Doubting Beto

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.

Reader Discussion

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on January 22, 2019 at 10:41:08 am

Sorry to be facetious, but to answer the question in the article's subheading: Yes, of course Americans are ready, willing and (likely) able to elect a Beto as President. Just look at who they have inflicted on us lately: HRC, BHO; then there's AOC.

Beto is the perfect candidate for the Left because he is a blank slate, a shapeless mass of potter's clay, onto which the Left may write all of its dreams and into which mold its fantasy, then like Pygmalion fall in love with its own handiwork. Beto may be counted on to bend to the progressive will, whatever that will might be. He is the ideal US President of the American 21st century, an empty vessel into which all of our progressives (who "literally know nothing") can pour their authoritarian longing, as well as all of our self-described "centrists" (who should know better) can pour their hopes for a managerial imperium of experts to administer the American herd via the immense state apparatus with minimal input or interference from the President.

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on January 22, 2019 at 15:19:47 pm

He surely has his priorities wrong, but he is right to question the compatibility of a classical liberal Constitution with the reality of a (progressive) Empire.

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on January 22, 2019 at 16:57:58 pm

The question O'Rourke asks is legitimate as the author lamely acknowledges toward the end of a lengthy ad hominem attack. I agree with David French but that raises some interesting problems - how did things come to the place they are now, that a return is needed to what was originally meant? The principles might indeed be sound, but the practice has got out of whack somehow. Of all the many things that might be laid at O'Rourke's door, it can't be him!

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Steve Evans
on January 23, 2019 at 09:47:28 am

Beto is not a serious person and his question is not serious; it is on the same level as Ezra Klein's infamous "that Constitution thing is old and who can even understand it?" article. The question itself may be worthy of reflection but only coming from someone who has the gravitas, the intellect and the learning needed to question it competently. Beto is not that person. He is simply parroting what he has heard from other people, in the vein of "Yeah, like maybe, you know, the Constitution is, like, you know, totally not even relevant any more."

And mark his actual language: he frames it as a matter of "managing" the country. Managing. This is how he thinks of a Constitutional government: what can be done to make it a more efficient manager of all of us. Please.

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on January 23, 2019 at 16:01:36 pm

I did not explain myself.

I was referring to the coexistence of an imperialistic US with a classical liberal Constitution. Since the end of XIX century, when the Jeffersonian Democratic Party was hijacked by the populism of Jennings Bryan, the US morphed into an empire, the first example being the occupation of Philippines “justified” by kicking out the Spaniards from Cuba.

It is 120 years that this contradiction has not been resolved. My suggestion was that the best way to resolve it is ditching the imperialism, and keeping the Constitution. I could not care less about this guy o’Rourke.

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on January 23, 2019 at 17:29:48 pm

As usual with people like Beto, (that is, those in the image of their forefathers Teddy, Bill, Barack and the like) they speak much, sound erudite while mouthing empty platitudes, and ultimately say things in ways that leave them many escape routes when challenged on the meaning of their statements. Is Beto's question "How can the empire we have and want continue if we have to respect the Constitution?" Or is his question "How can the Constitution survive if we continue to be an empire?" Or is his question, "Can't we eat our cake and have it too? In other words, can't we have the empire we want and have a "Living Constitution" which we read any way we like?" I doubt he meant the second question, but I can understand his affinity for the first and third questions. The real question should be, "How do we restore the limited government envisioned by the Constitution as written 230 years ago?"

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Sheldon Chernove
on January 24, 2019 at 05:13:56 am

Its not Beto O'Rourke who scares me but the people who would vote to put him in office that frighten me out of my wits. Judging by such recent political "stars" such as Barack Obama,Camela Harris and Ocasio-Cortez it is obvious that a majority of the American voters have been so dumbed down by our educational system and the Media that we have reached the point of no return. Limited Constitutional Republics can not survive very long in a world of ignorant parasites and megalomaniacs. Goodbye Constitutional Republic,hello mobocracy democracy.

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libertarian jerry
on January 24, 2019 at 21:58:03 pm

Just another manufactured leftist of the plastic variety. "Prick him and doth not he bleed?" Hardly.

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jim Robinson
on February 19, 2019 at 20:13:23 pm

Interesting piece. But it fails to mention most of the criminal and ethical violations Mr.’O’Rourke is said to be guilty of including DUI, real estate and campaign violations.

His political philosphy is alarming enough. But a foundation of rotten character is of far, far more concern.

Please address those, including Project Veritas’ undercover work exposing his illegal use of campaign funds to spend on the immigrant caravan invasion.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.