At long last, former Texas Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke has announced his bid in the 2020 presidential race. In contrast to the entry of, say, Sen. Kamala Harris, which was flawlessly choreographed, O’Rourke’s long tease and haphazard approach got some Democrats’ dander up.
Granted, O’Rourke doesn’t have any congressional achievements or any deep expertise. He seems to think he can rewrite the political rules. To quote the New York Times, “Several people who have spoken to his team came away questioning whether Mr. O’Rourke was thoroughly prepared for the crush of a national race. Some suggested he lacked detailed plans like a comprehensive strategy for amassing delegates.”
Now wait a second. Critics should have some humility. The last politician with zero political accomplishments, a nonprofessional organization, lots of free media and a lack of policy depth wound up as president. It’s also worth noting that almost all the candidates in the race are learning as they go. Aside from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have any of the contenders come out with dazzling policy plans?
What today looks like a ragtag operation can grow over time. A high-excitement speech could result in an unprecedented flood of online campaign donations. O’Rourke’s entry might zap Sen. Bernie Sanders’s support among young voters — or eradicate any hope of lesser candidates breaking through.
O’Rourke needs a few error-free weeks, a big money haul and a quick jump in the polls to convince a lot of naysayers that he is the real deal. His biggest danger? A moment like one that Ted Kennedy faced when he couldn’t explain to Roger Mudd exactly why he wanted to be president.
O’Rourke can drive news and dominate on social media. However, with rock-star status comes intense scrutiny. He is going to have all the cameras and microphones pointed his way. Unlike lesser-known candidates, he won’t have the luxury many other candidates had to get into the groove with a stump speech or work out kinks in his advance-team operation.
O’Rourke would be wise to do a few things. First, if he managed to drive huge distances to visit all 254 Texas counties, he should do the same in Iowa (99 counties) and New Hampshire (10 counties). Drawing big crowds in small and midsize venues worked for him in the past. Second, expectations are very low for him on policy. If he rolls out two or three big ideas right away — perhaps one on immigration, another on energy and a third on education — he might quiet critics, at least for a short time. Third, now’s the time to put his post-midterm road-trip experience to good use, sharing the stories and concerns of people he met and explaining what the country is really all about (e.g. neighborhoods, volunteers, small towns). Finally, for the time being, he should stay away from the Sunday shows and the town halls. Too many other candidates have done really well, and a lackluster outing — or God forbid, a major flop — would set O’Rourke back.
In truth, no one knows who’s going to catch fire. If O’Rourke is a self-absorbed flake, his campaign will implode before the first votes are cast. If, however, he is as talented and inspirational as his fans say, you might see the race narrow to a face-off between former Vice President Joe Biden and O’Rourke — the past vs. future, insider vs. outsider, the baby boomer vs. the Gen Xer, etc. If that’s the choice, O’Rourke has a decent chance to win this in a party that is always looking for someone new and exciting.