intelligencer chats

Where Did Beto Go Wrong?

In happier times. Photo: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Beto, we hardly knew ye. After gaining a national profile by almost scoring a huge upset in Texas last year, Beto O’Rourke failed to gain much traction over eight months in the Democratic primary. Why did he fail to break through? Where does he go from here? Political columnist Jonathan Chait and Senior Editor Margaret Hartmann answer these burning questions and more.

Ben: Beto O’Rourke announced Friday afternoon that he was ending his presidential campaign. How did his campaign get derailed so dramatically?

Jon: I think bad timing and bad luck are a big part of the story.

Margaret: I think the conventional wisdom is that shunning the media for the first few weeks of your campaign is actually not a good strategy? And Beto does kind of seem like a great candidate for another time. Much like the Democrat who ran in 2016 who was not Bernie or Hillary (a.k.a. Martin O’Malley).

Ben: Which time would be best?

Margaret: Idk, 2004?

Jon: He lost some of his momentum from the election. More importantly, he joined the race at a time when there was a white-hot backlash among progressive activists against white males with shaky qualifications. So the elite conversation around Beto was withering for the first few weeks — that’s why even things like standing on tables became grist for takes about his white male privilege.

Margaret: Yeah, when Beto first launched I was actually not as hostile to him as some other media folk. But he quickly annoyed me. I didn’t care for him rambling across the country to clear his head while his wife stayed home with the kids

Jon: This was before Biden entered the race, which at least somewhat reset the bar as to what qualified for canceling.

Beto was always going to have a résumé problem, but that moment made it especially fraught, I think. And then he entered into a cycle of being dragged on Twitter and progressive media, leading to bad coverage, bad polls, in an endless doom loop. That’s my telling of the Beto story.

Margaret: Probably a bad sign as well that I can’t recall any policies he proposed, until his recent “damn right, we’re taking your guns” twist.

Jon: He was also tightly focused on immigration, which was never a good message.

Just not enough immigration voters.

Ben: I agree with pretty much everything you’re saying, but think Beto could have transcended all of that fairly easily if he were a bit better at campaigning. I think the combination of intense earnestness with vagueness is not a winning one. He came alive after the El Paso massacre to an extent, but by then it was too late, and he proceeded to take a fairly extreme position on guns.

Jon: I actually think the idea he was vague and weak on policy is wrong. One of the newspapers wrote about his answers on the campaign trail and convincingly argued that he was pretty substantive, and the pretty-face image was a myth. I attribute that more to the hostility he faced.

Ben: I think that’s true — I was more referring to the way he talked about those policies. He tends toward discursiveness and a certain self-seriousness.

Margaret: Nothing he proposed broke through for me, which is perhaps a media problem. That damn liberal media!

Ben: He just wasn’t that polished, which can work to your advantage but did not for him.

He also had a really bad debate or two.

Jon: Yeah, though I think he was mostly cooked by then. My theory is that he basically blew up on the launchpad.

Margaret: Also, I think he might have actually harmed the party on the way down, while others just flopped personally.

Jon: Yeah, the end stage was really ugly.

Ben: I assume you mean with his gun-confiscation proposal and his plan to strip churches of their tax exemptions, Margaret? Embodying the liberal boogeyman that hasn’t really existed before.

Margaret: Yeah. That AR-15 clip is going to be with us for a long time, I think.

Ben: A lot of gun owners think any regulation is just step one on the way to a total ban and confiscation, an idea he gave some new ammunition (ahem) to.

Jon: Also swearing became his other go-to move. It got boring fast. But I do think he is a good natural political talent and could have taken off under different circumstances.

Ben: Under different fucking circumstances.

Jon: His biggest problem is the same as Mayor Pete’s: He’s in a red state and can’t win statewide office, which you traditionally need to run for president. In this era, ticket-splitting has all but disappeared, so candidates in the opposite-party state have almost no path to the presidency anymore.

Margaret: We’d all be living different lives if he just could have done a little better against the Senate’s least-popular member.

Ben: Is he the rare candidate who actually damaged his political standing by running for the presidency?

Margaret: Yeah, I think so. He was the man who came within three points of turning Texas blue, now he’s the guy who flopped on the national stage.

Jon: Absolutely.

Margaret: But flopped more memorably than, like, the Tim Ryans of the world.

Jon: He’s done in statewide politics, let alone national. Could still run for Congress or mayor, I guess.

Margaret: Anybody in Texas need a dogcatcher?

Ben: Some classic political humor there.

Jon: Hell, yes, we’re going to take your pit bull.

Ben: What will Beto be doing in ten years?

Jon: Business? Rock band? Slave laborer in one of Donald Trump Jr.’s reeducation camps?

Margaret: Haha. Sorry, I can’t beat that.

Where Did Beto Go Wrong?