Beto O'Rourke and the Unity Problem

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke greets employees during a meet and greet at the Beancounter Coffeehouse & Drinkery in Burlington, Iowa. 

Just six months ago, Beto O'Rourke was basking in the love of Democrats from across America as he ran for Senate. Videos of him answering questions and giving speeches went viral, he built an enormous grassroots organizing machine, and hopeful supporters showered him with a mind-boggling $79 million in contributions.

Even though he lost that race, his thoughts inevitably turned to the White House. And why not? He could run for Texas' other Senate seat, but the result might be the same. People keep comparing him to Barack Obama, who was also 46 when he launched his presidential run in 2007. As Obama demonstrated, if you have talent and good timing, anything is possible.

But there's a way in which O'Rourke may be too much like Obama, specifically the Obama of 2008. Because it isn't 2008 anymore.

We have to be honest and say that as appealing as O'Rourke is, he doesn't quite deserve the comparison. Obama became a national figure with a speech at the 2004 Democratic convention that was so dramatic it made pretty much everyone who saw it say, "Holy cow, that guy is going to be president one day." In fact, he had been generating reactions like that for much of his life, even at a place like Harvard Law School, where half of every incoming class thinks they'll be president one day. Despite everything arrayed against him, including an extraordinary volume of racism, he won two presidential elections with a majority of the vote, something no one since Ronald Reagan had done.

Until 2018, Beto O'Rourke was an undistinguished congressman, and though he ran a terrific Senate campaign, a good portion of the attention and enthusiasm he generated could be attributed less to the fact that he was running such a strong campaign and more to the fact that he was doing it against the odious Ted Cruz. When a software developer in California or a teacher in Massachusetts sent him $50, was it because they had fallen in love with O'Rourke or because the thought of Cruz being defeated was so delicious?

Probably both. But as it became clear he'd run for the White House, O'Rourke learned that when you step up to the big leagues it's a whole other game. He was subjected to a rapid wave of stories examining some less than inspiring parts of his past, like his early support from developers or even violent fiction he wrote as a teenager. He had to answer questions about his voting record as a congressman, which is more centrist than that of many Democrats. Ted Cruz didn't accuse him of not being liberal enough.

In an atmosphere were voters will be thinking a lot about questions about ideology, O'Rourke doesn't look too comfortable with the question. Asked if he's a progressive, O'Rourke replied, "I don't know. I'm just, as you may have seen and heard over the course of the campaign, I'm not big on labels. I don't get all fired up about party or classifying or defining people based on a label or a group. I'm for everyone."

The impulse O'Rourke has to fall back on the rhetoric of unity seems perfectly sincere, but it can also sound like something Democrats have grown awfully suspicious of. When Obama ran 12 years ago talking about bringing all Americans together to accomplish great things, it could still inspire hope, even if George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had said the same thing when they ran. But Obama ran into a Republican Party that wasn't interested in accomplishing great things; the only thing they wanted to accomplish was defeating him.

There was no better example than the Affordable Care Act. Obama spent a year cajoling, imploring, and pleading with Republicans to join him in a compromise, under the mistaken theory that with enough facts and logic he could persuade at least some of them to put aside partisanship and try to solve the problems of the American health care system. In the end, the ACA got zero Republican votes in either house of Congress, and the moment it passed they began strategizing on how to destroy it. The rest of his term went pretty much the same way, culminating in Mitch McConnell's refusal to allow Merrick Garland a hearing, let alone a vote, to fill the seat of the late Antonin Scalia. And the entire party went along.

Then Republicans made the most hateful, ignorant bigot they could find their presidential nominee, and the entire party lined up behind him. Anyone who thinks the next Democratic president will get any support from congressional Republicans for any important legislative agenda item is either not being honest, or they're simply a fool.

Does O'Rourke believe it? It's hard to know for sure. As I've argued elsewhere, if you talk to enough ordinary voters you can become convinced that what they want is for Washington to stop all the squabbling and come together to tackle the nation's challenges, and if that's what the public wants, shouldn't it be possible? The problem is that today's Republican Party is not only not interested, they're unalterably committed to thwarting Democrats no matter what damage is done in the process. Which presents a critical question to any Democrat running for president: How are you going to handle that?

The truth is that none of the candidates yet have a satisfying answer to that question. But the we-can-all-get-along perspective that O'Rourke and some others like John Hickenlooper and Cory Booker are bringing looks particularly naïve given what we've been through over the last decade.

I don't think it's an accident that O'Rourke has also been pretty vague so far on the key policy questions like health care and climate change (though in fairness, he's not the only one). As soon as you put out a specific plan to address one of those problems, some people won't like it and "unity" looks a lot harder. O'Rourke seems less committed to a particular policy agenda than to a gauzy vision of a brighter future built on common purpose.

That's not to say O'Rourke doesn't have a lot going for him. He's charismatic in a way that manages to be thoughtful and enthusiastic. He based his 2018 campaign in organization and mobilization, which is what the Democratic nominee will have to do. When he takes a liberal position on an issue he does it without apology or fear, which is a contrast to many Democrats of the past.

But to become the Democratic nominee, he's going to have to do some things he hasn't done before, including articulating a vision for the hard work of governing based in the realities he'll confront if he actually becomes president. He's not alone in failing to fully grapple with that challenge; we'll see who among the Democrats can meet it.

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