LESS THAN a week into his presidential campaign, Beto O’Rourke is stirring strong emotions. Among the thousands who have flocked to hear the skateboarding, bilingual Texan in the small rallies he has already held in Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, they seem to be largely positive. Youngish, tall and more charismatic than any of his rivals, as he demonstrated during his losing Senate campaign last year, the 46-year-old former congressman is Democratic box office.
During a pit-stop at Penn State University, in central Pennsylvania, midway between Iowa and New Hampshire, he received half the adulation Senator Bernie Sanders would have got, with a tenth of the planning. There is a gushier edge to Betomania, too. Like Swede Levov, George Clooney and, yes, Barack Obama, whose pensive pauses, fluid perorations and optimism Mr O’Rourke has repurposed for a dress-down generation, he has passed the first test of American heroism: women and men seem equally prone to admire or love him. As he tried to exit the crush of a couple of thousand students, while standing head and shoulder above them, your columnist overheard one express amorous thoughts for him, while another loudly invited the candidate to join his punk band.
Yet Mr O’Rourke, whose music is these days confined to air-drumming behind the wheel, has also attracted more (and nastier) criticism than his dozen rivals put together. His unofficial campaign announcement—a cover-interview in Vanity Fair,with pictures by Annie Leibovitz—was panned as preening and entitled. Commentators on the right have piled into his underwhelming record, as a once-aimless youth with a drunk-driving charge, who married money, then served three low-key terms in the House of Representatives. Those on the left were scandalised when Mr O’Rourke, in an early stump speech, made a joke of his absentee fathering. And there is a bipartisan consensus that Mr O’Rourke, who has launched himself at America in a self-driven rental truck, with tearaway passion, no campaign manager and few firm policy ideas, shows an unbefitting want of seriousness. “When are we going to get an actual policy from you, instead of platitudes and nice stories?” asked a Sanders supporter in the crowd at Penn State.
Much of this is warranted. Mr O’Rourke is an undistinguished Democratic front-runner and his sketchiness on large areas of policy seems almost wilful. Surely, on the journey of introspection that followed his Texas defeat, during which Mr O’Rourke ate sacred dirt in New Mexico and blogged religiously, he could have found time to form a view on Brexit? Yet he says he has no opinion on it. And he has little more to say on the environmental and other economic policies he claims to prioritise. Having sounded unenthusiastic about the Green New Deal preached by left-wingers, he was asked in Pennsylvania how he would change it. His reply included much emphasis on the seriousness of the climate emergency (as if his audience needed convincing on that), a joke about not wanting to be seen as one of the bendejos who failed to deal with it, a shout-out to Texan wind turbines, and little else.
Yet it is possible to exaggerate Mr O’Rourke’s cluelessness. He has conventional progressive positions on criminal justice and immigration reform, and a more interesting emerging one on health care. Having backed Medicare for all, he now wants to expand it while protecting the private-insurance market. As most of his rivals rush to the left, that is a notable statement of realism. It is also moot whether Mr O’Rourke’s hot air on climate change is less serious than the hallucination masquerading as policy that is the Green New Deal. Mr O’Rourke has been so condemned mainly because his diverse critics view him as a threat.
For professional politickers—the consultants, pollsters and columnists who shape political news—his campaign is heretical. He disdains polling, depicts his rallies as brainstorming sessions and generates and distributes much of his own media. And his methods work. His slim defeat in Texas was not the stunning achievement he claims, yet it gave him a national profile and Sanders-esque command of online fundraising. His methods also work for reasons none of his Democratic rivals looks able to replicate.
In place of policy smarts, Mr O’Rourke projects a mood that many find appealing. His optimistic talk of “America’s genius” is familiar; yet mingled with a rarer call for humility and atonement. Though America’s shortcomings, its injustices and political dysfunction, are experienced unevenly, fixing them starts with acknowledging that everyone is responsible. Not least the candidate: “Thank you for the accountability,” he replied sadly, when asked to explain the mismatch between his idealistic rhetoric and more pragmatic voting record. It was almost moving. Mr O’Rourke, who is reading Joseph Campbell’s treatise on heroism, “The Power of Myth”, is not only the master of his narrative because of his quirkiness. It is also because his frailties are as integral to it as his inspirational strengths. He comes across as a reformed drifter vying to turn a personal quest for self-improvement into a political cause.
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If he fails, it will be because Democrats find his shortcomings too risky. Mr Obama, one notes, had to convince them he had serious policy chops besides the feel-good. Yet Democrats face bigger challenges today than they did back then, to which Mr O’Rourke offers a possibly flawed yet perhaps unrivalled answer.
The hard left is stronger—which makes his Obama-like ability to cloak his pragmatism in soaring rhetoric and a few progressive pledges especially valuable. And Donald Trump, who tries to turn any contest into a brawl, is a fierce opponent. A Democratic challenger who could not merely dust himself off, as Mr Obama could, but make his patience and fortitude seem more important than the president’s boorishness, as Mr O’Rourke would try to do, might be awkward. That the lanky Texan would then get back on his skateboard, while vlogging about it, would be another plus.