His first campaign challenge will be to justify why he’s even running for president.
Beto O’Rourke is finally ready to end the suspense. The former Texas congressman is expected to formally kick off his presidential campaign Thursday, one day after tipping his hand to a local TV station in Texas. “I’m really proud of what El Paso did and what El Paso represents,” O’Rourke told KTSM El Paso via text. “It’s a big part of why I’m running.” His apparent confirmation came on the heels of a new Vanity Fair cover story—complete with glossy photo shoot—in which he told the magazine that he wanted to run. “I want to be in it,” he said, after describing our current political moment as an existential fight. “Man, I’m just born to be in it, and want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment.”
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O’Rourke would seem to have much of what he needs to mount a serious run for the Democratic nomination. He has political celebrity after his stronger-than-expected challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz in the midterms. He has a devoted base of fans and network of small donors that would make him instantly competitive. He is already better known and better liked than a number of national Democrats who have been running for weeks. And in preparation for his launch, he reportedly beefed up his already valuable email list, lined up potential campaign hires, and has planned a multiday swing through Iowa this weekend.
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Beto is missing one important thing, though: an actual reason to run.
O’Rourke would enter the race as a man without a clear political ideology, a signature legislative achievement, a major policy issue, or a concrete agenda for the country. Those in the know tell the Atlantic that Beto is planning to run as a candidate “offering hope that America can be better than its current partisan and hate-filled politics, and that the country can come together,” but that—brace yourself—he hasn’t yet “landed on how he’ll propose to actually make that happen.” That’s more of the same empty words Beto’s been offering in public since his loss to Cruz. “I don’t know where I am on a [political] spectrum, and I almost could care less,” he said at a recent stop in Wisconsin. “I just want to get to better things for this country.”
“Beto 2020: Better Things” would not be the worst campaign slogan I’ve ever heard, but it’s nowhere near a fully formed vision of why O’Rourke thinks he should be president, or why Democrats of any stripe should want him to be. It’s possible that he’d be able to ride to the nomination on the force of his personality alone—it’s gotten him this far—but that would be a particular shame considering he’ll face one of the deepest and most diverse primary fields. If Democrats are in the market for soaring rhetoric about bridging the partisan divide, they can get that from Joe Biden, Cory Booker, or Amy Klobuchar—all of whom can offer their ownspecific cases for what that bipartisanship can produce, unlike O’Rourke.
If Beto has a defining characteristic, it’s that he’s easily excited by possible solutions but frustratingly slow to choose which one he thinks is best. Knowing what you don’t know is an admirable quality, but it has limits. If O’Rourke is going to seek the highest office in the land, he should have some answers of his own. After three terms in the House and one run for the Senate, it’s not clear he does. For someone who famously swore off focus groups during his Senate run, it’s striking how much O’Rourke seems to be poll-testing his message in real time.
Consider the interview O’Rourke gave to the Washington Post in January, in which he was stumped when asked what should be done to cut down on the number of immigrants who overstay their visas, a rather standard question on the topic. “I don’t know,” Beto said, before eventually suggesting that the United States and Mexico could potentially harmonize their visa systems to better keep track of who has entered the country and who has left. “That’s an answer,” he concluded, “but that’s something that we should be debating.”
A month or so later, Beto included that same idea on a list of “10 Ideas for Immigration & Border Reform” he sent to supporters, but as the title made clear he was still just thinking aloud: “a first step could be text message reminders,” he offered by parenthetical in the bullet point on visa overstays. Curiously absent from this list was the boldest immigration idea he has discussed publicly: removing existing walls and fencing at the U.S.-Mexico border in places like El Paso. Beto floated that idea in an interview with MSNBC in February, shortly after he held his rally to counter President Donald Trump’s trip to Texas and a couple weeks before he released the list.
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It’s not just immigration, either. Asked by the Post about Trump’s plan to quickly withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, O’Rourke called for “a debate, a discussion, a national conversation about why we’re there, why we fight, why we sacrifice lives of American service members, why we’re willing to take the lives of others.” Asked about the Green New Deal, O’Rourke called the proposal “a perfect point from which to start a conversation” but then left the conversation there, much as he did during his run for Senate by advocating for climate science, then providing few specifics about what should be done to address global warming on the scale the global community has deemed necessary. A national conversation is healthy, but these topics are pressing. O’Rourke doesn’t sound like he’s eager to lead either debate.
This is not some new verbal tic O’Rourke developed while thinking about the White House. It was on display before he was elected to the U.S. House, as Politico Magazine illustrated recently with the story of how he came to run a 2012 campaign commercial floating the possibility of raising the Social Security retirement age to 69—emphasis on possibility. During his Senate campaign, O’Rourke was similarly open to ideas without advocating for specific ones. He specifically avoided policy-specific language like “Medicare for all,” instead saying he was open to a variety of paths to universal health care coverage, “whether it be through a single payer system, a dual system, or otherwise.” (“Beto 2020: Or Otherwise!”)
You don’t need to be a policy wonk to be president, but O’Rourke’s allergy to specifics is worsened by his refusal to give voters any real clue of his guiding ideology. As he put it at his final congressional town hall last year, when asked whether he was a progressive: “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.” Labels like progressive and moderate have limited meaning—especially as White House hopefuls blur the lines between both—but they’re not devoid of meaning. If O’Rourke is not going to get specific, the least he can do is get general. Unless he does, he won’t add anything of value to the Democratic race other than platitudes, which are hardly in short supply.
There’s nothing special about O’Rourke’s dream to heal the partisan divide in this country when he can’t explain how he’ll do it. Because as exciting as his bid to take down Cruz was, it also showed the limits of bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake. Case in point: Last summer, Beto declared he was putting “country over party” when he declined to support the Democratic challenger to GOP Rep. Will Hurd, whom he had joined on a 2017 road trip from Texas to D.C. that doubled as a 1,600-mile ode to reaching across the aisle. Hurd went on to win re-election by less than 1,000 votes. Asked last weekend whether he’d back O’Rourke over Trump in a hypothetical 2020 general election, Hurd was clear: “My plan is to vote for the Republican nominee.”