More than anyone in the still-developing Democratic primary field, the potential candidacy of Beto O'Rourke, the Texas Senate candidate and viral video machine who nearly took down Ted Cruz in last month's election, is already roiling the left.
Last week, a handful of progressive writers came out against him, including Jacobin's Branko Marcetic and The Washington Post's Elizabeth Bruenig, who wrote that "times both call for and allow for a left-populist candidate with uncompromising progressive principles." That inspired a Tweet from Center For American Progress President Neera Tanden that suggested the pile-on was coordinated and that progressives were "worried" about Beto, presumably because he might crowd out Sanders or another ideological progressive. By the end of the day it would have taken detectives hours to recreate the bloody crime scene on Left Twitter. The whole affair was enjoyed by exactly no one.
The skirmish demonstrates how neither the center-left nor the progressive left understands what drove the appeal of Bernie Sanders in 2016, nor what voters find inspiring about Beto. To the progressive left, Beto is almost Clintonian, a creature of the establishment, another Wall Street drone. To the center-left, he is an Obama figure, a prodigious fundraiser and talented rhetorician, someone the Democratic Party can rally around. Maybe he's a little bit of both, but more than anything else, he has the chance to be this cycle's Bernie Sanders — and to win.
For progressives, the barely contained enthusiasm of the Obama insiders on Pod Save America and the D.C. lunch-and-learn crowd for Beto — who belongs to the centrist New Democrat Coalition in the House — is the kiss of death. Nothing less than one of the party's most committed progressives — someone like Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkely or Sanders himself — will do. But they are making the mistake of assuming that it was Bernie Sanders' policy platform that brought out droves of politically detached Americans to his rallies and inspired a once-unthinkable and nearly successful challenge to Clinton.
This is not necessarily what the exit polls from February to April 2016 actually tell us. In the Michigan primary shocker won by Bernie Sanders, he only won voters who said health care was their most important issue by one point. For Michiganders who said the economy favors the wealthy, Sanders barely beat Clinton. In the key 2020 state of Pennsylvania, Clinton clobbered Sanders among primary voters who said health care was the most important issue. In the Wisconsin primary where Sanders walloped Clinton by almost 14 points, voters said 52-34 that the next president should "continue Obama's policies" as opposed to "be more liberal."
Sanders did generally win voters who ranked 'income inequality' as their No. 1 concern, and those who feel that Wall Street generally "hurts the economy." I'm not saying there were no policy divisions. But what really cleaved Clinton from Sanders voters was style. Voters consistently ranked Sanders as "more inspiring about the country's future" and gave him higher marks for trustworthiness, including in states he lost decisively to Clinton. Even in New York!
This points to what was probably Bernie's greatest strategic edge in the primary, and why there is a very good argument that he would have been the stronger general election foil to Donald Trump: In Bernie Sanders, voters saw not just someone who had a record of policy consistency that was unusual, to say the least, in the U.S. Senate, but also someone who had a simple and appealing narrative of what ails American society, and what to do about it. Even if you disagreed with some of his proposals, he seemed like he was on the up-and-up. And that's important, because most American voters are not ideologues, and do not respond well to partisan rancor — a politics of unity has an enduring emotional appeal to independents.
That's where I think the party's still-influential and significant center (which, weirdly, is more partisan than the left flank) is wrong about Sanders. Like progressives, the think tank crowd also believes the Bernie sensation was about policy. That's one major reason why the center of the party is rapidly moving to the left. Yet despite that unmistakable shift, there's a certain genre of Democrat who harbors enormous resentment about his lack of loyalty to the party. It's important to remember that most general election voters are not party stalwarts. When I think of why Sanders still sits at 53-percent popularity nationally (again, not the conclusion you'd draw if your only news source was Twitter) while Clinton became so deeply unpopular, I'm brought back to a moment early in the 2016 primary, when Clinton was asked which enemy she was most proud of. She concluded her list by saying, "Probably Republicans."
Not only was this a terrible answer for someone whose eventual election strategy would hinge on persuading moderate Republicans that Donald Trump was too unstable to be president, it also illuminated an important distinction between her and Sanders. The word "Republican" only appeared twice in his post-Iowa sort-of-victory speech, and partisan attacks on Republicans were much less central to his rally rhetoric than the idea that elites from both parties are in cahoots to loot the country. This rhetoric repelled primary voters and insiders who strongly identified as Democrats, but was clearly helpful with independents. And an appeal to conservatives who also thought the "system" was rigged was actually a central element of his potential general election edge over Trump.
