Beto O’Rourke’s Campaign Reboot Feels More Like an End Than a Beginning
Earlier this month, after a man acting on Donald Trump’s lies about a Hispanic “invasion” of the U.S. drove to El Paso, Texas, and killed twenty-two people at a Walmart, Beto O’Rourke hit pause on his Presidential campaign. O’Rourke, who grew up in El Paso, and represented it for six years in Congress, went home to meet with victims and attend vigils, and he seemed to rediscover some of the edge that brought him to national attention last year, during his unsuccessful bid to unseat Texas’s junior senator, Ted Cruz. A day after the shooting, when a reporter asked him if there was anything that Trump could do to “make this any better,” O’Rourke, throwing his hands in the air, said, “Members of the press, what the fuck?” O’Rourke’s preferred speaking style is off the cuff—“No notes!” his campaign likes to remind people—which, in practice, can make him seem searching and unfocussed. But, after the shooting, he homed in. “It’s these questions that you know the answers to,” he told the reporter. “I mean, connect the dots about what he’s been doing in this country.”
On Thursday, O’Rourke delivered a speech that was billed as his return to the trail. He spoke outdoors, with El Paso stretched out behind him, in a park he used to walk through to get from his house to his high school. “I gotta tell you,” O’Rouke said. “There’s some part of me, and it’s a big part of me, that wants to stay here, and be with my family, and be with my community.” He spoke of his “overwhelming pride” in El Paso, and addressed his critics in the Democratic Party who have soured on him as a Presidential candidate. “There have even been some who have suggested that I stay in Texas and run for Senate,” he said. (John Cornyn, Texas’s senior senator, is up for reëlection in 2020.) “But that would not be good enough for this community. That would not be good enough for El Paso. That would not be good enough for this country. We must take the fight directly to the source of this problem.” He meant Trump. And yet, in a way, he agreed with his critics. He didn’t want to return to the campaign trail he’d left behind, where he’d been floundering—bad polls, bad press, bad debate performances. “I know there is a way to do this better—and that came to me last week,” he said. He wouldn’t be going back for corn dogs in Iowa. Instead, he said, he’d go “to those places where Donald Trump has been terrorizing and terrifying and demeaning our fellow Americans. That’s where you will find me in this campaign.”
Picking up ideas on the fly, reacting to the moment, being open to change—this, too, is O’Rourke’s preferred style. Since Thursday, he has been to Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri. These are not early primary states, they are not general-election swing states, and they are not traditional hubs of Democratic Party fund-raising, and, therefore, they are not places where Presidential candidates spend much of their time. In Arkansas, he stopped by a gun show, where he spoke with venders about background checks. In Oklahoma, he visited the site of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. In Missouri, he toured “a community of transitional tiny homes and on-site services” for veterans experiencing homelessness. Earlier this year, he told a questioner at an event, “Let me learn from you and not try to pretend that I have the answer.” Now, searching for a way to run the kind of anti-campaign he prefers, he appears to want to elevate that notion to campaign slogan.
It’s a tempting idea, up to a point. Why should our politicians pretend to know everything? Shouldn’t people outside Iowa and New Hampshire get more of a say in the Democratic Party’s next nominee? But, already, O’Rourke’s campaign has come up against the realities of a Presidential bid. “While focusing on El Paso was absolutely the right thing to do, being off the campaign trail for two weeks has put the campaign at a disadvantage,” his campaign said, in an e-mail to supporters, on Friday. “In fact, our finance team crunched the numbers and we need to raise $467,000 more by the end of this month to close our fundraising gap.”
Was it really the previous two weeks that set O’Rourke back? There was talk of him running for President even before the end of the 2018 Senate race. Then he lost, and those calls were dampened but didn’t go away. It was a moment when the Democratic Party wasn’t at all sure what kind of leader it wanted. But O’Rourke has found it difficult to find broad support outside of Texas. It didn’t help that he wrote meandering blog posts about road-tripping and made a crack about his wife, Amy, raising their kids “sometimes with my help.” More generally, his positions weren’t enough to win the activist left nationally, and his résumé wasn’t enough to impress the more moderate middle. He spoke powerfully about the lessons that El Paso could offer the rest of the nation but had a harder time convincing people that he understood the rest of that nation. The April Vanity Fair profile that served as his de-facto campaign announcement—“Man, I’m just born to be in it” was the cover quote—has proved a difficult moment to live down. Even at the time, it was an odd thing to say. In retrospect, it is sounding more and more like self-delusion.
On Tuesday, O’Rourke was back in Iowa. Other candidates came into this race having already learned what they want to talk about. Elizabeth Warren tells a story of corruption. Bernie Sanders lectures on inequality. Joe Biden has a case for why Trump must be voted out first and foremost. O’Rourke, even before this latest gambit, wanted his campaign to be a voyage of discovery. “I want to be the leader for this country that we need right now, and that we do not have,” he said on Thursday. But desire alone isn’t a political project. After his visit to Tulsa, he wrote another earnest blog post about what he learned there. A few months ago, he was telling potential voters, “If you own an AR-15, keep it.” Now, after El Paso, he is calling for mandatory gun buybacks and reorienting his entire campaign. It can be maddening to watch a politician stick to a position even when it becomes outdated, hypocritical, or absurd. But watching one change so eagerly and quickly is equally unsettling—even in response to a horror like the El Paso shooting. Unless O’Rourke learns to speak about his experience with something other than earnest awe or surprised heartbreak, his campaign will continue to sound like it is closer to the end than the beginning.