For decades, the Democratic Party has been haunted by a specter: the specter of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. Liberals have yearned for a young, handsome, eloquent and charismatic man to move them, enchant them and return them to Camelot.
They’ve never quite found him, though Gary Hart (1984) and John Kerry (2004) tried to fill the role. Even Ted Kennedy didn’t quite measure up. Bill Clinton — who was serendipitously photographed at 17 shaking JFK’s hand — managed a faint resemblance that he strove to heighten.
I thought Barack Obama had put that dream to rest. He had some of the same qualities as Jack and Bobby, and he had a successful two terms in the White House. But the Kennedy hunger apparently still lives on in the Democratic body politic, like a dormant virus that occasionally causes a spike of fever and delirium. How else can the Beto O’Rourke frenzy be explained?
He was a legitimate phenomenon last year, when he came close to winning a U.S. Senate race in a red state. Being a Texan whose skin crawls at the mention of Ted Cruz, I am a member of a group that numbers at least 4 million, judging from the vote O’Rourke got. But nearly upsetting Cruz in a Senate race is like winning your high school talent show. It doesn’t mean you’re ready for Broadway.
O’Rourke, however, has joined the presidential race, propelled by his mysterious sense of destiny. “I want to be in it,” he told a Vanity Fair scribe. “Man, I’m just born to be in it.” If an ego as big as the Ritz is mandatory in a presidential candidate, O’Rourke qualifies.
His main assets are his boyish good looks, complete with the RFK-like shock of hair falling over his forehead, and his flair for oratory, or what passes for oratory these days. Something is working: In the first 24 hours after announcing his candidacy for president, he raised a record $6.1 million.
Some of his admirers don’t see him as another JFK; they see him as another Obama. Former Obama strategist Dan Pfeiffer is one of them, scorning “political elites” who say of O’Rourke, “He hasn’t paid his dues” or “It’s not his time.”
Wrote Pfeiffer in November, “These are the exact arguments people made to me when I told them I was considering working for Barack Obama 10 years ago.” Of course, they are also the same arguments made about countless other unready candidates who have been forgotten because the “political elites” were right about them.
O’Rourke is a former member of the El Paso City Council and a three-term congressman who did nothing to distinguish himself from most of the other 434 House members. That’s no crime; making a mark in the House usually takes many terms. But his service there is hardly thorough preparation for a job that is normally one of the most challenging on earth. (For Donald Trump, it’s not a challenge because he doesn’t really do the job.)
Obama’s political resume was also thin — three terms as a state senator and four years as a U.S. senator. But besides his broad life experiences, he had shown intellectual heft, formidable discipline, gravity of purpose and genuine oratorical brilliance. Being African-American, Obama also brought a vital perspective that had never been present in the White House. O’Rourke doesn’t.
Obama was a highly exceptional figure, which makes him a poor model for lesser mortals. Just because Kevin Garnett went straight from high school to NBA stardom doesn’t mean other high school players — even stars — would be equipped to do the same.
Nor has O’Rourke offered a comprehensive program that sets him apart from other Democratic candidates who have compiled more substantial records. On the issues, he manages to be both completely conventional and annoyingly vague.
A measure of his low-content approach is that his campaign website provides no policy statements. It does, however, offer “Beto for America” T-shirts.
Another indicator is his claim, “I don’t ever prepare a speech.” In one appearance, O’Rourke recalled to Vanity Fair, it felt as though “every word was pulled out of me. Like, by some greater force.” He seems to see this campaign as an exercise in self-discovery.
The Democratic field features several candidates with weightier accomplishments and down-to-earth policy solutions. But flying high at the moment is one who is lighter than air.