It’s customary to begin a campaign obituary with some kind of cliché. If the candidate in question enjoyed some success before the fall, a hypothetical retrospective will probably commence on a downbeat but defiantly optimistic note (“While not securing the ultimate prize, there can be little doubt that Candidate X has made their mark,” etc.). Less successful politicians, meanwhile, are liable to generate still more inane platitudes that could mean practically anything (e.g., “a campaign that ended much as it began,” “never really found its footing,” “couldn’t ultimately attract enough support to win by getting more votes than its competitors,” etc.).
In truth, it’s difficult to find the right cliché with which to describe the demise of Beto O’Rourke: a figure whose campaign was at once so utterly generic in its politics and so unbearably awkward in its execution that it belongs in a museum alongside other 2019 oddities that will probably prove indecipherable to future generations. Even for those of us who lived through the failed Texas Senate candidate’s Icarus-like ascent and subsequent fall, the pace of events makes his candidacy a dizzying one to unpack.
In less than six months, O’Rourke made the journey from national celebrity to forgettable also-ran: a breathtaking trajectory typically reserved for erstwhile YouTube stars and former reality-show contestants. Such comparisons are only too fitting for a candidate who initially shot to fame thanks to a series of viral, off-the-cuff videos before arguably being undone by the same transitory environment that had enabled his rise in the first place. The kind of ephemeral political commodity that is only possible in the social media age, O’Rourke’s campaign began with comparisons to Bobby Kennedy and ended only months later in a flourish of increasingly desperate, almost pitiable attempts to generate clicks at any cost.
Coming down from a near miss against the loathsome Ted Cruz, the congressman from El Paso seemed primed, at least to some, to be a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. Young, photogenic, and viral, O’Rourke’s reliably conservative voting record in the House and knack for speaking in glittering generalities made him ideally suited to capture the mantle of dynamic progressive without making donors or corporate interests too uncomfortable — the veritable Holy Trinity of Beltway political scripture.
Many of the nation’s pundits evidently agreed and, ever on the hunt for something shiny that might momentarily cause the youngsters to forget about socialism, they hastily inaugurated Betomania as the season’s most captivating electoral earthquake-in-waiting. Comparing O’Rourke to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Times’ Sydney Ember confidently pronounced Bernie Sanders a relic. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin declared “Beto fundraising number suggests Bernie [is] now officially yesterday’s news, faces stiff competition for [the] youth vote.” Jonathan Chait, meanwhile, dismissed left-wing criticisms of O’Rourke as the splenetic outbursts of a handful of cultists too puritanically minded to get on board with a candidate well on his way to becoming the next Barack Obama.
Such hyperbole inarguably reached its zenith with an eight-thousand-word profile published by Vanity Fair to coincide with O’Rourke’s official launch and brimming with passages meant to showcase his ostensibly irresistible hipness (“Beto O’Rourke is quintessentially Generation X, weaned on Star Wars and punk rock and priding himself on authenticity over showmanship and a healthy skepticism of the mainstream”). Though the piece’s now infamous final grafs (“The more he talks, the more he likes the sound of what he’s saying. ‘I want to be in it,’ he says, now leaning forward. ‘Man, I’m just born to be in it . . .’”) have only grown more cringeworthy with the passage of time, they were nonetheless an accurate reflection of a real, if fleeting media zeitgeist that sought to make the triumph of O’Rourke’s candidacy seem so inevitable it would be useless to resist.
From this euphoric beginning, O’Rourke’s descent into irrelevance was swift and unforgiving: his momentary presence in a few national polls evaporating and his initially solid fundraising numbers plummeting. In hindsight, the limitations of his embarrassingly try-hard schtick should have been difficult to miss. Preceding both the Vanity Fair profile and a now-famous live broadcast of his gums, O’Rourke sought to lay the groundwork for his presidential bid with a series of strange blog posts penned in a minimalist style that read like a mashup of Jack Kerouac and Aaron Sorkin:
I walked over to the north wall and read Lincoln’s second inaugural address. My body warm, blood flowing through me, moving my legs as I read, the words so present in a way that I can’t describe or explain except that I’m so much more alive in the middle of a run, and so are the words I was reading.
The words, describing the country in the midst of Civil War. The reasons for the war. Slavery. The masterful, humble invocation of God. Acknowledging that both sides invoke his name and saying of the South: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.” That he could pronounce this judgement and then remind himself and us that we should not judge . . .
Obviously hoping to replicate the supposedly shoot-from-the-hip style he’d popularized in Texas, O’Rourke’s quixotic quest for the Democratic nomination fast became a series of similarly strained attempts to translate his initial celebrity into viral content and thus popular support — all of which failed spectacularly. Though a horrific mass shooting in El Paso briefly gave his flailing candidacy a renewed focus, O’Rourke’s attacks on the NRA, phony war with fellow centrist cipher Pete Buttigieg, and newfound fondness for swearing nevertheless mostly seemed like extensions of this same initial strategy: designed to punch through an oversaturated media environment by grabbing attention and creating the appearance of novelty wherever possible.
The launch and ultimate failure of Betomania is instructive of many things: the continued significance of celebrity in the elite liberal imagination and its declining currency among the electorate at large; the limits of ephemeral personality politics in an age of widespread economic hardship and looming climate catastrophe; the appalling superficiality of influential Democratic power brokers who allowed themselves to believe the country would fall head over heels for yet another photogenic white guy marrying vague uplift with familiar centrist timidity; the unforgivably patronizing attitude toward the young that still predominates in American politics.
Most reassuring, O’Rourke’s resounding failure to catch fire (let alone even hang on until Iowa) suggests that the once impregnable grip of the usual pundits and consultants is showing real signs of waning. Like Marco Rubio in 2016, another candidate whose ostensibly broad national appeal was in practice mostly limited to a handful of area codes, Betomania was a naked, if uncannily bizarre, attempt at political astroturfing — and it crashed in similarly spectacular fashion.
Adios, Beto. We hardly knew you.