Has a would-be candidate already been written about ad nauseam even before the 2020 primary season starts? Have the duel engines of the blog think-piece and the Twitterverse already reached maximum cruising speed by New Year’s Day, 2019? When it comes to Beto O’Rourke, the young Democratic Congressman who came within three percentage points of winning a US Senate seat in ruby-red Texas, it certainly does feel that way.
After running a highly visible, charismatic, Obama-esque campaign throughout 2018, “Betomania” has swept the Democratic base, propelling the once-unknown politician into third place in recent straw polling for the next Democratic presidential nominee. That’s behind only former Vice President Joe Biden and 2016 runner-up Bernie Sanders. And that’s ahead of such well-known figures as Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. A meteoric rise for someone with virtually no public recognition before the latter half of 2018.
Of course, the rise of such an unknown actor will be followed by an equal and opposite rush to define, in the public eye, what his positions are and what he stands for. This is especially difficult with Beto, who adamantly avoids being defined as anything in exchange for vague overtures about “not being big on labels.” The unfortunate side-effect of no labels, though, is that it lets others decide how to define you — an opportunity that one’s rivals usually happy to take advantage of. This may be exactly why the Sanders wing of the party has become excruciatingly critical of Beto.
The paradox is inexplicable and inescapable. After enjoying near-universal praise during his Senate run for supporting progressive causes like universal healthcare and criminal justice reform, suddenly the hard left is slamming Beto over anything ideologically impure. At The Intercept, writer Zaid Jilani criticized him for being insufficiently progressive, inefficient in the minority, and wrong on Israel. The Washington Post’s self-defined progressive, Elizabeth Bruenig, spent 500-plus words lambasting Beto for the thought-crime of being too similar to Obama. On Twitter, commentator David Sirota highlighted one of Beto’s sources of campaign cash:
— David Sirota (@davidsirota) December 2, 2018
The general theme to these criticisms is that Beto is a centrist, hawkish, inefficient, paid-for, establishment Democrat — one definitively not “progressive.” Doesn’t it sound suspiciously like what was said about Hillary Clinton in 2016? I’m going to guess that’s the intention. It’s no secret that Sanders is eyeing another run in 2020, and that his base would love to re-litigate their loss to Clinton. Since they likely won’t get that opportunity, it’s no surprise that some left-wing progressives will try to cast every non-Sanders 2020-hopeful Democrat in that light instead. And yes, they’ll do it to Biden, who, in all honesty, deserves the critique much more.
For two years, the Vermont independent has effectively cornered the market on true-blue progressivism. He’s the standard by which all other left-leaning politicians are judged; he’s the (supposedly) unscathed savior of the cause. This rallying cry is most effective when he can be contrasted with a “fake” progressive — the false prophet; the person unfaithful and inauthentic to the cause. Sanders’ brash, cutting personality also succeeds best when foiled against the plastic, poll-tested appeal of someone like Clinton. When contrasted against a truly charismatic and likable politician, like Beto, however, the model collapses in on itself; Sanders comes off as having sour grapes. Convincing voters to ignore Beto’s classic charisma and to see him instead as a big-donor errand boy will be a difficult task. It may also be the only way for the Sanderistas to clear him from the field.
Not that a review of Beto is unwarranted, by the way. One criticism — his unusually high support for Republican legislation in the last Congress — is entirely legitimate. Sirota’s sly factoid, however, is nonsense. What do you want him to do? He already refuses all PAC money. Must all progressive candidates turn down all individual funding?
Beto is undeniably progressive. His Senate campaign publicly supported many left-leaning positions even as traditional campaign logic would have dictated tacking to the center in order to compete in Texas. He supports the legalization of marijuana, Medicare-for-all, ending the war on drugs and pretty much everything green. The idea that he’s a neoliberal hack pretending to be progressive is not well supported. It’s far more likely the other way around.
But it’s the vacuum that Beto fills, merely by his presence, that scares the bejesus out of the left-wing of the Democratic Party. As the 2018 election showed, the base desperately craves new blood. Yes, it’s tired of the kind of centrist backroom deal-making represented by the Clintons, Biden and arguably Obama, it has also never fully warmed up to a far-left that can’t field enough winning candidates. Beto’s credentials could easily fill the middle ground between these sides. It’s the kind of factor that propelled Obama in 2008. It’s the kind of factor painstakingly absent in 2016.
We are not even sure that Beto will run in 2020. What we are sure of, though, is that “Beto factor” is the massive void in the Democratic primary, one waiting to be filled. What other, larger, better strategy is there for other candidates to deal with him? If the far-left starts calling him too moderate while the moderates start to call him too liberal, it would ironically create the perfect goldilocks scenario for Beto to seem just right. It explains the rush by the Sanders supporters to define Beto as something else before he can fill a role that not enough people even know is waiting to be cast.