It’s a quiet but disquietingly hot and soupy Saturday afternoon at an outdoor café table in a Charlottesville shopping center, and Beto O’Rourke is staring off to my right, thinking hard about how to respond after I asked him a classic presidential campaign gotcha question: how his day’s been going. “It’s been, uh, it’s been a good day,” he immediately offers, and then falls silent, starting to expand on his answer, and then stopping, several times.
To be fair, it’s not easy to describe anything about O’Rourke these days, whether you’re him or a voter or a reporter, or one of his 19 remaining 2020 rivals, and maybe it shouldn’t be. We were originally supposed to meet during a routine early August political swing through California, where I was going to ask him, among other things, about his tactics for getting his campaign back on track after its steady drop in polling. After all, he’s now down below not just Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but to the level of Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard — the result of a campaign that sometimes felt like a lukewarm imitation of his 2018 race, that left some Texans asking him to return home to run for the Senate again, and that left others simply puzzled by his lack of a clear message or stated reason for running.
That plan went out the window two days before our scheduled interview, when a gunman killed 22 people and injured 24 more, targeting Latinos, in the former congressman’s hometown of El Paso. O’Rourke, 46, left the trail for a while, then returned with a speech there, promising a new kind of uncompromising campaign that more directly, and assertively, and urgently, addressed the danger of Donald Trump and the hate he stirs up around the country, because if “we do not wake up to this threat, then we as a country will die in our sleep.”
He’s been a whole new Beto since then. In this new incarnation, he has ditched his (disorienting) carousel of policy emphases that saw him alternately go all-in on immigration, climate, and gun policy. Instead, he’s focused his policy talk on individual calls for aggressive action like mandatory assault-weapon buybacks. He hasn’t stopped visiting the usual campaign stops in Iowa and New Hampshire, but he’s cut back, and he’s now spending way more time in hard-hit communities or places where he can make a clear political point, like the Mississippi town devastated by ICE raids, the site of the old “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, and a gun show in Little Rock. The day before we met, over Labor Day weekend, he swung through a Virginia county where Trump won 82 percent of the vote in 2016. (A local TV station reported he was the first presidential candidate ever to visit Bland, population 6,293.) And he’s not talking much about himself these days. Instead, he’s talking a lot about structural inequality and discrimination, and about racism, and — more than anything else — about urgency.
He now comes across as if he’s both grappling with his fallen standing in the race and insistent that the task ahead is too urgent for any kind of indulgent introspection. He’s been thinking a lot about what this new campaign really means, though, and now, after 15 very slow seconds, he asks whether I’d been present for his public programming earlier in the day. This morning and early afternoon he sat for a roundtable largely composed of black activists to talk about local inequities and the 2017 white supremacist demonstrations here, then visited privately with Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed that day. Conversations like the ones he was having today, he suggests, underscore the point he’s trying to make now. Which is: “Everything’s on the line. Everything that we care about’s gonna be decided.” And: “We’re waking up, and we’re gonna take action.” And: “We still have a chance to save the country.”
So, that said, how to explain the new Beto’s look as distinct from the wandering pre-campaign Beto and the slowly deflating version of himself that has been manifest in recent months? For one, he seems to have no interest in going after his Democratic opponents like he once, briefly, did. He passes when I give him a chance to ding Biden for not yet visiting Charlottesville, even though the former VP brings it up constantly, pivoting instead to talking about decades-old policies that pushed black residents out of town. And he’s not worried, he says, about whether or not his rivals get it like he says he now does. (“I think everyone is doing their best, and is motivated to run in some part because they understand how urgent this moment is.”) But, he says of Trump, “As challenging as some of these underlying problems are — and have been, in many cases, since the beginning of our country — his attack on every institution that could possibly save us, from the ballot box; to an independent judiciary; to the press, whom he refers to as the ‘enemy of the people’; to his invitation to invasion from foreign powers; to the thing I think is most dangerous — and obviously, we saw this manifest in El Paso — the giving up of any pretense toward, you know, a more perfect union, or the fulfillment of the words at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, that we’re all created equal. Just saying, ‘No, actually you Muslims are dangerous, you Mexicans are criminals, you African-Americans should go back to your country’ — that fundamentally undermines, and potentially ends, any possibility of still reaching something that I think is within our grasp, which is the ability to fulfill that promise that we made to ourselves 243 years ago. And then you lose this, you lose this forever.”
