Beto O'Rourke Could Be America's Next President | Opinion

There’s been a certain trend in presidential politics over the last thirty years that’s been unmistakable: Democrats lose when they run a well-meaning, highly intelligent bureaucrat like Al Gore, John Kerry, or Hillary Clinton, and they win when they nominate a sharp but also highly intuitive candidate—someone with an indefinable “it” factor—like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. Though he didn’t win his Senate race against Ted Cruz on November 6, Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke proved throughout his spirited, county-hopping campaign, as well as on Election Day—where he pulled well over 48% in a reliably red state—that he has what it takes to be the Democrats’ next political superstar. He might even have what it takes to be president.

Whatever “it” is, it doesn’t have to do with age. Though at 46 years old O’Rourke certainly projects an Obamaesque youthful energy, one can’t forget that in 2016 it was a cantankerous septuagenarian from Vermont who most clearly demonstrated “it” on the Democratic side—as evidenced by Bernie Sanders’ enormous campaign crowds and the fact that, for no obvious reason, he made the Democratic primary contest a surprisingly tight one.

No—whatever pixie dust comprises “it,” it has more to do with energy, rhetorical inertia, and a deep commitment to being comfortable in one’s own skin than anything else. Bill Clinton had his saxophone, Obama had his absolutely everything, and Beto has his YouTubed air-drumming at a Whataburger drive-thru. These are three people not just happy being themselves but evidently and gregariously so; they’re happy doing what they do and they’re conspicuously sanguine about facing the slings and arrows of being human. The glare of klieg lights only makes them more themselves, not less.

The Democrats have some strong potential candidates already jockeying for position in advance of the 2020 Democratic primaries, but none capture the zeitgeist of a Clinton or an Obama quite like Beto does. The lanky, good-looking, perpetually restless former punk rocker has a way of always seeming seconds from a smile, an air guitar riff, or a road trip to see an indie band at a venue in Marfa. It seemed, during much of Beto’s 2018 Senate campaign, that he wasn’t just the guy everyone wanted to have a beer with, but the guy everyone wanted to be friends with. And that’s saying something—more importantly, it’s saying something that would resonate in all corners of the country.

There's no need to knock any of the Democrats' current leading lights for the sake of elevating Beto. Suffice to say that many of them are self-admittedly senatorial, inexplicably provocative of the Republican base, or so much of a blast from the past that even their staffers are bemused at the prospect of lacing up their presidential-campaign sneakers again.

Far more important to note, though, is this: the idea that a former Congressman who ran the best statewide Texas Democratic campaign since Ann Richards can't run for president at a time when Donald Trump has his finger on the nuclear trigger is laughable. Let's be clear: in 2020, there are no restrictions on who can credibly run for president. Anyone can. And compared to the gaggle of businessmen and attorneys who now want to run on the Democratic side (because if Trump can do it, why can't they?) and compared, too, to the gaggle of Democratic elders who've been unsuccessful on the presidential hustings in the past but are now willing to give it another go, Beto O'Rourke looks both ready and amply qualified. Surely no one any longer doubts his intelligence, drive, principles, or charisma.

GettyImages-1064437888 U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) and his wife Amy Sanders says goodbye to supporters while addressing a 'thank you' party on Election Day at Southwest University Park November 06, 2018 in El Paso, Texas. O'Rourke lost to incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Even so, no one is saying Beto was a stunningly productive Congressman. Nor is anyone saying his views aren't unabashedly progressive. What those of us looking for an "it" factor in our 2020 candidates—along with intelligence, integrity, and ideals—are saying, is that Trump having no political ideology at all never stopped him from winning his very first political campaign. Nor did Trump having never accomplished anything but turning $430 million in gifts from his dad into slightly more than keep him from ascending to the Oval Office.

The current president’s obviously subpar, well, everything didn’t matter because he had (heaven help us) "it." While Democrats are wrong to think they need a brawler to face self-described "counter-puncher" Trump in 2020—there's an old saying about pigs and mud that applies—they’re right to think if they run another candidate who doesn't have "it" they’ll again lose to a man who unexpectedly does.

Gone are the days when a politician’s electability can be determined by a review of their policy agenda. Today, for better or worse, electability is predicated on whether a candidate makes voters feel called to something larger than themselves. Sure, charm, a silver tongue, and some significant smarts are also key—but Beto has each of these in spades.

What Obama invoked, however, was something more, namely hope. Eight years later, Trump found a mass of "angry optimists" who hated America as it was, but also felt an urgent nostalgia to fight for how they believed it should be. Beto likewise makes people believe—in Beto, sure, but also in a politics of nobility, class, and pure cool somewhere between John F. Kennedy and Barack. That’s a political echo no Democrat can afford to stop their ears to.

There are surely many arguments against Beto winning the nomination. We only have the barest sense, at present, of his viability at the national level. But what I would argue is that Beto should seriously consider running for president in 2020 and—if he passes that test by being first to the end of its gauntlet—he should be embraced excitedly by Democrats as their nominee (especially if he picks an older figure to guide him as a running mate as Cheney did Bush or Biden did Obama.) 

What Beto deserves now is not paeans or panegyrics or a free pass to the 2020 nomination but simply an acknowledgment that, in 2018, his political experience can’t possibly be deemed less than Trump’s was in 2016—and he has a form of “it” that offers us a light amidst Trump’s darkness.

So run, Beto, run! Your moment in the sun might just be ours, too.

Seth Abramson is Assistant Professor of Communication Arts & Sciences at the University of New Hampshire and author of Proof Of Collusion (Simon & Schuster, 2018). On Twitter @SethAbramson​

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​​

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