Vanity Fair describes Beto O'Rourke as undergoing "a near-mystical experience."
It was in a packed house during his failed Senate campaign, O'Rourke told the magazine: "I don't ever prepare a speech. 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?"
What's nearly mystical is the glowing coverage that O'Rourke has been getting from much of the media. In fact, he's the first presidential candidate in American history to tie his announcement to a Vanity Fair cover (complete with Annie Leibowitz photos).
And the pull quote that has defined his launch: "Man, I'm just born to be in it, and want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment."
O'Rourke might catch fire in this personality-driven Trump era, but he could just as easily flame out. As the Vanity Fair piece noted of the man who did an Instagram video from the dentist's chair, "O'Rourke's radical openness can also look like naïveté … Skeptics question whether O'Rourke's political transcendentalism can sustain the meat grinder of a national election."
The liberal Slate ran a piece titled "Beto 2020 Has No Reason to Exist," saying that whatever his talents, "Beto is missing one important thing … an actual reason to run."
A New York Times story put it this way:
"Mr. O'Rourke also comes to the 2020 race with few notable legislative accomplishments after three terms in the House representing El Paso. And in a primary so far defined by big-ticket policy ideas, like the economic agendas of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Mr. O'Rourke enters without a signature proposal that might serve as the ideological anchor of his bid."
So how much does that matter, along with the fact that he doesn't yet have a campaign manager or even skeletal staff?
Obviously, he can raise money — he took in more than $80 million in the contest against Ted Cruz — but O'Rourke is selling himself and his optimistic attitude more than any policy position. He is, however, a center-left capitalist who would be competing more with Joe Biden than with Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren.
The former congressman is consistently vague on policy prescriptions. I listened yesterday when he was asked if he supports Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal. He waxed eloquently about the need for action against climate change but completely sidestepped the legislation (despite some headlines to the contrary.)
And in a recent Washington Post interview that he now says he regrets, O'Rourke said when asked about the immigration problem: "I don't know."
O’Rourke's arrest in a drunk-driving accident two decades ago, which led to the suspension of his license, will undoubtedly come up in the campaign. He told Vanity Fair that after his father bailed him out of jail, "you just feel like a total piece of s—, and you kind of are."
After losing to Cruz, says Vanity Fair, "O'Rourke experienced a post-election depression" like the one he had after winning a House seat in 2012. "He had lost weight, his joints ached, and a stress fracture in his foot curtailed his running regimen. He exercised on his rowing machine and went on his somewhat infamous road trip to interact with regular Americans, trying to work his way through a self-described 'funk' over his loss."
It will be a funky candidacy, that's for sure.
There is something of a media bubble surrounding O'Rourke, a onetime punk rocker who, for all the pundit chatter, has low name ID nationally.
But O'Rourke has more Hill experience than Barack Obama did in 2008, and one refreshing thing he does is focus on the future rather than spending most of his time bashing the president.
There is this telling graf in the Vanity Fair profile:
"O'Rourke also sells a kind of cult of personality of his own, offering himself as the David to Trump's Goliath, a folk hero for our time. He acknowledges that what has made Trump successful is also what has made him successful — an outsider who 'bent the media to his campaign,' as he puts it."
Beto seems to have the bending-the-media part down pat. But there is a huge difference between running against Ted Cruz and taking on a dozen Democrats in a crowded field.