So Beto O’Rourke is in, and he’s off to a horrible start. He wasn’t supposed to say he was born to run, he moves his hands too much, he should have given his poor wife a sentence or two. He has no accomplishments. He’s a moderate sellout. Yes, the early verdict is in: The left-liberal intelligentsia has contempt for him.
All of which—especially the last point—convinces me that maybe he can win.
I guess I’m part of this “left-liberal intelligentsia,” although the people who hang their hats in the farther-left precincts of that spectrum would howl at the thought. But fine, I’m a reasonably prominent columnist, people read what I write, I’m a worker in the factory that produces the arguments that attempt to shape public opinion. So I’m a card-carrying member. And I’m here to tell you that we represent a rather small slice of public opinion. We even represent only a particular slice of liberal opinion.
The last couple of weeks, I’ve twice gone out to the middle of the country to talk to audiences about my new book, which by the way keeps getting great reviews and which you should buy. My audiences consist of liberal Democrats, mostly. Loyal, door-knocking Democrats, the kind of people who do the unglamorous and difficult work of electing local candidates and keeping liberal causes and organizations going in sometimes hostile territory.
This is just a couple audiences, and of course they’re the kind of people who are interested in hearing me jabber in the first place, so I readily admit that my evidence is highly anecdotal, but: These people aren’t like Brooklyn urban hipsters. Yes, they despise Donald Trump as much as coastal elitists do, they want universal health care as much as Bernie Sanders does, and they’d love to see a woman become president.
But most of all, they want to win. They live in places (Columbus, Ohio and outside Detroit) where Democrats have to fight to win elections, and where you can’t just assume all your neighbors detest Trump. They’ll ditch the litmus tests for whoever can win.
On the coasts, or at least on the East Coast, the coast I know well, people want desperately to win, for sure. But they also want to move the Democratic Party to the left in a hurry. Everybody seems rather breezily convinced that that those two things are wholly compatible. Me, I’m still not so sure. I think the Democratic Party has moved to the left. Of that there is no doubt. But has the country moved to the left? Of this I’m far less certain.
Some will respond to that by arguing: But look at the support in all the polls for Medicare for All. Yes, it polls well. But those polls typically don’t lay out for people the considerable tax implications. They don’t remind people—as tens of millions of right-wing dollars surely will, if a Medicare for All proponent becomes the Democratic nominee—that Medicare for All was ditched as too expensive in Vermont.
Now don’t take the above to mean (as some will anyway) that I want a centrist. I do not. In fact, I want someone on the left, but not in most of the conventional ways that’s measured. As I’ve written many times, what the Democratic Party has to do right now more than anything is bury supply-side economics. It has to destroy Friedmanism (as in Milton), the idea that the corporation has no moral duty to anything but profit. It has to make an unapologetic case for high taxation on the wealthy and for broad public investment in a whole range of areas.
These are things neither of the last two Democratic presidents did to my satisfaction. So I want someone to the left of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama insofar as this person will hopefully lead the country into a post-supply-side era and defend and promote public investment much more aggressively than either Clinton or Obama did.
What the Democratic Party does not have to do is get hung-up on a handful of litmus-testy, au courant issues that are hot because Bernie or AOC is promoting them. Yet another thing that I liked about Sherrod Brown was the way he admirably resisted hopping on the Medicare for All bandwagon. His instincts about these things are sharp. They got him easily reelected—not in the state of Vermont, or a Bronx-Queens congressional district, but in a state Trump carried by eight points. Just maybe he knows something that people on the coasts don’t?
Now, back to Beto. I don’t know much about him. I don’t even really know his position on Medicare for All. He said while campaigning last year that he was for it in theory but had objections to the bills in Congress as written. You can call that mealy-mouthed if you want, but the guy was trying to get elected in Texas.
Maybe time will prove that he doesn’t have the gravitas or judgment (it was weird to have his wife sitting there, silent, in his announcement video; she’s an educator, he should have had her say a couple sentences about how much her hubby cares about education). Maybe there are aspects to his record that are too conservative and that Democratic primary voters everywhere, not just on the navy-blue dots on the map, will reject. I don’t know.
But I do know three things. First, he’s a threat to all the announced candidates—he probably steals from Sanders the most, but he takes a little from every one of them, so he shakes things up in a way that I think is basically good (I think all the candidates have serious limitations). Second, he has more of that “it factor” than any of the others. Elections aren’t chiefly about positions. They’re about how the candidate makes people feel. He has talent in that area, and that’s not to be gainsaid. He raised more than $6 million in his first 24 hours, topping Sanders by a couple hundred thousand.
And third, yes, to the extent that the chattering class doesn’t like him, that probably bodes well for him. If he starts to look like the best choice to beat Trump, the pundits’ verdicts will be irrelevant.