What Bernie and Beto have in common is not necessarily policy, but the ability to engage this kind of person, voters who normally wouldn't care about elections and to transform them into political animals who believe that change is possible by working within the system rather than bitterly watching from the sidelines. At his best, Obama had this quality too. I think we frequently forget that an eloquent, inspirational call for national unity is what launched him on a faster-than-light trajectory from state legislator to president in the first place. From what national Democrats saw of Beto this year, he seemed willing to speak truth to power even when doing so might cost him politically. The moment that took his Senate campaign from underdog longshot to national sensation was from August, when he was asked if it was "disrespectful to this country, to the flag, to service members" for NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality.
Remember, this is Texas, where Trump and his culture war are popular, and where high school football is a religion. You could probably forgive Beto for saying something evasive, like "I support the cause of racial justice but I think this is the wrong way to do it." Instead, he gave an answer whose off-the-cuff eloquence was astounding. And he took the question straight on, riffing on the civil rights movement and ending with these soon-to-be-viral words: "And so non-violently, peacefully, while the eyes of this country are watching these games, they take a knee, to bring our attention and our focus to this problem, to ensure that we fix it. That is why they do it, and I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, anytime, anywhere, anyplace."
It's not just that he went where few leading Democrats would go (although Sanders said much the same thing almost a year earlier) but also the jaw-dropping, Ta-Nehisi Coates-level wordsmithing that he seemed to pull effortlessly out of this back pocket. The dude seems fueled by caffeine and earnestness and a genuine belief that there is a different way. His invite-you-into-the-kitchen-for-dinner shtick makes him the stylistic twin not of the unapproachable Obama but of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — at heart it is an effort to demystify politics, to convince skeptics and cynics that they are voting for a real person. It's why his refusal to accept money from PACs and his decision to discourage support from SuperPACs and their inane, paint-by-numbers TV ads so endeared him to young people, who generally laugh at and are repelled by that kind of thing.
After two years of being the collective, captive audience for a dimwitted, embittered old man ranting incessantly about how everything in America is broken and yet somehow not doing anything about it, voters might crave not ideological purity but rather decency and, importantly, someone who seems like they might have just a little bit of fun at it. That's why people liked the skateboarding and the f-bomb dropping at rallies and the Facebook livestreaming from the car. The enthusiasm was so infectious that Beto raised a mind-boggling $38 million in just three months from July to October.
This is definitely not how I wish voters made their decisions, and it's far from clear that Beto should be the candidate. Rhetoric is one thing. But Democrats need a president who knows that words alone are not going to break the fever on the Republican right, someone willing to employ the full Constitutional powers of the office to make change, and who understands the danger to the republic posed by the implacable, immovable Republican extremists in Congress. If happy talk about bipartisanship is what it takes to get elected in this country, then so be it. But God help us all if he really believes it. It may be that when primary voters get a closer look at candidates with more progressive voting records, longer experience, and equally impressive rhetorical skills, like California Sen. Kamala Harris and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, they will forget all about Beto.
And his policy record is fair game for what should be a spirited primary campaign. His voting history puts him in the most conservative third of the House — in the Senate, he'd be slightly to the right of the median in the Democratic caucus, right about where Amy Klobuchar is. If you knew nothing else about him, it might be fair to position him ever so slightly on the right flank of the Democratic Party, and he'll almost certainly need to unambiguously endorse some ideas that are quickly becoming litmus tests on the left, including some version of Medicare-for-all. And if he's not willing to do this, I don't think he stands much of a chance. Remember, though, that the pre-election narrative was that Beto had lurched too far to the left during the campaign. It doesn't seem like a stretch for him to continue along that path.
But of course, we do know some other things about him, and it is those things, rather than his policy squishiness, that are at the crux of his appeal. And it's why he might currently be the frontrunner in a wide open race that may yet see two dozen candidates throw their hats into the circus. The best thing everyone on Twitter and beyond can do is calm down and let the process play out, by hearing from all of the candidates and making an informed assessment when the time for voting arrives.