As the 2020 presidential campaign beckons, White House aspirants stuck in the Democratic Party’s scrum of potential candidates are trying hard to distinguish themselves, mainly by taking aggressively “woke” positions on various issues to boost their appeal to progressive primary voters. Their bids for attention sometimes backfire, when they wander off script and inadvertently reveal a vacuous lack of substance. One recent example emerged from a Washington Post interview, in which an out-of-work Democratic politico appeared to question the viability of America’s future, or at least the vitality of its governing institutions:
Does this still work? Can an empire like ours with military presence in over 170 countries around the globe, with trading relationships . . . and security agreements in every continent, can it still be managed by the same principles that were set down 230-plus years ago?
Is the source of this sophomoric musing, a widely-hyped former congressman now in a self-described political funk, on solid ground? Is our Constitution, and the principles it embodies, obsolete? The answer to each of these questions is no, but first some background on our anguished protagonist.
Robert Francis O’Rourke, who attended an elite prep school and then co-captained Columbia University’s rowing crew en route to earning a degree in English literature, is an unlikely populist. The patrician son of an influential elected official in his native El Paso, now married to the daughter of a billionaire real estate developer, O’Rourke is an equally-unlikely social justice warrior. A decade ago, while a “boyish-looking” O’Rourke, then 34, was serving his first term on the El Paso City Council, the left-leaning Texas Observer condemned his role in orchestrating a downtown redevelopment plan that would enrich a powerful group of “wealthy oligarchs, industrialists, real estate developers, and politicos,” including his father-in-law. The scathing exposé was titled “Eminent Disaster,” with this damning summary: “A cabal of politicians and profiteers targets an El Paso barrio.”
After two terms on the city council, overcoming a recall campaign and two ethics complaints, O’Rourke, a fourth-generation Irish-American, decided to run for Congress in a heavily-Hispanic district represented by an eight-term incumbent Democrat, Silvestre Reyes. After narrowly defeating Reyes in the Democratic primary—avoiding a runoff by just a few hundred votes—this scion of privilege swamped his Republican opponent in 2012 and moved to Washington, D.C.
A back-bencher for three uneventful terms in Congress, in 2018 the 45-year old O’Rourke, using his childhood nickname “Beto,” decided to challenge Republican Senator Ted Cruz for re-election. Despite raising (and spending) a record $80 million, including large sums from California and New York donors, O’Rourke—universally referred to throughout the campaign as “Beto”—lost to Cruz by over 200,000 votes statewide. O’Rourke carried most of the cities and many suburbs, but was out-polled by Cruz in the rural areas. The much-hyped “Betomania” created national media buzz and spawned ubiquitous “Beto” yard signs throughout blue areas such as liberal Travis County (where I live), but failed to defeat Cruz, the most unpopular member of Congress.
O’Rourke was hailed as the “next Kennedy,” not based on his adult arrest record for drunk driving, but for his rugged good looks and optimistic demeanor. O’Rourke was not a 20-something socialist, such as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, nor a boldly anti-establishment figure with multi-cultural appeal such as Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar or Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib. To the contrary, O’Rourke was a quintessential white guy, now coming under fire from the Left for “dripping” with white male privilege. O’Rourke’s recent bout of existential angst prompted CNN’s Nia-Malika Henderson to scorch his self-involved navel-gazing (her words): “His privilege even allows him to turn a loss to the most despised candidate of the cycle into a launching pad for a White House run.” Ouch.
In fairness to O’Rourke, however, younger voters were smitten by his penchant for skateboarding and prior membership in a punk rock band. O’Rourke’s platitudinous policy positions—impeaching the president, abolishing ICE, universal single-payer health care, amnesty for illegal immigrants, legalizing drugs, etc.—were predictably progressive, but he did not campaign as a wild-eyed radical such as Ocasio-Cortez. His earnest visage and sincere mien were not viscerally threatening to centrist voters. In the polarized Age of Trump, many urban and suburban voters were eager to vote against anything symbolizing the hated Orange Man occupying the White House, even President Trump’s former rival (but now ally), the equally unlikable Ted Cruz.
Which brings us back to the lacunae of Robert Francis O’Rourke, the much-heralded but failed Senate contender who many believe harbors presidential ambitions, whose Washington Post quote opened this essay. Does the public expression of such misgivings deepen a pol’s gravitas or brand a candidate as a crank? The commentariat’s jury is still out. Questioning the nation’s future prospects (“Does this still work?”) does not inspire confidence—an essential quality as the country’s leader and commander-in-chief. Doubting America’s founding principles—limited government, the separation of powers, even the Constitution itself—is arguably a more serious defect for a presidential candidate. Even characterizing our republic as an “empire” reveals a blame-America mindset reminiscent of President Obama’s rhetoric of national atonement.
In National Review, David French sensibly pointed out that “many of our dysfunctions are the result of abandoning the Constitution, not of embracing it.” The solution to many policy ills is for the three branches to realign themselves within their prescribed constitutional roles—a subject to which scholars and pundits have devoted, and continue to devote, substantial attention. If the Constitution is archaic in certain respects (as O’Rourke apparently believes), or failed to anticipate some feature or another of modern life, Article V provides a mechanism for amending the document, which has been used 27 times so far. Advocates of constitutional reform sometimes suggest a more drastic approach, namely a “convention of states” that would facilitate multiple amendments as an alternative to the traditional seriatim approach. No serious person would simply declare the situation hopeless and throw in the towel.
So far, O’Rourke has gotten more blowback for his Washington Post interview from the Left than the Right. Henderson, the CNN political reporter, mocked him for pontificating “on whether the Constitution is still a thing that matters after all these many years.” While her taunts of “privilege” are tired clichés of identity politics, she correctly excoriates O’Rourke for being a lightweight, comparing him to “a first-year college student,” and lampooning his “road trip adventure” as exhibiting “Jack Kerouac-style” aimlessness. His blog reads like a “stream of consciousness diary entry.” She accurately points out that his interview responses showed “no real knowledge of policy.” O’Rourke wanders the country, unemployed, to “clear his head,” in an effort “find himself and figure out if he wants to lead the free world.” All this is harsh but true.
We rightly expect presidential candidates to be “serious, surefooted, policy experts with big ideas,” Henderson contends. I agree. O’Rourke’s fatuous comments make it clear that he is an empty vessel. Surely the Democrats can do better in 2020.