Can Beto O’Rourke Win the Democratic Nomination in 2020?

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Katharine Miller at Buzzfeed with a smart analysis of Twitter’s sudden turn against Beto O’Rourke, the aimlessness of his presidential overtures, and his Carter ’76 appeal (and viability) in the 2020:

. . . 1976 is the year most likely to be like our own: a huge, divided field of liberal candidates ran for president after a period of nightmare politics. If you read enough about the 1976 election, you’ll pick up on a dead-ended weariness — the kind of emotional valence that feels familiar to 2019, a year that has begun with a dystopian joke about Marie Kondo throwing away most of the world because it does not spark joy. . . .

The Vietnam War and Richard Nixon — both finished by then — dominated 1976. Carter’s campaign recognized early on, the New York Times wrote, that though there might “be passing moments of interest in other concepts,” one subsumed all others: “the issue of integrity” — and “the most successful candidates would base their pursuits on that foundation.” A decade later, Jerry Rafshoon, Carter’s TV ad maker, told the New Republic that the basis for the campaign’s materials — an array of gentle PBS-looking clips — was Carter’s existing message. “We looked at the footage we had, and these were the lines that were capturing audiences. Who came up with it? Jimmy Carter the candidate,” he said. “It worked for those times.”

And thus, in ads and on the trail: Jimmy Carter spent a lot of time talking about love.

“I want a government,” the central line went, “that is as good and honest, and decent, and truthful, and fair, and competent, and idealistic, and compassionate, and as filled with love as are the American people.”

Contrary to the prevailing myth of Jimmy Carter propagated by Republicans, the Georgia peanut farmer was pretty conservative compared to his opponents in the Democratic primaries. Similarly, progressives have been quick to point out that O’Rourke isn’t as outspokenly liberal on issues like gun control, immigration, healthcare, free college, and trade. So, what does he bring to the table?

Miller says its his message of national unity, political positivity, moral optimism, and affable style—traits others have compared to Obama in ’08 and Miller to Carter three decades earlier.

Despite cratering the word “liberal” for a quarter century, during the actual campaign, Carter frustrated a wide array of Democrats and reporters by eluding ideological categorization. He seemed very liberal on civil rights, for instance, but Julian Bond wouldn’t endorse him; he was a final and Southern rebuke to segregationist George Wallace, but he’d shown a little friendliness to Wallace years before; he hadn’t opposed the Vietnam War, but called it a racist war in 1976, fought by those who couldn’t afford to evade the draft. He kept saying he was a nuclear physicist (he was not) and rarely gave specifics about anything he’d actually do on taxes, inflation, etc.

Instead, there was stuff like: “We’ve still got the greatest system of government on earth. Richard Nixon hasn’t hurt it. Watergate didn’t hurt it. Vietnam and Cambodia haven’t hurt it. … We still have within us the same strength, the same courage, the same ability, the same intelligence, the same educational capacity, the same religious faith, the same love of our land, the same concern about our children as have existed in the minds and hearts of the great people of the past.”

This was delivered to rapt, quiet crowds in a fairly grim manner — which was maybe part of the appeal, seeming serious after all the chaos.

Despite the Left’s coldness to O’Rourke’s potential presidential run, he’s been gaining traction with Democratic voters in the early primary states. Like Senator Amy Klobuchar,  who’s also gained pop from the same crowds, O’Rourke’s appeal lay in the appeal of a positive and affirming message that a united America can solve its problems without violence, radical change, and incivility.

Although Miller doesn’t offer any quotes from the the El Paso Congressman’s to support her claim, it doesn’t take much time to find numerous examples instances when O’Rourke tacked away from the Left to appeal to the meaty center of Real America’s political soul. It’s also not hard to see why he drives progressives bonkers.

Take for example what he said to CNN in June 2018. “I’d like to say it’s un-American, but it’s happening right now in America,” he said of family separation and detention on the US-Mexico border, “And it is on all of us, not just the Trump administration. This is on all of us. . . . I’m confident that the American people this time are going to get it right.”

Just about any Democrat would have been just fine with the first part of this assessment. But the second part, the part that lumps everyone in with the sins of the Trump Administration and its Republican enablers, is the kind of centrist virtue signaling that enrages the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party. And rightfully so. Progressive activists and organizers (many women and/or minorities) have worked for years to change political discourse in America to allow Democrats to call racism racism, bigotry bigotry, fascism fascism, and authoritarianism authoritarianism.

