Austin at Large: Beto in the Fast Lane
O’Rourke bounces right back into an adoring, ambivalent Austin
It's a dark, bitter, blustery Saturday night and right there, close enough to touch, is Beto O'Rourke in the driver's seat of a Dodge Caravan, rolling down the alley at 10th and Congress just as promised, bringing home (to a big Austin crowd) the live show he's now taken on tour to the All-Important Early States and performed, on that day, all across the Great State.
Beto's back! But wasn't he just here?
We knew the Betomentum, the bouncy kinetic energy that boinged O'Rourke through all 254 counties in Texas, would have to be directed somewhere, at something really important, or else the dude would go insane. A friend of a friend says he's that guy "who always has a dance track playing in his head." If he really is a furry, he's obviously Tigger.
It sure is fun and infectious, even with the below-freezing windchill and a shrieking Alex Jones with a clot of MAGA choads in the crowd, clutching their AR-15s and trying to piss everyone off. But is it presidential? The cool kids say Beto is empty and silly and we only loved him because he wasn't Ted Cruz – but most human beings are more lovable than Ted Cruz (except for Alex Jones), and they don't draw 14,000 people on a cold night.
The Modern Major Candidate
Those cool kids are just as besotted by and cultish toward their own preferred 2020 idols, though, and none of the candidates has yet had nearly as much to say about the others as they have about the incumbent. So Beto's two-years-long-already campaign for federal office, on federal issues, against an unlovely GOP jerkwad, hasn't really needed much retooling.
That said, the time will come that O'Rourke has to say new and different things; right now, the Betomentum, the charisma and energy, and/or the nongeriatric straight white maleness are what sets him apart. Like a good Senate candidate, he has exactly the conventional Democratic platform you'd expect, with a little more eyewitness drama on immigration, a little more bluntness on marijuana, and competent (though not extemporaneous) Spanish.
The artful rhetoric ("We shall be known forever after by our ambitions, our aspirations ...") reads more RFK-esque than it sounds in person with his slam-poet delivery – if we didn't know he used to be in a band, we could probably guess. As a messenger, he is the very model of a modern major candidate, working the continuum from tweet-length sound bite to viral video to heroic and notes-free stump speech to Vanity Fair cover and HBO doc.
His first speech on Saturday, in El Paso, was little different, though with more focus on the border (and the detainees herded under the bridge four blocks down the street from the stage). Nor did he venture far from the remarks he unleashed from atop bars, cars, and tables in Iowa and New Hampshire; or, for that matter, from his last big speech in Austin, backed by Willie Nelson to a much larger, warmer, moister crowd. What made that September night and Beto's Senate campaign magical was not just the energy but the courage: throwing everything he had into a quest a prior generation of Texans had failed to complete – one that his own generation had seemingly abandoned – and in the process bringing the next generation into the purple political light.
How Does One Top a Miracle?
It's not wrong to think of that as a more important outcome than having Beto in the White House. He might even agree with you, though like a good leader, he turns the claim around: "What you did in 2017 and 2018 is nothing short of a miracle," he said, rattling off the inch-by-inch gains we celebrated in November. How does one top a miracle?
O'Rourke leans on "you" and "we" heavily in his stump speech, closing on Saturday by turning to all four sides of the stage: "Together ... together ... together ... together, [we are] turning this moment of peril into a moment of promise."
He has to do that, because when he said, "Yes, this 2020 thing is really happening," the nobility of that quest curdled almost instantaneously into preening vanity in the eyes of millions. But those of us who are Beto's age have rarely had a chance to feel about politics the way Beto feels: stars in our eyes, spring in our step.
Look at Austin Mayor Steve Adler, for example, who's fully embraced being a "yellow dog Democrat" hype man at times like this in a way much at odds with his normal persona. Word has it that Adler's being wooed by Beto, Julián Castro, and Pete Buttigieg for his endorsement, and there are many reasons to say he should pick one of his mayoral buddies instead. Aren't they smarter and more policy-driven than Beto? Don't they have more interesting stories to tell?
For now, Beto is far ahead of them in the polls, which may not be fair but is also not an accident. We have nearly a full year to decide what to care about and how much before we press the button in the now-super(-Tuesday)-important Texas primary that will decide Beto's fate. Still ambivalent? Sure, but no reason to sandbag the dude. Beto's in the driver's seat. Should we hop in for a while?