phone banks, I gave money, I heroically posted on the Internet, etc. etc. I was 25 years old, and I believed in Obama the transformational figure, and believed in the Great Man theory of systemic change. I believed, in short, that Obama could bend history to his will, and each time he talked about reaching across the aisle and working with Republicans, I envisioned a future in which, like me, those Republican congressmen would find him irresistible, bow to his political talents, and, well…get things done, or something.
Of course, we know what happened. Obama had two years with a stacked Democratic Congress, and the most he accomplished was to institute a healthcare system that was barely adequate to survive the first real GOP onslaught, and that was utterly inadequate at resolving a staggering crisis in America. Republicans heard his pitch about pragmatism and compromise, and spit in his face just before going into an obstructionist crouch that lasted eight years.
But instead of immediately shifting to war footing in response, Obama and his team spent those eight years continuing to believe in the original idea of West Wing-style triumphalism, and what they did manage to accomplish was pretty horrific—deportations, drone strikes against U.S. citizens, a massive bailout and subsequent lack of prosecution for the criminals of the economic crisis. In a brilliant essay on the “Obama Boys,” those staffers who recently released books about their time in the White House, Nathan Robinson at Current Affairs perfectly summarized this cowardice:
The Obama administration bent over backwards to show that it was pragmatic and moderate and sensible, even inflicting cruel harm on families to show their toughness. Here is Tyler Moran, who was a deputy immigration policy director on Obama's White House policy council:
There was a feeling that [the White House] needed to show the American public that you believed in enforcement, and that [we weren't pushing for] open borders. But in hindsight I was like, what did we get for that? We deported more people than ever before. All these families separated, and Republicans didn't give him one ounce of credit. There may as well have been open borders for five years.
We deported tons of people and separated families, and Republicans wouldn't praise us!
I bring this up to say that I was naive to fall for the Obama magic in 2008. I missed the central problem of his campaign, which became the central problem of his presidency and which was outlined by David Samuels in a biting piece from 2012: “He uses words that call attention to the desire of his audience to feel part of a collective in search of something better without referring in any tangible way to the real-world problems faced by any specific class, gender, or race. As a political actor, he is the product of the shidduch made in the early 1990s by Bill Clinton between the “centrist” wing of the tottering Democratic Party and that forward-looking segment of Wall Street that was interested in speeding up the movement of what it called global capital.”
Nevertheless, I forgive myself. I was an innocent then, and though I wasn't rich, I was at least comfortable enough that I only really cared about politics because it seemed exciting once every four years. Like many political naifs, the two most fascinating aspects were the horse race and the sense of community. And like many privileged white people, I wanted the communal vibes without doing much work, and that's exactly what Obama offered: Elect me, and you're part of the team, but I'll do all the heavy lifting by sheer force of personality. To that point in my life, I only knew the sleaziness of Bill Clinton and the impotence of Gore and Kerry, and Obama's pitch seemed perfect.
As I said, I give my 25-year-old self a pass. But 11 years later, having witnessed the failure of Obama, having watched how Republicans obstructed him and then fell in line totally with Donald Trump—in short, having borne witness to the utter failure of the pragmatic centrism espoused by Obama, and the total, unyielding corruption of the Republican party—I feel nothing, upon reading that Beto O'Rourke quote, but the deepest sense of revulsion and dread. Compromise?! Anyone who has paid even marginal attention to American politics since 2008 knows that compromise is a dangerous illusion; it's another term for giving Republicans special concessions and getting nothing in return.
I have no special foresight, but it doesn't take a crystal ball to see that an O'Rourke presidency would be a sad retread at a time when we can't afford to lose a day, much less four years. The future, if it includes Beto in the oval office, will follow the same path, and the path is grim.
And anyone on the nominal left who believes otherwise—this is too important to mince words—is an idiot.
What, exactly, is Beto O'Rourke's appeal?
It's not policy-oriented, and it's not identity-based. He's independently rich, and despite his grab at exoticism by transforming “Robert” into “Beto,” he's white. As the Vanity Fair piece noted, he won his first House race by “drawing a large number of white Republican voters to his cause, which deepened suspicion from left-leaning Chicano activists.” Representing a safe Democratic district, he nevertheless voted with Republicans 167 times in six years. Even before then, on the El Paso City Council, he was carrying water for his rich Republican father-in-law, who wanted to gentrify the downtown district using eminent domain, destroy affordable housing, and build a Wal-Mart and Target:
O'Rourke, fluent in Spanish like his father, went door-to-door trying to convince residents the city would build affordable housing elsewhere. A local historian and activist, David Romo, accused O'Rourke and his allies of destroying buildings of historic significance to Chicanos and driving immigrants from what he deemed the “Ellis Island” of the border (a phrase that O'Rourke would later use to defend El Paso against Trump's wall idea). They pointed out that his father-in-law stood to profit from the plans—and indeed, Sanders had formed the Borderplex Realty Trust for just that purpose. The city opened an ethics investigation, and though O'Rourke was cleared of wrongdoing, he recused himself in the public debate and from voting on it.
