written by Valerie Morales
From afar, Beto O’Rourke is strikingly normal, a kind of accidental celebrity. If it wasn’t for the political theater surrounding him, he’d be no different than a thousand other men in collard shirts. But, alas the people. Under their gaze, he softly glows despite being famous for all the wrong reasons. He lost what he almost won and the moral victory in that is fetishized. Nevertheless, what did not happen to Beto O’Rourke turned him into a settler, an inhabitant of the loamy middle.
His near miracle last November was only a moment. It did not refract politics nor did it recolor the hue of the Democratic Party. Paradoxically, Beto O’Rourke is worse off now than when he started his upstart campaign to unseat Ted Cruz. Then, he had a target that fit his contemporary blueprint. Months later, he is struggling to shape the public Beto, flaws and desires, with the exercise of campaigning across the country.
Abysmal poll numbers, Beto is not a credible challenger much less a contender to rip away Donald Trump’s incumbency. If he was middle of the pack in a crowded field of dreamers that would be something tangible. At best, he is sprinkling his brand of folksy political empathy here and there, town after town. But it’s a long way from the midterm elections where he exemplified leadership.
Recently, he had a town hall on CNN and it was disastrous because no one watched him flail back and forth. We are jaded about Beto’s intimate story and Beto himself. The man dubbed as White Obama is anything but.
The Beto O’Rourke phenomenon as it is often referred to (but in the past tense so can it really be a phenomenon?) was always going to be a cautionary tale. Instant celebrity often is roughed up once the honeymoon phase ends. Political celebrity is a transactional sport played with knives. Voters are willing spectators, seduced by youth, and attractiveness. But a message has to be more searing than I’m a nice guy. And I’m young. Vote for me.
A candidate can be unique and different. And he can be ordinary and drive himself to all of his campaign stops. But he has to be decisive. Bold. He can’t continually dredge up mistakes, nor can he continue making mistakes.
Electing a president is about electing a person who is better than we are, a person who knows more and understands more, and slavishly wants more. He is just more. More ambitious. More thirsty. More desperate. It is aspirational at its egocentric core. Often, Beto is less.
How is it that someone as young and personable as Beto O’Rourke, who made Ted Cruz sweat it out, is being ruined by the Joe Biden hurricane? How did he let it happen?
Perhaps it has nothing to do with O’Rourke and his inexperience and more to do with Biden’s social capital, having been around for so long. Biden has the luxury of being a former Vice-President, a flame thrower and counter puncher, and a sympathetic figure. Both loved and mocked, he inspires a response. The perception of Biden is that he will fight for the least of us. That is the most endearing part of his resume, even more enigmatic than his friendship with Barack Obama. He is the guy who will beat up the bully and we need that. We need a champion and an advocate, someone who is going to fight on our behalf. And win.
Beto isn’t that archetype- the warrior who knifes off a head ala Game of Thrones. He seems more like the kind of man who is prone to stress out and cries in the dark. Admirably, he does have that Obama professorial intellectual thing that is romantic in a world of toxic men.
He loves conversational politics. He wants to sit in a chair and listen to voters. Beto is energized by feedback and ideas. He is the kind of guy that makes a great husband. But that is not how you win presidential elections. Labeled the white Obama has stuck for all the wrong reasons.
Just to be clear. Barack Obama isn’t a template. He isn’t a mutable design; put your white face in, take his black face out. He isn’t a clay you can sculpt depending on your idea of what a man is or what a president is or what a winner is. The Obama presidency was specific and singular and it was a perfect storm that tried to heal a nation. He didn’t need us as much as we needed him.
Beto though isn’t needed and his numbers say he isn’t wanted either. In a capitalist world that eroticizes winning, it feels logical and right. Losers, despite their attractiveness, still get the consolation prize.
In the most recent polling, Beto O’Rourke is hovering around the 5% mark. That is stunning and appalling for a candidate who has been on the tip of everyone’s tongue since the midterms ended. He did some good things. He broke the bank his first day as a candidate. He continued his small town tours, talking to voters, listening, reminding them he doesn’t have all the answers. In his zeal to be the gentleman candidate, he skirted specifics and talked in generalities. Sometimes, it feels as if Beto O’Rourke wants to be president but he doesn’t want to run for president.
Beto did a horrible job in the Vanity Fair spread that backfired; he came off as privileged and indulged. All candidates have a certain entitlement but Beto reminded us of the rich kid in school who gets a car at 16 and parks it in the teacher’s lot because he can. Beneath his lukewarm message was an arrogant lens. But is he a fighter? The rapper Biggie Smalls rhymed “Our situation is a tight one. What you gonna do: fight or run?”
In 2000, Barack Obama fought. Ambitious and confident, he expected to represent the 1st district of Illinois in Washington D.C. Obama ran against an incumbent Bobby Rush, a former member of the Black Panther Party. Rush had name recognition in the district and he was familiar, the kind of black man native Chicagoans are used to. Aggressive. Angry. A street fighter, and at times a hustler.
The Obama campaign was pretty traditional segueing Rush as an old timer who didn’t understand what was going on in the contemporary world. Obama’s gift as a community organizer was coalition building and the timing felt right to coalesce whites and blacks, moderates and liberals.
But everyone knew Bobby Rush. Furthermore, Rush had a 70 percent approval rating. There was no reason to not vote for Rush who was well liked. Months before the primary, Rush’s son was murdered and he was a sympathetic figure.
Rush said of Obama “He went to Harvard and became an educated fool.”