But here’s the thing: He still doesn’t actually talk all that much about Trump on the trail, or at least not as much as you might think if you just read the coverage about his campaign reboot. Today, before we speak, he barely mentions the president at all until prompted by a reporter after the roundtable. So O’Rourke’s still working on his new messaging — on making explicit the connection between Trump and the civic rot he’s talking about. The main problem he’d been having connecting to voters in the first place, he suggests, is not making this connection clear enough.
“I’ve got to do a better job, that’s one of the things I was trying to say in that speech, in El Paso. Insofar as I have failed to meet this threat with the urgency it requires, I’ve been part of the problem,” he says, at this point one bite into the chocolate croissant his aide brought him (he’ll only take one bite), and still looking off to my right, near where he’s parked the big red Dodge minivan he’s been driving around town. “The connections are very clear to me, in the things the president has done, and has said, and the actions that have followed. To call out the urgency of the threat, but also to acknowledge that the underlying causes have long been, or always been, with us [is the goal]. We need to be able to address both, but one is more imminent than the other, and that is Donald Trump.” So is this all that wasn’t working for him before? Or would he do something else differently if he could go back to, say, December, when he was publicly waffling about a run? “I think, um, more clearly calling out the connections. Which,” he quickly adds, “if you were to ask me four months ago, I’d say, ‘I’m doing that,’” pointing out that he condemned Trump’s Islamophobia the day of the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings in March.
Yet, he continues, “I also think that there is so much ritual and performance that’s unconnected to this threat that we all willingly — myself included — participate in, as part of what we think is the necessary path to win the nomination, or to become president of the United States. So much of this is not connected to peoples’ day-to-day lives, or the urgency of the threat they see.” He brings up an article he recently read about a worker on the effort against David Duke’s 1990 Senate campaign. “People were saying, ‘Talk about the economy, talk about kitchen-table issues. The polling suggests that we should do this,’ or, ‘The consultant advises that we do the other.’ And he was like, ‘Fuck it. If we don’t talk about the racism, then people can be forgiven for saying, Well, look, if the Democrat is not talking about this, and it’s pretty clear, maybe I have it wrong. Maybe that’s not who he is, and what he’s doing.’ I think about that, in terms of Trump.” And a big part of making that case, he says, is going to places like Charlottesville, or Bland, or Tulsa, which he wishes — he says, when I straight-up ask him to diagnose what had been going wrong for him — he was doing far more of before.
“People in Iowa,” he explains, “in addition to wanting to see you in Iowa — and we’ve been there a lot — they are also interested in how the rest of the country is doing.”
So here’s the newest Beto, talking about a lot of the same stuff he was trying to bring up earlier, but, he hopes, more effectively, and more, well, urgently. Some of his old ways are gone, like his talking points about getting work done with Republicans. (“I was blinded by a faith in bipartisanship,” he says, which has now dissipated, especially in the wake of the shooting and the lack of subsequent congressional action on guns.) He won’t even admit to any emotion about the upcoming departure from Congress of his friend Will Hurd, a border Republican who’s disagreed with Trump. Last year, O’Rourke praised him and refused to endorse his Democratic opponent. Now, O’Rourke thanks Hurd for his service, but says he’s “really glad” a Democrat, Gina Ortiz Jones, will almost certainly replace him.
The central political bet of O’Rourke’s new tack, and attitude, is that his brand of plainly spoken callouts of Trump and the president’s relationship with the nation’s biggest problems is what the people want — need — to hear now. He’s not trying to redefine himself ideologically, or to be more like Warren or Sanders or Biden, or whomever. He’s still wearing his signature blue shirt, speaking in the classic Beto staccato you surely remember from the skateboarding, viral-video days. And he’s still a political celebrity — we’re interrupted three times by a total of eight starstruck people over the course of our conversation, though the first was a woman from El Paso who said she was his old doctor’s daughter. Once we finish, it takes him a good ten minutes to wade through the well-wishers and back to his car, and over our time together, I catch multiple double-takes from passersby clearly delighted by spotting Beto in the wilderness.
