Beto O'Rourke

Has Phony Betomania Already Bitten the Dust?

Legitimately interesting yet eminently mockable GenXer Beto O'Rourke joins the 2020 presidential scrum.


In retrospect, the biggest surprise was that Beto O'Rourke did not announce his long-expected (though recently denied) presidential candidacy last week in his native habitat of South by Southwest, while he was promoting an HBO documentary about his stirring failure to unseat one of the most reviled incumbents in American politics.

But then, the former El Paso congressman, whose occasionally moody Gen X uplift has almost completely overshadowed his unusual political path and heterodox policy beliefs, probably knew he was about to get the full Vanity Fair Annie Leibovitz cover treatment:

||| Vanity Fair
Vanity Fair

Wednesday evening, the inevitable was confirmed: He's running. "I'm really proud of what El Paso did and what El Paso represents," O'Rourke said in a text to "It's a big part of why I'm running. This city is the best example of this country at its best." An official announcement came this morning.

Because America is still a great country, there is already a robust #SaveBetosDog hashtag and a sky full of mirth opening up over the head of the toothsome Texan. Including this bizarre, pre-emptive shot across the bow by the Club for Growth, in which the fiscally conservative group goes after the New Democrat Coalition member for taking advantage of his "white male privilege" and being a pale imitation of Barack Obama. No, really:

The attack ad points to several of O'Rourke's vulnerable points in the crowded Democratic primary. He clearly wants to tap into the Obama vein of American politics without, as a white man who married into wealth, having endured or accomplished as much. He supported as El Paso city councilman an eminent domain deal that would have (but never did) bulldoze the homes of barrio Latinos to the benefit of his own father-in-law. He was arrested for drunk driving in 1998 after hitting a truck at a high rate of speed and (according to one witness) trying to drive away from the scene, though the charges were ultimately dismissed after he completed a court-supervised diversion program.

And dear God, is he ripe for the mocking.

There is more to the mystical skateboarder and lackluster air drummer, though, than merely the inevitable memes. In the words of an Intercept headline Wednesday night, "Beto O'Rourke Is Running for President and it all Started With Weed." The El Pasoan was a lonely Democratic voice in questioning the drug war a decade ago, and made that a key issue in successfully primarying the eight-term incumbent congressman hack Silvestre Reyes back in 2012.

||| Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Living as he does across the fortified border with Ciudad Juarez, and speaking pretty good Spanish, O'Rourke has also prioritized an immigration reform that includes fewer Border Patrol agents, freer trade, and (most recently) some torn-down walls. (Read his immigration-related interviews with Reason from 2013, 2015, and 2018.) His highest-profile pre-campaign public appearance this season was an El Paso immigration counter-rally last month at which he reportedly outdrew a same-day, same-city event by President Donald Trump. In a Democratic field comparatively heavy on women but light on Latinos, you can bet that O'Rourke will make immigration enforcement and reform a central issue.

Anything else of interest to libertarians? Well, O'Rourke has been known to consort in a friendly way with the Rep. Justin Amash (R–Mich.). Like Amash, he has been a persistent critic of U.S. interventionism abroad:

[A] member of the House Armed Services Committee, [O'Rourke is] a withering critic of both the Iraq and Libya interventions ("two incredibly ill-conceived regime change wars?"), opposed bombing Syria, and has consistently called on Congress to end the open-ended post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force ("blank check for endless war") and reassert its war-declaration powers. "Troubling, unconstitutional, to be at war in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen & Somalia, in addition to Afghanistan, w/out informed authorization," he tweeted in 2017. "Why do we have such a hard time admitting the West's role and culpability in the problems in the Middle East?" he wrote in 2016.

He also greeted the entrance of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) into the race by declaring that "I'm a capitalist," though this was only days after gushing over the Green New Deal. And as I wrote earlier this month,

[L]ike vanishingly few politicians from either major party, O'Rourke speaks as if there are budgetary constraints on the federal level. "We are $21 trillion in debt," he lamented at a town hall in December, commenting further that "we are projected to add $1 trillion in deficit spending to that debt just in this next fiscal year." He's also a comparatively lonely pro-trade voice in the Democratic field.

Chances are that not much of O'Rourke's policy priors will be discussed in the coming days, if ever. Not when the commanding heights of the Conde Nast empire are disgorging Gen X hagiography like this:

[I]n the O'Rourke living room, a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf contains a section for rock memoirs (Bob Dylan's Chronicles, a favorite) and a stack of LPs (the Clash, Nina Simone) but also a sizable collection of presidential biographies, including Robert Caro's work on Lyndon B. Johnson. Arranged in historical order, the biographies suggest there's been some reflection on the gravity of the presidency. But there's also some political poetry to it, a sense that O'Rourke might be destined for this shelf. He has an aura.

Conservative trolls will have a field day at this and other unintentional embarrassments. But one also can smell just a whiff of fear. If somehow O'Rourke can recapture the history-making fundraising and liberal knee-weakening prowess that he exhibited in 2018, if his Up With People shtick can mask his comparative centrism enough to win a Democratic primary in a socialist year, then Republicans might face a tough challenge in reelecting a persistently unpopular president. Beto O'Rourke is a target-rich environment for mockery, yes, and mockery may also be the best weapon for taking out what could be a formidable candidate.