The Chicago Tribune endorsed Obama, but the sitting President and Vice-President (Bill Clinton and Al Gore) did not. Neither did the Democratic Party.
Of his campaign for Congress, Obama wrote “Less than halfway into my campaign, I knew in my bones that I was going to lose. Each morning from that point forward I awoke with a vague sense of dread, realizing that I would have to spend the day smiling and shaking hands and pretending that everything was going to plan.”
Nearly two decades later, Beto follows the young Obama prescription with his own personal edits. Gas up the car and drive. Stop here and stop there. Shake hands. Get on a stool and talk and listen and strategize. Live stream just about everything ad nauseum. Keep the media at arms length because they are part of the problem. They fall in and out of love too easily; they are a bad ex.
Because Beto O’Rourke is white and Barack Obama is black, synchronicity is a paper tiger. Their words are parsed as if spoken by strangers and frankly that is what they are. A decade apart in age, they travel in very different lanes. When Beto talks about inclusion and a table for all, it triggers the eye roll as if he is pandering to a class of people he doesn’t understand much less know. When Obama talked about it in his speech at the DNC, he was deified.
Both Obama and O’Rourke have eloquence on their side. But O’Rourke hasn’t been able to use it for his benefit. His Obama-esque beliefs feel worn and a lot like born on third base but thinks he hit a triple. We are kind of over the eloquent and sincere president who wants diversity. Instead, what was once a sense of wonder- it almost defeated Ted Cruz- is being largely ignored.
There is a saying about campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. Beto took that to heart. But the Trump Presidency has reshaped what is coarse in the language. Poetry doesn’t cut it anymore. You earn votes these days by convincing people you can get in the fight and are willing to bleed. O’Rourke doesn’t resonate as someone who has been on the wrong side of anything. There is something about his body language that screams self-absorbed.
That he is continuing the race almost in a fog, as if he is not so far behind, can be interpreted as a character trait that speaks well of him- refusing to quit or be paranoid. Or, to see that the lemons are not turning into lemonade. And who knows, maybe he will be Biden’s VP afterall. But on the other hand, self-awareness matters.
He denied he left the scene of a DUI crash, an event that happened in his early twenties. He never served time in jail because of his family resources and when he tells this story it is a parable of the well heeled. He thinks it makes him regular that he did a horrible thing. But no. It makes him the beneficiary of privileges. It makes him more like Trump than the opposite of Trump and suggests he has social amnesia.
Most of the time, his sincerity is what he leads with. He shrugs at his missteps but his campaign has been messy in a very quiet way. From the outside, it’s difficult to ascertain if he feels his own words. Does he mean them literally or is this all allegory? Does the country and the problems within really matter to him? He has a cool veneer and his face performs under the glare pretty admirably. Everything about him screams an absence of malice. That too is the problem.
He wants to be president which is a way of saying indirectly and without hurting anyone’s feelings, he wants power. But the thing is Beto O’Rourke doesn’t need to be president. Curiously, he devised his presidential campaign to mirror his senate campaign when they are two totally different audiences he has to appease.
He was far from white Obama when he rolled out his campaign. Detailed-centric, Barack Obama understood imagery. On his first day as a presidential candidate, he hugged up to the myth of Abraham Lincoln, a great man who saved the union from its racial self. Beto, however, was on the couch in a boring frame of white domesticity. He buried the lead and it came across, rightly or wrongly, that Beto is about Beto (and his family) rather than Beto being about us.
At the very least, Beto is eye candy. Either he doesn’t know it, hates to be reminded of it, or just wants to blend in. But this isn’t a race to be the controller of Amarillo. This is the Presidency of the United States.
Beto O’Rourke reminds me of a golfer who had a very good front nine. But on the back nine, he found the drink. Over and over. He missed some holes. He tripped and hit the ball in the trees. It doesn’t take much to go from optimism to confusion to shit I’m in trouble.
Barack Obama made it look so easy.
Here’s a Barack Obama story. When he was running for President, a bunch of white college kids ended up in the small black town where I spend my summers. It is very rural and they spent a couple of hours in the car before arriving on dirt roads and forested corridors. They spent two or so hours talking about the Senator and it was impressive. Their whiteness intermingled with their optimism. Their willingness to linger in a black place that didn’t have a lot of votes didn’t seem to matter to them; they were so sincere and righteous in their love of Obama, a candidate and hero.
Where is that kind of Beto religiosity? He shakes off, as many do, the white Obama thing. It was a conservative group’s slander intended to paint him as amorphous and redundant. Of course, he is not white Obama. He is white Beto. He is different. The compliment in the diss was the surface obvious. Smart. Cautious. Prepared. Tactical.
But here we are now. The Obama-ite in Texas about to make history is now a political prop. In November, Beto seemed to hatch from the Obama tree as some kind of Texan clone, a brother from another mother. But now in the sunlight, he just feels tired and cliche and not original, as he is surrounded by passionate and gutsy politicians older than he. All willing to sell their soul. They approach the primary race as if their lives depend on it. It doesn’t. Our lives depend on them.
Beto coasts above it all, almost as if he isn’t being talked about in public. Missing is a pulsating urgency and desperation. He is a gentleman of a man. He is someone to admire. He is a talented listener. But a campaign is much more than that and on the trail he proudly admires his own banality. He has not outgrown what happened last November in Texas and so neither have we.
Where he once was a spicy jambalaya, Beto O’Rourke has changed. He is more like fettuccini without the chicken, or the alfredo sauce, or even the Chardonnay to elevate the taste. Just white noodles on a plate.