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Monday, March 18, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

What a difference six months makes. Or perhaps the difference is what happens when you’re no longer running for the U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz.

Robert Francis O’Rourke, a telegenic backbench Democratic congressman from El Paso, who calls himself “Beto,” ran a spirited but losing race against the incumbent senator and was celebrated for losing. Helped along by a coastal media entranced by him, in part because a lot of people too young to know what they’re talking about said he reminded them of John F. Kennedy. He raised lots of money, much of it from outside Texas. He won 48 percent of the vote, and won more votes in Texas than Hillary Clinton had two years earlier. Mr. O’Rourke’s future seemed bright enough.


Then came Mr. O’Rourke’s “sabbatical.” He gave up his seat in Congress. Newly unemployed (but with a billionaire father-in-law he could afford to be idle), he traveled the country, writing tedious online journal entries and livestreaming his dental appointments. (Yes, really.) He drew particular flak for leaving his wife at home in Texas to tend to the couple’s young children, while he went on an extended journey of “self discovery.”

There was hope among Democratic partisans that after Mr. O’Rourke ended his impersonation of Jack Kerouac he would challenge John Cornyn, the other Republican senator, next year. But he dreams bigger than that. Instead, as he revealed last week, he would try to turn an unimpressive three terms as an obscure congressman into a run for the presidency. Mr. O’Rourke’s rollout was accompanied by a profile in Vanity Fair, replete with an Annie Leibowitz photographic album.

But if Mr. O’Rourke was expecting similar ardor to greet his presidency as it had his bid to beat Ted Cruz, he was painfully disappointed. Instead, his rollout has largely been panned. Mr. O’Rourke, one of at least a dozen Democrats running for president, is too vague, they say. His resume is too thin. His record in Congress is too conservative. And worst of all, in a party devoted above all to racial diversity, Mr. O’Rourke is a white man, and even calling himself Beto can’t qualify him for membership in the LGBTQ lodge.

Several Democrats running for president are doing it to forward a cause. Bernie Sanders wants Medicare for All. Elizabeth Warren wants to break up Silicon Valley. Tulsi Gabbard wants to radically rethink American foreign policy. Jay Inslee , the governor of Washington, wants to slow the rise of the oceans.

Robert Francis O’Rourke, by contrast, seems chiefly devoted to the cause of himself. He recites the usual platitudes about global warming, liberal immigration policies and other pet Democratic causes. He told Vanity Fair, “I’m just born to do this.” No less a reliably liberal magazine than The New Republic laments the “profound emptiness of Beto O’Rourke.”

Events that were well-known when he ran against Mr. Cruz are recalled with a vengeance. A young Beto was arrested twice in his misspent youth, once for breaking and entering, another time for driving while intoxicated. The media and Democratic partisans were happy to ignore this in the greater service of taking down Ted Cruz, but now that he’s running against other Democrats, he should expect less gentle treatment. Mr. O’Rourke’s record as an El Paso councilman, where he was accused of improperly helping his rich father-in-law’s business interests, will come under unprecedented scrutiny.

If there’s any good news for Mr. O’Rourke, it’s that his prodigious fundraising machine remains in full operation. In the 24 hours following his announcement, the congressman raised more than $6 million, a hefty sum. But as he learned in his race against Ted Cruz, money doesn’t necessarily translate to victory.


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