Beto's 'unity' narcissism
It's official: Failed Texas Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke has wedged his lanky frame into the Democratic 2020 clown car! Time to polish up some boots, take a mysterious drive around the country, and stretch out the ol' lower legs.
One promise of the O'Rourke campaign is that he will actually achieve bipartisan compromise. He sells himself as "a youthful uniter, willing to listen and learn from the most recalcitrant right-wing voters and work with Republicans," writes Joe Hagan in a soft-focus Vanity Fair profile. O'Rourke himself touts "my ability to listen to people, to help bring people together to do something that is thought to be impossible."
This bears a marked resemblance to the thinking of Barack Obama, whose presidency could not possibly have been a better demonstration of the impossibility of achieving such a thing. The idea of bipartisan compromise through moderate outreach is simply preposterous. It's nothing more than narcissism.
The initial promise of the 2008 Obama campaign was to achieve a kind of national reconciliation through mass mobilization. Thus "yes we can," "hope and change," and "we are the ones we have been waiting for."
What this actually meant in practice became clear when he took office, as Obama largely dismantled his mass organizing machinery, and installed Wall Street stooge Tim Geithner at the Treasury Department to oversee the response to the financial crisis. Geithner maintained the Bush bank bailouts, and used a slush fund intended to rescue homeowners to help the banks even more. The social carnage was gruesome.
Instead of being the representative of a mobilized constituency for massive change, Obama wanted sheep. He thought he could serve as a personal symbolic figurehead of national reconciliation, with actual policies mainly aimed at restoring the pre-2008 status quo (with a few moderate reforms here and there). Thus Republican buy-in was critical to this process, as it would prove the age of increasing partisan polarization was at an end.
But polarization only accelerated. Republicans responded to the world-historical catastrophe of the Bush administration not with introspection but all-out partisan trench warfare. Senate Republicans filibustered virtually everything — where Obama had hoped for 80-vote Senate majorities for his major bills, he got only a couple defections on occasion.
And it worked! Obstructionist tactics gummed up the wheels of government and helped keep the economy depressed — along with Team Obama's embrace of austerity in early 2010. With unemployment at nearly 10 percent on election day that year, Democrats were blown out of the water and lost control of the House.
Unbelievably, Obama responded to this shattering defeat by doubling down on Republican outreach, leading to the nadir of his presidency in 2011. When the GOP took the debt ceiling hostage that year, threatening national default and world financial Armageddon if they didn't get unrelated policy concessions, Obama attempted a "Grand Bargain" compromise — offering Republicans huge cuts to Social Security and Medicare if only they would agree to a tiny tax increase on the rich. This was appalling both politically and on the merits — rewarding outrageously irresponsible tactics to obtain gruesome policy outcomes. Only maximalist extremism from the House right wing prevented the bargain from being passed.
By his second term, Obama retreated from Republican appeasement, though he continued to defend it in theory to the end of his presidency. "By the end," as David Roth writes at Deadspin, "his presidency had the feeling of a prestige television show in its fifth season — handsomely produced and reliably well-performed but ultimately not really as sure what it was about as it first appeared to be."
Some suggest that all this is mere posturing, which is possible. But it's clear that O'Rourke wants to follow the trail blazed by Obama, whose persona O'Rourke is palpably imitating. He also campaigned on behalf of Texas Republican Will Hurd in 2018, who went on to win narrowly (naturally, Hurd has repaid the favor by promising to vote for Trump over O'Rourke). I think, like Obama, O'Rourke actually believes what he is saying.
Stripped of its rhetorical wrappings, it's becoming clear what O'Rourke represents: himself. Instead of putting forward an aggressive vision to transform the nation's broken political economy, he wants to be the national embodiment of a vaguely Gen X-themed vision quest. His campaign has thus far little policy — and neither do O'Rourke encomiums from former Obama staffers. But he skateboards! He's got a truck and a dog!
It takes enormous self-regard to run for president, but truly titanic narcissism to think one can bridge America's partisan divides through force of personality. It turns out that conservatives have deep ideological disagreements with liberals and leftists about how the country should be governed. The way to get past them is to defeat them.