It’s hard for presidential candidates not to lapse eventually into self-parody. Beto O’Rourke is breaking the mold by actively seeking it out. The unsuccessful and now unemployed 2018 Texas senatorial candidate has embarked upon a rambling tour of the West that he is cataloging with beatnik-like journal entries on his encounters and feelings.
If Beto runs, he’ll be the first presidential candidate to eschew a listening tour to go find himself instead; the first presidential candidate not to prep his incipient campaign with position papers but sentence-fragment jottings; the first presidential candidate to court mockery as a conscious political strategy.
As Mario Cuomo once famously said, politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Assuming he’s going to run, O’Rourke is campaigning in prose; it just happens to be the prose of Jack Kerouac.
Credit where it’s due: O’Rourke’s entries on the website Medium are evocative of the open road and the West, those most American scenes and themes. “A lot of big trucks rolling down Pancake Blvd and there aren’t any sidewalks,” he began one entry from the town of — no joke — Liberal, Kansas.
“Drove to Dalhart,” he continued, eschewing full sentences. “Ate at the Grill. Was last there in August of 2017. Green chile cheeseburger. The table over asked if I was Beto.”
Beto writing about people asking if he’s Beto might be the most Beto thing ever. In 2019 America, it’s hard to imagine any such thing as too much sharing, but Beto is testing the limits. Not just the Instagram video of his teeth-cleaning — which was as compelling as it sounds — but his painfully open soul-searching.
“Have been stuck lately. In and out of a funk,” he wrote. Hence the road trip. Maybe, he mused, “it’ll clear my head, reset, I’ll think new thoughts, break out of the loops I’ve been stuck in.” Thirty years ago, any of this would have gotten Beto laughed out of serious presidential consideration. Today, we live in a different era, defined by the social media of which Beto is a master.
Yes, his journey is completely ridiculous and has inspired criticism and parody, but people are talking about him. As Donald Trump powerfully proved in his primary run, nothing is more important.
Yes, his journey is absurdly self-involved, but self-involvement is a leading 21st-century American mode.
Yes, his journey is highly unorthodox, but, again, as Trump showed, successful presidential candidates always find their own way to win.
The 2016 presidential race was a reminder of how authenticity is the coin of the realm. Trump, with his vast flaws, had it, and Hillary Clinton couldn’t come close to faking it. That made an enormous difference. Beto noticed.
He might realize, as well, that there are different paths to the Democratic nomination. One is to veer hard left and survive the gantlet of that crowded part of the Democratic field. The other is to try to replicate Barack Obama’s trick in 2008 of lighting up the Democratic base and millennials via his personal brand, while staying relatively vague on the issues.
Obama pulled this off because the press was smitten with him and he was a genuinely talented politician. To this point, Beto has gotten lavishly positive coverage, but it’s not clear how long that will last if he’s running against fellow Democrats in 2020 rather than Ted Cruz in 2018. And his talent hasn’t been tested on the national stage.
Beto obviously isn’t a historic candidate or an African-American. Already, he’s been accused of dripping “with white male privilege” for leaving his wife and kids at home to go on a road trip to allegedly clear his head.
Perhaps Beto doesn’t ultimately run for president, and if he does, perhaps his trip will be used against him. But can anyone say with confidence that his journey of self-discovery isn’t self-indulgent and weird enough to work in the strange new world of American politics?
Rich Lowry can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• BY RICH LOWRY