But there’s a new kind of weighted restlessness here too, bordering on exasperation. We’re speaking just before news breaks of the shooting in Odessa and Midland, and his campaign soon after starts selling “THIS IS F*CKED UP” T-shirts, with proceeds going to two gun-control groups. (He’s started cursing a lot more these days, too. Presumably people consumed by urgency aren’t worried about niceties of decorum?)
At the table, with the shadows retreating as the afternoon matures, he seems hung up on an effective metaphor he heard from a local earlier in the day: that, from the outside, everything in town looked fine to white people a couple years ago, and everyone kept polishing the fishbowl’s glass, until the white supremacists showed up and exposed the muck under rocks at the bottom of the bowl, which had been there all along, and which Charlottesville’s black residents knew all about. And O’Rourke seems to have lost patience with anyone who doesn’t understand.
We’re talking about what’s changed for him since the El Paso shooting, and he thinks back to the outcry when he first labeled the president a white supremacist. “I mean, just the catalogue of things that he’s said, it doesn’t have to be Beto O’Rourke calling him a white supremacist, it’s really Donald Trump calling himself that,” he says. “We can die in our sleep if we’re unwilling to ring that alarm, to call it out clearly. That’s how you lose all of this. And, you really wonder, you know, how did that happen in other countries? People who were dismissed as clowns, [whose voters said], ‘I didn’t vote for him for the anti-Semitism and racism, I voted for the economy and the capital gains.’ You look at Italy, you look at Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.”
Okay, now he’s talking about Trump.
“It’s hard to think of an example of another country whose leader would describe one people, one religion, as inherently defective, or dangerous, or it being necessary to keep them out of the country. And how the fuck doesn’t that get called out?” It’s impeachable, he says. “How do you explain the lack of urgency? It is, in some ways, so bizarre, and so counter to how we think about ourselves and this country — so almost impossible for us to conceive of — and it happens at such a blindingly fast pace, and his behavior is so bizarre, and he is so masterful at talking about Greenland just as you’re about to focus on the challenge at hand, that we’re unable to just clearly see it, or honestly talk about it, or act on it decisively.”
The question O’Rourke now faces is whether he’s talking about all these things distinctively enough from his rivals to force people to pay attention again. His first two outings on the debate stage didn’t go too well: First, in June, he was skewered on immigration by Julián Castro, and then, in July, he faded into the background. So how, in September, is he going to stand up and insist, “This stuff is important”? In other words, can he find an effective way to credibly convince the country of his new approach within the race’s established parameters?
“Yeah, I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know that you can train for that, or practice for that, or rehearse for that. And, you know, that’s certainly what — in the first debate — I was trying to do. I was like, ‘Alright, if I’m asked this, I will say that.’ You know, ‘It’s important that every answer be structured in the following way.’ It is almost paralyzing, and what is so much more powerful — and perhaps liberating — is: Just say what’s on your mind, regardless of whether you hit all the necessary points.”
That, of course, is basically what he’s been saying about the rest of the race, not just the debate stage. He prefers campaigning by knocking on doors, because of the spontaneity, he says. Which, I point out, is “the opposite of —”
“Which is the opposite of a debate! The debate is the furthest afield from that!” He seems buoyed by this gloomy fact. “People have their rehearsed attack lines, or their, you know, zingers. Or the thing they want to meme, or trend on Twitter. Um, and I suck at that!”
Which, inevitably, leads us back to the wager that O’Rourke is now making. That if he can just be himself — just more — that he might still have a path to the White House.
“So how can I connect with you through the airwaves, back where you’re watching the debate, in a way that feels like I’m at your door? I don’t know if I can do that — that’s a really tall order. But that’s what I want to do! And so,” he says, plowing forward, “I think approaching it the same way I approach knocking on a door is gonna be my take on this one. And, for good or for bad, that will be my way.”