Beto O’Rourke did better than any Texas Democratic candidate in a generation, coming within only a few points of defeating Ted Cruz, contributing serious coattails that threw Pete Sessions out of office and flipped several state legislature seats, building long-term Democratic infrastructure, etc. That’s amazing! But if you are Elaina Plott and you have access to any number of high-end journals even though you are terrible at what you do, Beto lost because he sucks.
“He was a cause, not a candidate,” a top Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity because of his involvement in current campaigns, told me. “He was anti-Trump, yes. But he struggled to articulate what that would mean for the people of Texas.”
Perhaps the first clue to O’Rourke’s defeat is the distance between the national conception of O’Rourke and his actual policy positions. He was cast in profiles in seemingly every major publication as a beacon of centrism in an extremist world—someone who could reach across the aisle with an open mind despite his progressive platform. It’s true that O’Rourke spoke with a softness and a compassion that offered a stark contrast to his opponent, the Machiavellian Cruz. But a kind tone does not an ideological moderate make: O’Rourke called for Donald Trump’s impeachment, even as his more liberal colleagues declined to touch the topic, and touted his support for “Medicare for All.” He supported calls to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. All of which might have worked in a liberal stronghold such as, say, Connecticut. But as the conservative Cruz aptly put it in an interview with Politico, “Both Beto and I are fighting for principles and values we believe in. The difference is, the principles and values I’m fighting for are also the ones the vast majority of Texans support.”
O’Rourke’s deficiencies, then, might not be so much his own as they are America’s. One could argue that O’Rourke ran a campaign that was ideologically and operationally uncompromised: He never shied from his progressive stances, and he held firm in his opposition to deploying negative ads. Yet one could also argue—and quite convincingly, at that—that such a campaign never stood a chance of breaking through in a state as historically red as Texas. That the national party so desperately wanted it to signifies, perhaps, just how weak the Democratic field looks ahead of 2020. Because O’Rourke, like Rubio, in his youth and charisma and energy, is something of a Platonic ideal of a presidential candidate: It was incumbent upon the Democratic Party to manufacture a narrative of success for O’Rourke, no matter the outcome of the race itself. (Luckily for them, the media has already bought into it: Reuters reported that, win or lose, O’Rourke was “set to emerge victorious.”)
What is even going on here? What sort of alternative reality is this? If only Beto had run like every other Texas Democrat in the last 25 years, he would have lost by 20 points. Now that’s a narrative of success for Texans!
It’s astounding how bad our media remains.
Personally, I see no reason why Beto shouldn’t try for a presidential run. He’s charismatic as hell, he nearly won Texas, people love him. Isn’t this actually someone Democrats should look at seriously on the national stage? Who cares if he couldn’t win this race. It shouldn’t make one whit of difference in considering presidential candidates. If nearly winning as a solid progressive in a right-wing state isn’t as good as being so lucky to have been born in the Bronx or something, I don’t even know what we are doing. The same really goes for Stacey Abrams, if she in fact has lost. Both could be important players in the primaries if they choose to be. It’s an open field.