Who will be the next president of the United States?
This question is being asked two years too soon. But that’s understandable. After all, it is much more fun than trying to end the federal shutdown or figuring out what a polar vortex is, or pondering why a human being would massacre 58 people with assault rifles from the window of a Las Vegas hotel.
In America, politics has always served as much as an entertainment medium and distraction from real-life woes as a system of governance. Surely, 2020 will be no exception.
The latest diversion goes by the name of Beto O’Rourke. He is on everybody’s list of potential Democratic presidential nominees. This is a riveting fact, since a cursory examination of O’Rourke’s record — what there is of it — gives little or no indication that he has the makings of a president.
A former businessman of modest accomplishments, O’Rourke turned to politics where he served three terms as a congressman from Texas. His most recent claim to fame is coming within three points of defeating incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2018 midterm elections.
The fact that he lost is not being held against him. Cruz was still a formidable adversary even after a disappointing fizzle in the 2016 presidential race. But the fact that, coming off his defeat, O’Rourke is being touted as a serious candidate for president is something to make one wonder.
It is not as if there is a dearth of candidates — Kamela Harris, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and maybe Starbucks entrepreneur Howard Schultz, among others.
To his credit — or possibly his craftiness — O’Rourke has not declared his candidacy, nor even an exploratory committee. Instead, he did something like the opposite. After losing to Cruz and leaving Congress, he confessed to being “in and out of a funk.”
To help clear his mind, O’Rourke hit the road. He’s been wandering around in the Southwest, doing what he seems to do best, talking with folks and telling about it online.
“Maybe if I get moving, on the road, meet people, learn about what’s going on where they live, have some adventure, go where I don’t know and I’m not known, it’ll clear my head, reset, I’ll think new thoughts, break out of the loops I’ve been stuck in.”
This does not sound like a man driven by some luminous vision of what America should be. No snappy slogans, no posing for pictures at historic monuments, either.
Indeed, the maybe-White-House-wannabe may have the most mature perspective on the matter, more than any of his supporters.
O’Rourke said Friday that it could take him months to decide whether to run for president, and that he does not want to “raise expectations” about 2020. He told Politico that he has no timetable for making a decision, which he said could “potentially” be months away.
This is either simple candor or a shrewd avoidance of joining the herd of presidential candidates who will soon weary the nation with their vote-for-me rhetoric. Either way, it’s disarming. People talk about his “openness” and “authenticity.” It was almost enough to beat Ted Cruz.
O’Rourke writes: “With the United States as divided as we can remember — how do we come together? How do we reconcile our differences? … As the country literally begins to shut down, how can we come together to revive her?
“I know we can do it. I can’t prove it, but I feel it and hear it and see it in the people I meet and talk with. I saw it all over Texas these last two years, I see it every day in El Paso. It’s in Kansas and Oklahoma. Colorado and New Mexico too. It’s not going to be easy to take the decency and kindness we find in our lives and our communities and apply it to our politics; to all the very real challenges we face.”
Politics of hope? Well, it worked for Barack Obama. In fact, Obama himself made the comparison with O’Rourke. He was quoted in The Hill telling his former aide David Axelrod:
“The reason I was able to make a connection with a sizable portion of the country was because people had a sense that I said what I meant,” Obama told Axelrod, adding about O’Rourke, “it felt as if he based his statements and his positions on what he believed.”
Youth and inexperience didn’t stop Obama from being elected president, and it alone won’t stop the 45-year-old Beto O’Rourke.
On the contrary, youth and inexperience have become assets in seeking high office. Youth, because it enables the candidate to attract young voters, to communicate with them in their language (Beto blogs, of course; the man doesn’t need a speechwriter); and inexperience, because it reduces the chances of rival campaigns digging up some official misconduct in his past, since he hasn’t got much of an official past to dig up.
In reality, youth and inexperience are, generally speaking, strikes against any candidate for so high an office as president of the United States. The responsibilities that weigh on a president are tremendous, and the best candidate would be someone who has proven himself or herself in some senior position, where great things were achieved despite great pressures.
Beto O’Rourke is a charming fellow, but the idea that he should run for president in 2020 is one whose time may not have come.