Even more maddening is his recent unwillingness to endorse fellow-Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones in her race for Congress:

It was a border-town stop for Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign, but another Democratic politician commanded particular attention: Gina Ortiz Jones, a history-making congressional candidate — gay, Filipina-American, an Iraq war veteran — hoping to turn a majority-Hispanic district blue. “Really special person,” Mr. O’Rourke said, as Ms. Jones stood and waved.

But soon, a county chairwoman posed an uncomfortable question. Mr. O’Rourke had not endorsed Ms. Jones. In fact, he had elevated her Republican opponent, Representative Will Hurd, with frequent praise and, most memorably, a live-streamed bipartisan road trip that helped jump-start their midterm campaigns. Would Mr. O’Rourke support the Democrat?

He would not.

“This is a place where my politics and my job and my commitment to this country come into conflict,” Mr. O’Rourke said. “I’m going to put country over party.”

Some supporters of Ms. Jones saw it differently: Beto O’Rourke was once again putting Beto O’Rourke first. . . .

In Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, his choice was more than symbolic. Mr. Hurd won by fewer than 1,000 votes, and many voters and local activists hold Mr. O’Rourke — whose success helped lift down-ballot candidates across the state — largely responsible for Ms. Jones’s defeat.

In the words of Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns & Money, we can do better. O’Rourke’s “go at it alone” centrism was acceptable in 2018 when he was endeavoring to rid of Ted Cruz. There was a chance he could have turned Texas blue, but Texas is still Texas, so it made tactical sense for him to strike a reconciliationist tenor. But if he wants be more than the latest person to fail to piece together the Obama coalition, he’s going to have to be better.  Now, if he’s the Democratic nominee in 2020, I expect progressives will swallow their liver oil and support him because they understand ousting Trump is more important than ideological purity. It’s for these reasons and others that Miller thinks O’Rourke shouldn’t be counted out of the race.

O’Rourke candidacy, according to Miller, would have one glaring shortcoming that Carter never had to worry about in 1976 . . . competency. Carter had graduated from the US Naval Academy, served as an officer in the Navy, and served as governor of Georgia—all after growing up poor on his family’s farm. O’Rourke, on the other hand, has no executive experience in government, and is the scion of an influential Democratic family (his mother’s stepfather was the Secretary of the Navy under JFK, and his father was a county judge and the Texas chair of Jesse Jackson’s ’84 and ’88 presidential campaigns). He also has been arrested twice, once for trespassing and again for drunk driving.

Will Democratic primary voters be able to overlook these gaps enough to embrace O’Rourke should he run for president? Miller insists there’s a chance they will, especially if he’s the only voice of calm, unity, and compassion in a field of candidates who are sure to come out their respective corners appealing to the bereavements of the American people and assigning blame to those they see as at fault:

Still, it seems obvious in hindsight that these tonal contours — competency versus inaction, calm versus chaos, goodness versus amorality — appealed to voters. As much as everyone’s thriving in and cherishing the desolate nihilism of the current political moment, you can see why people would want to hear about resolution.

There may be unseen divides between what works on Politics Twitter and inside a physical room — and it’s possible the last four years have primed the average voter less for ideological affirmation or rejection, and more for seeking coherence or feeling good about things. Warren’s coherent populism and Booker’s relentless affirmation could be equally popular in the same primary.

If 1976 offers any insight into 2020, it’s that more nebulous concepts — e.g., clarity and purpose — are what voters end up looking for.

To this final point, I disagree. I believe Americans are finding clarity, purpose, affirmation, and empowerment in the popular rage embodied by Elizabeth Warren and other progressive figures. We live in a unique moment, and while connections can be drawn to the past, the factors Miller describes in her article are 98% coincidental and 2% material.

As such, Jimmy Carter isn’t a useful case study for understanding 2020. It’s interesting, but ultimately an exercise rhetorical. I’m much more interesting in understanding how the social and cultural of 1976 influenced Carter’s success, and how the aspirations and struggles of the grassroots can help us be more imaginative about what’s possible. The most useful lessons history can offer us aren’t just about how politicians moulded their messages to appeal to the people, but how the people used their collective action and imagination to force politicians to mould their messages.

Does Beto have a chance of winning the Democratic nomination in 2020? From my analysis of events much more relevant to now than 1976, I think Dr. Strange said it best:



Agreeing Loudly is proud to help its contributors gain compensation for their labor. Please consider helping kuyaalb by supporting his Patreon campaign. You can also follow him on Twitter @kuyaalb.

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