Beto O'Rourke is a loser.
I don't mean that in some broad sense that impugns his personal integrity or abilities. He's clearly a very handsome, charming man with a talent for promoting himself on social media and an abundance of that most mysterious and amorphous political quality: charisma.
I mean he's a loser in the precise sense that his singular accomplishment in American public life (besides getting himself elected to a House seat in far-west Texas four years ago) has been to lose a Senate race to the stupendously unpopular Republican Ted Cruz.
How and why, in a little more than a month, O'Rourke has been able to parlay his loss into the possible high-octane launch of a presidential campaign tells us something rather banal about the potential candidate (he's stupendously ambitious) but something very important about the state of the Democratic Party as it heads into the early stages of the interminable campaign to topple President Trump nearly two years from now in November 2020.
The Democratic Party is deeply divided. This division was maximally helpful in 2018, allowing candidates in deep blue House races to win by running to the left (hello Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez!) while in purple and even in some red House districts, as well as in Senate races, other candidates could run to the center. It was a divide-and-conquer strategy, and it worked splendidly for the midterms.
But in 2020, the party will need to settle on just one standard-bearer. Will it be a Clintonian centrist pushing free trade, economic growth powered by high-tech innovation, and minor tweaks to federal regulations and the tax code? Or will it be a democratic-socialist firebrand proposing Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal paid for with sharp tax hikes on the wealthy and draconian cuts to defense spending?
Will the nominee be a white man? A white woman who assumes "intersectionality" is a household word? Or a man or woman of color? Will this person try to mobilize the so-called Obama coalition of highly educated suburbanites and urban minorities? Or will he or she make an effort to woo back white working-class Trump voters in the Midwest?
At the moment, an awful lot of Democratic power brokers, including the party's big-pocketed donors, remain deeply wedded to the ideology of the post-Reagan center-left and thoroughly convinced that it's both an electoral winner and the best policy path forward for the country (and the world). Meanwhile, the party's activist base, and younger voters more generally, are far more inclined to favor a sharp break from the status quo and an effort to chart a bolder progressive course.
This means that the Democratic Party is ripe for its own version of the populist insurrection and resulting intraparty warfare that catapulted Donald Trump to the Republican nomination in 2016. The GOP has been four years ahead of the Democrats in this regard. In the 2012 primaries, a series of untraditional and ideologically extreme candidates (Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum) took turns in the frontrunner slot as rank-and-file voters looked to choose someone, anyone, other than the center-right establishment choice (Mitt Romney), who ended up prevailing in the end. Four years later, long-time socialist Bernie Sanders gave the overwhelming choice of the center-left establishment (Hillary Clinton) a run for her money through the primaries before reluctantly conceding defeat.
Will 2020 be for the Democrats what 2016 was for the Republicans — the time when the party's activists wrest control away from the party's institutional establishment?
Not if the party's institutional establishment has any say in it. And that's where Beto comes in.
Democrats might be substantively divided, but they are stylistically united in their tendency to swoon for handsome, charismatic would-be saviors (always men) who set themselves above the ideological divides of the party (and the country), proposing to unite any and all with vaguely progressive slogans and displays of boundless energy. Think of the pretty smiles and youthful vigor of JFK's campaign, with its vacuous talk of how "we can do better." Think of Barack Obama rallying the country with empty affirmation ("Yes we can") and aimless striving ("Change you can believe in").
Betomania is very much in this mold — with progressive rhetorical boilerplate wedded to a toothy grin and animated by the kind of agitated self-display that is very much a product of the internet age. The rank-and-file voters who helped O'Rourke smash fundraising totals in his Senate race delighted in his constant online presence. It was a digital campaign fueled by a reality-show intensity that had his fans following the livestream of his every move, day and night, as he barnstormed across the state of Texas. What he said in those appearances somehow mattered less than the vision of him on the move, preaching the gospel of liberalism, 21st-century style, to the state's underserved Democrats.
This explains why a certain kind of Democratic voter finds the idea of an O'Rourke presidential candidacy appealing: He's a great spokesperson and nice to look at.
But the party's donors and out-of-work advisers and consultants from the Obama administration (including those who decamped to the Hillary Clinton campaign) have different motives. Along with the apparatchiks of the DNC, they sense an opportunity to tamp down on the populist rumblings that Bernie Sanders helped to provoke the last time around and that so many of the 2020 hopefuls hope to inspire again. What better way for the party's establishment to maintain its grip on power than for it try and rally the party around an ideologically diffuse "consensus" candidate who can be portrayed as a little bit of everything to every restive faction in the party?
Maybe that makes sense as short-term strategy. Perhaps a charming smile and sweet-smelling puffs of progressive hot air are the perfect way to defeat a Republican Party seemingly bound and determined to make itself as electorally unappealing as possible — though I'd be more inclined to believe this if Beto weren't, well, a loser.
But beyond that, it's foolish to suppose a Democratic reckoning can be put off forever. Sooner or later the party is going to have to decide what it stands for and what it wants to achieve. Fudging the matter in the hopes that the populist storm will just blow over, leaving the establishment's power and privileges intact, might be an understandable impulse. But it's exceedingly unlikely to work.