the national interest

Beto O’Rourke Has a Good Reason He’s Running. He Just Can’t Say It.

Photo: Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

Beto O’Rourke has announced his presidential campaign, which stands some chance of success but faces two large drawbacks. The first is his thin résumé, consisting of a decent business career, three terms in Congress, and a fascinating but unsuccessful Senate run. The second is a rationale. His critics taunt that he is missing “an actual reason to run.” Both these obstacles are formidable, though neither is completely insurmountable.

The résumé matters insofar as it indicates his readiness to handle the full breadth of foreign and domestic issues a president has to address. But it is only an indicator. Some politicians possess years of experience yet can barely articulate whatever talking points are given to them. Others can have a deep and nuanced understanding of governing despite having put in fewer years. Barack Obama had a thin résumé — law school, a little time in the State Senate, before winning a Senate seat and running for president almost immediately. But Obama had the brainpower to accelerate his learning curve.

O’Rourke certainly has more impressive qualifications than the current president, whose credentials consist of inheriting $400 million, somehow going bankrupt anyway, and then playing a brilliant tycoon in a television show most viewers mistook for real life. Trump didn’t bother to learn anything about public policy, and in place of knowing any facts substituted a combination of relentless bullying of his opponents with fantastical lies.

That strategy can work for a Republican, given the party’s anti-intellectual bent. It won’t work in a Democratic primary where many voters demand some measure of policy expertise and factual accuracy. But these demands give O’Rourke the chance to prove his substantive mettle. If O’Rourke’s grasp of the issues does not outpace his résumé, he’ll be exposed by journalists and in debates. If he knows enough about foreign and domestic affairs to handle the job, he’ll have the chance to prove that, too.

The rationale is the tricky thing. O’Rourke’s actual reason for running is perfectly clear: He is a highly charismatic and inspirational campaigner. If you read Joe Hagan’s profile of O’Rourke in Vanity Fair, that reasoning comes through clearly:

“There is something abnormal, super-normal, or I don’t know what the hell to call it, that we both experience when we’re out on the campaign trail.”

O’Rourke and his wife, Amy, an educator nine years his junior, both describe the moment they first witnessed the power of O’Rourke’s gift. It was in Houston, the third stop on O’Rourke’s two-year Senate campaign against Ted Cruz. “Every seat was taken, every wall, every space in the room was filled with probably a thousand people,” recalls Amy O’Rourke. “You could feel the floor moving almost. It was not totally clear that Beto was what everybody was looking for, but just like that people were so ready for something. So that was totally shocking. I mean, like, took-my-breath-away shocking.”

For O’Rourke, what followed was a near-mystical experience. “I don’t ever prepare a speech,” he says. “I don’t write out what I’m going to say. I remember driving to that, I was, like, ‘What do I say? Maybe I’ll just introduce myself. I’ll take questions.’ I got in there, and I don’t know if it’s a speech or not, but it felt amazing. Because every word was pulled out of me. Like, by some greater force, which was just the people there. Everything that I said, I was, like, watching myself, being like, How am I saying this stuff? Where is this coming from?”

O’Rourke has already drawn a fair amount of mockery for his closing quote, “Man, I’m just born to be in it, and want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment.” But he’s not claiming to be entitled to the presidency. He is saying he has natural gifts as a political communicator, and believes he should put them to use for the purpose of beating Donald Trump and otherwise making the world a better place.

This is a good reason to run for the presidency! Politics is a team sport, and enacting political change requires effort from a wide array of actors: policy advisers, legislators, bureaucrats, and activists. The president of the United States is only one of those actors, albeit the most important by far, and his or her most important role is serving as a messenger for the party. Being an effective, telegenic communicator is a crucial job qualification and a vital asset.

O’Rourke’s argument is that he’s sufficiently well-versed in policy to make good decisions — which, again, may or may not be true, but which he’ll have the chance to demonstrate — and that his skills as a communicator set him apart.

His problem is that this is not a case that can be made explicitly. Nobody runs for the presidency by calling themselves a talented politician. It’s too meta, too gauche. O’Rourke is trying to find ways to express his rationale without putting it in so many words. He has a reason to run. It’s a good reason. It’s just not one he can say out loud.

Beto O’Rourke Has a Good Reason to Run, But Can’t Say It