By Christianna Silva
On Wednesday, March 13, Democrat Beto O’Rourke announced that he’s officially throwing his hat into a wildly crowded field of presidential hopefuls in the 2020 elections. People were unsurprised – he had been hinting at a presidential run since he lost a challenge to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz by just three percentage points last year, and teasing out his “decision” with Facebook ads, and profiles in the New York Times and Vanity Fair – but confused nonetheless. Despite the buzz, we don’t have much of an idea of where he stands on national issues or how he plans to govern.
If you know O’Rourke’s name, it’s likely because of his unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat in 2018. The 46-year-old El Paso native brought in a record of more than $80 million from mostly small-donor donations when he ran against the incumbent Cruz, and garnered a national following after he responded to a town hall question about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality on August 21, 2018. In the now-viral clip, he said he “can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, any time, anywhere, in any place.” His campaign was widely supported by activists, politicians, and celebrities alike, including Beyoncé and former Director of the CIA John Brennan. He campaigned on an ambitious criminal justice reform agenda, legalizing marijuana, Medicare for all, and stricter gun control laws including mandatory background checks.
When he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination, the former congressman called it “a defining moment of truth for this country and for every single one of us.”
“The only way for us to live up to the promise of America is to give it our all and to give it for all of us. We are truly now more than ever the last great hope of Earth,” O’Rourke said in a video. “At this moment of maximum peril and maximum potential, let’s show ourselves and those who will succeed us in this great country just who we are and what we can do.”
As it stands, his platform includes the same Democratic stances that many of the other democratic candidates are running on: improving the Affordable Care Act, background checks on gun sales and ending some of military actions on the southern border. Since his Senate campaign was run on broad liberal messaging, without a signature policy issue, he’ll need to parse that out in order to be competitive in a crowded Democratic field. While we do know that he’s voted more conservatively than the average Democrat, yet Vox’s Tara Golshan argues, his apparently vague platforms may actually allow him to “both harness progressive grassroots energy, as well as the ‘no labels’ voter.”
Unlike other Democratic candidates — like Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris — O’Rourke just doesn’t have the same experience as his competitors; before O’Rourke was in Congress, he ran a web design company, and later spent six years on the El Paso City Council. (To be fair, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said she thinks that’s plenty experience.)
Only two men have ever won the presidency with a background as Congressmen alone: Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield. Of course, experience isn’t always a factor in winning the presidency — Zachary Taylor, Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Donald Trump all who won the presidency without any political experience at all — but it’s telling that people remember Beto more for his charisma than his policies. O’Rourke can command a crowd, he was in a punk rock band, he sweats a lot and he got along with Oprah pretty well: none of which will alleviate the difficulties of hurtling through a Democratic primary, but do appeal to the popularity contest of it all.
It’s important to remember that there is plenty working in O’Rourke’s favor: if he could almost flip Texas from red to blue, political analysts wonder what he could do to the entire country. In his 2018 bid, he won in big cities, pulling in a solid amount of enthusiasm from voters and helping increase midterm voter turnout. In recognizing the fact that people are hungry for a president who isn’t another white man, O’Rourke has pledged to build out a diverse campaign team. (As the Washington Post notes, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that his Congressional staff was among the least diverse.)
“The government at all levels is overly represented by white men,” he told Vanity Fair. “That’s part of the problem, and I’m a white man. So if I were to run, I think it’s just so important that those who would comprise my team looked like this country. If I were to run, if I were to win, that my administration looks like this country. It’s the only way I know to meet that challenge.
It remains to be seen if that will be enough to convince minority voters that he has their best interests at heart — that is, if he even clenches the Democratic nomination — but at least he can see why people are frustrated that he isn’t exactly representative of diversity himself.
It’s unclear whether that will be enough to pull him through a wildly competitive presidential primary. Over the course of the next few months, he’ll have to expand on some of his ideals and maintain the excitement he garnered in the 2018 midterms to keep his audience. But he’s certainly making waves: His announcement tweet has thousands of engagements and he’s already on the cover of Vanity Fair, saying “I’m just born to do this.”