Previously published at WGBHNews.org.
Betomania had somehow eluded me. And so when I set out to write about how the media have reacted to the launch of Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign, my first plan was to criticize the elevation of yet another celebrity candidate over his more substantive but less magnetic rivals.
That’s not how it’s worked out. Yes, there was the 8,800-word Vanity Fair profile by Joe Hagan, accompanied by an Annie Leibovitz cover shot of O’Rourke standing by what I assume is his pick-up truck, with archetypal dirt road, hills, and dog in the background. But that proved to be an exception.
“It is a well put-together, if unsubtle, piece of propaganda, and it should be read by anyone looking to learn the art of the puff piece,” wrote Nathan J. Robinson at the website of the left-wing magazine Current Affairs. Personally, I didn’t think it was that gushing; certainly it was spritely and readable, but it also included some harsh passages about O’Rourke’s drunken-driving arrest years ago and his alliance with the white Republican power structure during his early days in El Paso politics. But as substantive political pieces go, well, there was a lot about his youth as a punk rocker.
After O’Rourke made his candidacy official last Thursday, though, the tide quickly turned, at least according to my shockingly unscientific survey of media coverage. Yes, his record one-day online fundraising haul of $6.1 million was duly noted. But so was a less-than-woke comment he made about how he sees his role as a father and a husband — a danger zone given that his rivals for the presidency include a number of well-qualified women. Matt Viser of The Washington Post tweeted the details:
That was followed by criticism both serious and silly. On the serious side, Josh Marshall of the liberal website Talking Points Memo called O’Rourke’s rollout “A Bad Day for Beto,” arguing that O’Rourke’s early support has come from centrist elements of the Democratic Party — and that’s not where the energy is. “The Democratic nominee is not going to be the factional candidate of Democratic centrists,” Marshall wrote, adding that O’Rourke had, to his detriment, “made a good start toward becoming that guy.”
Hanna Trudo of National Journal (and, ahem, a former student of mine) offered a similar point on the podcast “Quorum Call,” suggesting that O’Rourke may have a problem running as a moderate during a year when Democrats seem to want someone more progressive. “He’s to the right of nearly every other candidate aside from Biden, I would say,” Trudo said of O’Rourke. “He’s far to the right of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, or even Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. He’s voted for Republican policies more often than most Democrats running.”
In contrast with Marshall and Trudo, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd offered a snark-filled update of her dreadful columns referring to Barack Obama as “The One.” And yes, it seems indisputably true that O’Rourke, like Obama, has a healthy ego and a sense of destiny that may or may not be shared by Democratic primary voters. But there’s really no excuse for Dowdian drivel like this: “We have The One again, a New One — another lanky, bookish, handsome man with an attractive young family, a thin résumé, an exotic name, a hip affect, a rock star aura, an enticing smile, a liberal press corps ready to fluff his pillows and a frothing Fox News.” As Charles Pierce of Esquire tweeted, “I was reading this but my laptop floated to the ceiling.”
So what is going on? I think part of it is that candidates never look as good as they do the day before they announce — and that O’Rourke, who was already a political celebrity, was bound to come in for more of a thrashing than a lower-profile politician might. The pundits may also be having second thoughts about O’Rourke’s loss in the Texas Senate race last year to Ted Cruz. No doubt O’Rourke deserves credit for coming within three points in a state where Republicans have a virtual stranglehold. But good grief, Ted Cruz.
And questions about whether O’Rourke is too white, too male, and too moderate for Democrats in 2020 are perfectly legitimate — notwithstanding the reality that Bernie Sanders and the still-unannounced (or should I say semi-unannounced) Joe Biden sit atop the Iowa polls, for whatever that’s worth at this early stage of the campaign.
More than anything, though, O’Rourke’s self-regard puts him in danger of becoming the most easily mockable Democratic candidate, especially since he doesn’t have a concrete issues agenda to fall back on. “I want to be in it,” he told Vanity Fair’s Hagan. “Man, I’m just born to be in it, and want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment.”
I’m just born to be in it. It’s a comment that a number of women have picked up on, and not in a good way. Writing at Vox, Laura McGann called out the double standard of a man making a comment that would be deadly if a woman said it, adding, “Men are rewarded in politics for showing ambition, while women are punished.” McGann is right, except that in 2019 the sense of entitlement in O’Rourke’s remark didn’t seem to make a good impression on anyone.
That old war criminal Henry Kissinger supposedly liked to joke that the infighting in academic politics is so vicious because the stakes are so low. In Campaign 2020, it’s just the opposite: Democrats and other voters in the anti-Trump coalition are so determined to win that every remark, every gesture is being held to an impossibly high level of scrutiny. And the infighting is going to be vicious.
Whether O’Rourke’s toothy, charismatic, hazy-on-the-issues appeal will have staying power is months away from being put to the test. The criticism has already reached the unserious stage, as Fox News is pillorying Reuters for sitting on a story about O’Rourke’s youthful exploits as a computer hacker on the grounds that the reporter was supposedly trying to help him beat Cruz. If nothing else, it’s a sign that if O’Rourke and his supporters were assuming that the media would be on their side, they may be in for an unpleasant encounter with reality.