When I first heard two years ago that Beto O’Rourke, a relatively unknown Texas congressman from El Paso without any flashy national legislative wins, was running against swamp monster Senator Ted Cruz for the latter’s Texas Senate seat, I had a reaction similar to a lot of people's: Go for it, dude. Why not?
And like many, when I saw the lavish magazine profiles and never-ending Facebook Live videos and sweat-soaked blue button-downs , I got excited. Texas needed this win. Democratic organizers in states that for decades have been in the “Lean Red” and “Solid Red” columns needed this win. And with so much on the line in the 2018 midterms, progressives nationwide needed this win. I believed O’Rourke’s message could inspire action from generation of activists and voters for years to come. And even after he lost , I hoped we’d see him again in the future.
So when news broke that O’Rourke was gearing up for a presidential run , you’d think I’d jump for joy. But I didn’t.
As a candidate in the Texas Senate race, O’Rourke radiated promise and optimism, an avatar for Democrats who’d had little to cheer for in such a historically conservative state. As a candidate on the national stage, however, he looks a lot less like the future we’d hope for. Even against just the other white men in this race (or about to get in it) like former vice president Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, it’s hard to say what O’Rourke brings to the table other than potentially a Best Personality™ superlative.
It’s hard not to be skeptical, too, about O’Rourke’s personality-driven bid when former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and former Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum are putting their postelection efforts toward initiatives like rebuilding Georgia’s entire election system and creating a voter registration group in Florida, respectively. (Abrams may yet announce a run for higher office, but if and when she does, it’ll be backed up with clear policy objectives that she’s detailing now. ) If O’Rourke truly wants to do the “greatest good” for America as he claims, why not focus on uprooting structural inequality on the ground and making it easier for the most vulnerable Americans to have their voices heard and their needs met? What does running an ambiguous presidential campaign achieve?
There’s a big difference between O’Rourke running unopposed against Sen. Cruz, one of the more unpopular members of Congress , and O’Rourke running against a slate of candidates in one of the most diverse primary fields—both in terms of identities and ideology—in presidential campaign history. Against Sen. Cruz, the common criticism that O’Rourke was low in ideological direction, policy proposals, and legislative accomplishments faded into the background. Now it’s unmissable. To his credit, O’Rourke has tried to better define where he stands, but his platform seems to draw mostly on the ideas that more liberal-leaning peers have put forward, with few signature ideas of his own. He’s supported a few more progressive efforts like the Green New Deal and ending narcotics prohibition and legalizing marijuana , though he’s also rescinded his support of single-payer health care for a more moderate option called Medicare for America .
Some see this mix-and-match politics as a positive. “Him being so focused on talking to people, listening to people, and inspiring people at the start of this campaign in combination with sharing those policies is an important balance for me,” says New York–based editor Olivia, who asked not to use her last name. “I can see how it is energizing young people in the party and even people beyond the party, and that excites me—I feel like that should be something we're all cheering on, whether he's our number-one choice or not.”
But in this presidential race, O’Rourke is up against opponents who bring a lot more to the table than Sen. Cruz ever did. And let’s be real here: Any of the five female politicians in this race—Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar, and Representative Tulsi Gabbard—would be laughed out the door if they declared their candidacy with no clear ideological ethos, no outlined policy proposals, no well-known legislative accomplishments, no policies or stances synonymous with their names, and no recent campaign wins. Warren, for example, has already posted many of her policy specifics online about everything from taking on big tech to creating affordable housing —all after spending six years in the Senate actively bringing up issues like these.
A regular rebuttal I’ve heard among O’Rourke supporters—that he is being the good politician and listening to the American people—is true but incomplete, as it omits the work done by the others in this race. Plenty of O’Rourke’s opponents, including many of these women candidates, have spent years talking to their constituents and Americans at large. They actively turned those observations and listening sessions into definitive action and policies that could speak to those struggles. Women and people of color don’t have the luxury that O’Rourke sees as a positive of just winging it and “innovating” on the fly. They’re not applauded for changing stances whichever way the wind blows. Not to mention, why would we want to reward a presidential candidate for not showing up more prepared when he had the option to? O’Rourke’s been on the campaign trail for two years straight since launching his Senate bid in March 2017, in addition to defending a congressional seat for six years; it’s not like he’s new to this. He has no excuse for not having a strong point of view and concrete, original solutions of his own.
It’s not even that O’Rourke runs with an advantage that other candidates in this race have never experienced; it’s that he doesn’t seem to wholly grasp it. He was mocked online for saying he was “born to be in it” when announcing via a Vanity Fair profile that he would run for president. He made a very pre-2016 joke about his wife raising their kids “sometimes with my help,” which rubbed salt in an already open wound since his wife didn’t speak at all in his campaign-launch video. And then there was his most recent comment about how he, as Jenna Johnson reported for The Washington Post , “asked voters to shape him into the presidential candidate they want him to be, to help him draft a vision for America” without offering his own policies.
Women themselves are split on what to make of the comments. Some, like publicist Rachel Walden, view the outrage as a distraction. “The criticisms I've seen against him have largely been petty and unproductive,” she says. “We can pick apart and gossip about his marital [and] family affairs, or we can focus on his professional strengths and weaknesses for the job, which is what really matters at the end of the day.”
Meanwhile, other voters—in particular, some Texans—see O’Rourke’s move to run for president over continuing to flip his home state blue as a sign of something more insidious. “My belief is that Beto could've done far more good by staying here in Texas and helping Texas, since that was something he said repeatedly on the campaign trail: that he cared about Texas and Texans,” says Diane Alston, who lives in the Lone Star State. “What [O’Rourke] accomplished in our state in 2018—even though he came up short—was nothing short of stunning. That doesn't make him presidential material, and his blatant lack of preparation on so many fronts cements my belief that he wasn't born to do this, no matter what he thinks or what he's been told. What it does suggest to me is that he's betting on his charismatic white-guy persona to carry him into the White House, and I'm just not OK with that.”
For now O’Rourke’s plan does seem to be to campaign on the force of his persona. And for all the hot takes, it hasn’t backfired. In the first 24 hours of his campaign, he says he raised over $6 million , the highest number of any 2020 candidate. Plus, the last dude who ran largely on rhetoric and without real policy objectives now sits in the Oval Office. O’Rourke has more experience in political office, and far better political stances, but the point stands. Why him?
O’Rourke wants to do better for America, and the truth is we deserve better. We shouldn’t have to return to where we were at the start of the 2010s. If a Democrat takes the White House in 2020, that person will inherit a trash fire of grotesque white supremacy, stifling patriarchy, and life-threatening misinformation. In all seriousness, will the campaign equivalent of singing “Kumbaya” without an exacting assessment of what’s happening and what needs to be done really dig us out of this hole? And will that help the most marginalized and oppressed communities in America get the equity and equality they deserve?
Despite the successes of 2018, we’re still in extraordinarily dark times. We’ll need an extraordinary candidate with extraordinary ideas and an extraordinary strategy to implement them to rise to the occasion. The one I’m thinking of doesn’t look like any candidate we’ve ever seen before. And unfortunately for O’Rourke, we’ve encountered just way too many like him in the past.
Lily Herman is a writer and editor based in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @lkherman .