How Beto can catch fire if he enters the race

Published on Wednesday, 13 March 2019 20:49
Written by Jennifer Rubin

Beto O’Rourke is expected to get into the 2020 presidential race any day now. In contrast to the entry of, say, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., which was flawlessly choreographed, O’Rourke’s long tease and haphazard approach are getting some Democrats’ dander up.

The New York Times reports:

“In the four months since his Senate loss, Mr. O’Rourke, 46, has done little to demonstrate the kind of intensive preparation - building national political infrastructure, projecting a signature policy rationale for a candidacy - typically associated with a top-flight presidential campaign.

“There has been no flirtation tour in Iowa, no trip to New Hampshire since his college years as an Ivy League rower. Mr. O’Rourke had no traditional campaign-in-waiting at the ready after the midterms - the sort of operation available to a more experienced holdout like former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. or carefully built over months by first-time presidential candidates like Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.

“Is this the moment for a relatively untested white male in a party eager to elevate female and nonwhite voices in the quest to dethrone President Trump?”

Well, that’s rather harsh, but it may be fair. O’Rourke doesn’t have any congressional achievements or any deep expertise.

He seems to think he can rewrite the political rules. (“Several people who have spoken to his team came away questioning whether Mr. O’Rourke was thoroughly prepared for the crush of a national race. Some suggested he lacked detailed plans like a comprehensive strategy for amassing delegates.”) Maybe instead of the next Barack Obama, he is the next “Where’s the beef?” Gary Hart.

Now wait a second. Critics should have some humility. The last politician with zero political accomplishments, a nonprofessional organization, lots of free media and a lack of policy depth wound up as president. It’s also worth noting that almost all the candidates in the race are learning as they go. Aside from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have any of the contenders come out with dazzling policy plans?

What today looks like a ragtag operation can grow over time. A high-excitement speech could result in an unprecedented flood of online campaign donations. O’Rourke’s entry might zap Sen. Bernie Sanders’s support among young voters - or eradicate any hope of lesser candidates breaking through.

O’Rourke needs a few error-free weeks, a big money haul and a quick jump in the polls to convince a lot of naysayers that he is the real deal. His biggest danger? A moment like one that Ted Kennedy faced, when he couldn’t explain to Roger Mudd exactly why he wanted to be president, or an interview like the one that Sarah Palin had with Katie Couric, in which Palin’s paucity of knowledge was impossible to hide.

O’Rourke can drive news and dominate on social media. However, with rock-star status comes intense scrutiny.

He is going to have all the cameras and microphones pointed his way. Unlike lesser-known candidates, he won’t have the luxury many other candidates had to get into the groove with a stump speech or work out kinks in his advance-team operation.

O’Rourke would be wise to do a few things. First, if he managed to drive huge distances to visit all 254 Texas counties, he should do the same in Iowa (99 counties) and New Hampshire (10 counties).

Drawing big crowds in small and midsize venues worked for him in the past. Second, expectations are very low for him on policy. If he rolls out two or three big ideas right away - perhaps one on immigration, another on energy and a third on education, he might quiet critics, at least for a short time.

Third, now’s the time to put his post-midterm road trip experience to good use, sharing the stories and concerns of people he met and explaining what the country is really all about (e.g. neighborhoods, volunteers, small towns). Finally, for the time being, he should stay away from the Sunday shows and the town halls. Too many other candidates have done really well, and a lackluster outing - or God forbid, a major flop - would set O’Rourke back.

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Editorials on Wednesday, 13 March 2019 20:49. Updated: Wednesday, 13 March 2019 20:51.