It’s worth remembering as we size up the Democratic field that at around this point in 2007, the main thing most people were asking about Barack Obama was why he was such a flash in the pan.
He announced his candidacy to tremendous fanfare on that frigid day in Springfield, Illinois in February 2007. He started campaigning. Yes, he always registered pretty well in the polls, as there were really only three clear first-tier Democratic candidates that year, and only eight candidates overall (one of the also-rans was named Biden). Obama was a steady second. But—second. Distantly. He passed a somewhat meandering summer traversing Iowa but not catching fire.
It wasn’t until the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines on November 10, 2007, when he delivered a tape-measure-shot speech that vaulted him into a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton in the state, which he of course went on to win.
In other words, where the candidates stand in June of the year before the voting doesn’t necessarily tell us much.
So I say keep an eye on Beto O’Rourke.
He staggered out of the starting gate, no question about that. That video where his wife just sat there mute was nuts. She’s an accomplished educator. How could he not have her say three or four sentences about education? And that joke about her raising the kids “sometimes with my help” was horribly off-key; the yuk-line of some local businessman at a Kiwanis Club luncheon in 1979. My colleague Margaret Carlson wrote here a month ago that O’Rourke reminded women of “the worst boyfriend they ever had: self-involved, convinced of his own charm, chronically late if he shows up at all, worth a meal or two but definitely not marriage material.”
But sometimes someone surprises you, even after a bad first meal and first impression, and it’s too early to start tossing people into the dustbin—we can’t do that until at least we have a few debates, the first of which are coming up on us at the end of the month. If—and I emphasize this if—he does reasonably well in the early debates, O’Rourke is primed to get a second look.
Three reasons. One, fairly or not—by which I really mean, unfairly, especially to some of the female candidates, who always face sexist presumptions from the media that make it really hard for them to communicate their basic human warmth and fullness—the narrative arc of his campaign is a natural. It’s a personal redemption storyline of the sort for which the media are suckers. He came out over-confident, he was humbled, he reflected, he grew.
We’re actually still not quite sure of the last part. He needs to show that to complete the story. But his apology to his Senate campaign staff for being “a giant asshole,” revealed in that HBO doc that aired last week, suggests a possession of some measure of self-awareness that most of these people, swarmed as they are by panting sycophants, don’t usually have. (Elizabeth Warren has it, which is one of the things I like about her most.)
Reason two: He hasn’t gotten much attention for this, because coverage of him has tended to be about the celebrity stuff—which is his fault; Vanity Fair is the single last cover in America a presidential candidate should pose for—but he does have substance.
Consider the money lines of his announcement speech: “This is a defining moment of truth for this country, and for every single one of us. The challenges that we face right now; the interconnected crises in our economy, our democracy, and our climate have never been greater.”
Boom. Exactly 1000 percent correct. The economy comes first, because it just does, always. But his decision to emphasize the other two suggests to me that he gets it. Our democracy is under assault, not just from Donald Trump, but from Mitch McConnell and that guy who suggested the census citizenship question and every one of those right-wing monsters who spend their days sitting around figuring out how to make sure some Americans can’t vote and how to stack the courts and so on. And climate is pivotal. It’s not issue one, as Jay Inslee has it. It is, however, certainly in the top three. O’Rourke gets it just right.
And I love the phrase “interconnected crises.” It encourages citizens to think. It makes them active participants in a dialogue instead of just passive consumers of empty calorie rhetoric. This is an important, albeit rarely remarked upon, thing, especially for liberals. Ever since Kennedy, liberals like presidential candidates who challenge them to draw from their best selves (conservatives these days seem to prefer candidates who indulge them in being their worst selves). If O’Rourke can manifest this kind of connection consistently on the trail, look out.
Reason three: He can win. He makes a striking contrast with Trump. Handsome. Young. Optimistic. Thin. No overlong bright red ties to mask his corpulent midriff. He puts Texas in play. That alone—any Democrat who makes the Republicans spend time and money in Texas is worth a look.
A Beto O’Rourke-Stacey Abrams ticket mops the floor with Donald Trump and Mike Pence. And it pulls out enough voters in Texas and Georgia to maybe even put the Senate in play. And it covers the ideological waterfront well enough to mute intraparty conflict. It’s a ticket AOC and Conor Lamb could both enthusiastically campaign for.
Of course, O’Rourke has to have that thing that Obama had in such abundance. We don’t yet know if he does. We saw it in that take-a-knee video, but even there, he wasn’t quite pitch perfect. He hit a home run, but he sort of ran the bases twice, as a friend of mine wittily put it at the time.
Maybe this is just going to be Joe Biden wire-to-wire, as they say in thoroughbred racing. But if there’s room for someone to emerge, and if O’Rourke shows that he has that little touch of magic in him that Obama had, take the odds. And don’t write off anybody in June of the year before people start voting.