Let's state it plainly: If you like Beto O'Rourke, you like him because he seems cool, and you think the fact that he seems cool means he's going to bring everyone together under the banner of good feelings and become the next Obama. His appeal, to answer the question above, is purely aesthetic. Nathaniel Friedman expressed his own frustration with this reality on Twitter:
I don't find Beto disturbing because he could beat Sanders. If he wins he wins. It just weirds me out that he's such an attractive candidate for so many people.— Nathaniel Friedman (@freedarko) March 14, 2019
People like Beto's charisma. They like his language. They like his energy and the way he wears his heart on his sleeve. That's all aesthetics.— Nathaniel Friedman (@freedarko) March 14, 2019
It almost doesn't matter what Beto wants policy-wise because his appeal is policy-agnostic. It's like Obama—he's a cool dude whose heart seems to be in the right place. And that's enough, I guess.— Nathaniel Friedman (@freedarko) March 14, 2019
If Beto is smart he'll just follow the Obama playbook and be totally vague and sweeping because it's worked great for him so far and apparently lots of people didn't learn that lesson the first time around.— Nathaniel Friedman (@freedarko) March 14, 2019
What has Beto actually done that people might like? Well, he gave a nice speech about Colin Kaepernick that a lot of people wanted to cast as bold, but was actually so bold that Nike employed the same tactic a few months later. He did some air drumming at a fast-food drive-thru. He skateboarded. He was in a punk band. He has lots of energy, he's young-ish, he's tall, he's good-looking.
Again, all aesthetics. His appeal is the appeal of the surface, of the pathetic yearning to feel good without fixing anything.
I mean, look at this meaningless BS:
Beto O'Rourke speaks in Iowa after launching his 2020 bid: “We have the single greatest mechanism to call forth the genius of our fellow human beings. This democracy … can bring the ingenuity, the creativity, the resolve of an entire country” https://t.co/vjldpxJmP9pic.twitter.com/Iwfs5Yr7TC— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) March 14, 2019
Does that gloopy word salad move you? Do you think he’s actually saying something? Then, yes, you might be Beto O’Rourke’s constituency.
On a policy level, he’s one of the most conservative Democrats in the field. He doesn’t concretely support Medicare for All, except in some “it would be great, eventually!” sense. He voted against free public college. He makes vague noises about liking the Green New Deal without signing on. He gets money from oil and gas executives, and thus he won’t take a hard position against fossil fuels. He folded on the Israel Iron Dome question under the slightest pressure, he voted to let Obama negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which cost him the AFL-CIO endorsement in his race against Cruz), and the sheer amount of awful Republican bills he’s supported is enough to fill an entire article.
Now, we don’t live in a perfect political world, and despite O’Rourke’s quirks, he’s a hell of a politician…for Texas. It would have been a wonderful miracle if he defeated Cruz. It would be a wonderful miracle if he defeats John Cornyn, the state’s other senator, in 2020. He’s far from the worst Democrat in Congress, and we need people like him in the red and purple states. Nevertheless, the point needs to be made: Nothing about this guy’s politics are special. Nothing about his record screams “get this man in the oval office!” We are at a critical juncture in American history where policy change is desperately needed, and as Jacobin put it so succinctly, “We don’t need another photogenic media star with run-of-the-mill liberal politics running for president.”
If Obama represented a transformation that seemed credible, to some, in 2008, Beto O’Rourke represents that same kind of transformation for people who, a decade later, haven’t learned the most basic lesson of the American political nightmare: This is a street fight, the other side is the enemy, and if we keep losing, the penalty is poverty and sickness and death for more and more people, and, oh yeah, the environmental destruction of the planet. There is no space for a fool like Beto O’Rourke in the post-Trump era, because Beto O’Rourke, despite all his charismatic gifts, is a man who centers his political life around himself rather than the people. His book shelves are lined with the biographies of former presidents in what amounts to a paean to his own ambition, and in closing that Vanity Fair piece, he said something telling:
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.”
It’s up to you what part of that statement you think is the most true: The part about him being “born” for the role, or the part about him wanting to help the country. It’s not that they can’t both be true, to some extent, but taken in conjunction with the quote that led this piece, it’s clear (to me, at least) that Beto sees himself as a special agent of change. A man of all the people, a man of both parties, a man who can transcend these petty divisions that separate us and shine brighter than his dim surroundings.
He’s good enough at what he does that he’s going to make other people believe that, too—the most gullible, the most naive, the most vapid. Let’s return to a key word: The premise of his campaign is the premise of transcendence. He’s the comic book hero that many liberals have been waiting for, the man who will return us to the golden days of Obama and erase the nightmare that was Trump. He’s the savior, and because he’s the savior, he only asks for our most superficial support. He doesn’t need a grassroots movement that extends beyond the ballot box, he doesn’t need a political revolution at his back, and he doesn’t need to be anything more than a viral superstar who captures our hearts for the duration of the campaign season.
If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t even try to understand the failures that brought us Donald Trump, or who doesn’t even try to see the failures of the Obama presidency, or who doesn’t like to look too deeply at the systemic injustices of late-stage capitalism underlying the modern American experience, Beto O’Rourke provides a great deal of comfort. You can close your eyes, project whatever you want onto the blank slate he presents, and hope for the best.
You can ignore the fact that transcendence and compromise are ugly myths that perpetuate inequality, and that when the concept of transcendence meets the reality of hard-nosed Republican opposition, it immediately decays into craven compromise that drags us further and further to the right. You can ignore the fact that Beto has already demonstrated this Obama-esque tendency to capitulate even while operating in the safest possible blue district. And you can ignore, above all, the obvious, unsettling conclusion: If we elect this man, we are screwed.