Helton: 20 Out of 20: Is Beto O’Rourke really the next Kennedy?

The former congressman rose to national prominence last election, and O’Rourke is trying to ride that wave all the way to Washington.


Nick Rohlman

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke speaks at the home of John Murphy in Dubuque, Iowa on Sunday, March 16, 2019.

Elijah Helton, Opinions Columnist

“He looks like a Kennedy” is a thing I’ve read and heard about Beto O’Rourke. “He drips of white male privilege” is another. So which is it? Is the former congressman from Texas the next charismatic leader of the United States or just another white dude who thinks he should be president?

O’Rourke received loads of attention last year during his campaign to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. After stirring up a surprising level of support and donations, O’Rourke came close but more than 2 points shy of being the first Democrat to win a statewide race in the Lone Star State since 1994.

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His loss hasn’t stopped him from running again, not for Texas’ other Senate seat or governor, but for president. Love him or hate him, O’Rourke is undoubtedly one of the Democratic front-runners.

How could O’Rourke win the nomination?

Some of his intraparty critics point out his voting record during his six years in Congress is more conservative than more than three-quarters of Democrats. His opponents on the right have pointed out his wishy-washy positions and apparent lack of policy innovation.

O’Rourke’s supporters often point out his charisma (he delivers a mighty strong speech) ) and his skilled retail politics. His best argument seems to be that he’s a nice, good-looking guy with whom the country can become enamored. Beyond policy and identity preferences, Democrats want someone who can run a successful campaign for president.

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Of course, this sort of pitch is only viable because O’Rourke is a white man. No one is going to make the argument that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is the best candidate to nominate because she’s a cool communicator and fun to be around. And Julián Castro, O’Rourke’s fellow Texan and 2020 hopeful, isn’t going to find himself the nominee because “I just like him.”

I don’t point all this out to discount him entirely. Democrats could easily decide the energetic brand of Betomania is their best chance of winning the election, regardless of his lack of progressive bona fides.

As the Donald Trump presidency wears on, a sort of “return to normalcy” will probably become an increasingly popular Democratic selling point. More than any policy debate, the party wants someone to counter the loud-mouth and loose-cannon politics of the current occupant of the White House. O’Rourke’s strength seems to be his relatability, which could be his ticket to the top of the ticket.

How could he beat Trump?

O’Rourke probably wants to frame Trump as many Democrats do: racist, radical, and overall unfit to be president. And it’s not just Democrats; a majority of Americans believe the president is racist. Perhaps the most direct way to confront this is by attacking Trump on immigration.

A native of El Paso, a border city in west Texas, immigration is important to O’Rourke. In fact, it’s one of the few views on which he’s actually taken a strong stance. When Trump held a rally in El Paso, O’Rourke held his own in protest. Immigration is the signature issue of both of them, and it seems inevitable that we’d be in for another cycle of screaming matches over DACA recipients, travel bans, and of course The Wall.

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It’s unclear who would actually win the electoral argument on immigration, but if it starts going O’Rourke’s way, the Southwestern states of Nevada and Arizona could be blue by Election Day.

It’s worth noting that Trump has already gone through the trouble of publically attacking O’Rourke. So whether or not he’ll turn out to be a worthy opponent, O’Rourke has the incumbent on his toes.

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