Although Beto O'Rourke officially kicked off his presidential campaign on Thursday morning with a video, what everyone will truly remember from his announcement is the dreamy, Americana-infused, Annie Leibovitz-shot Vanity Fair cover story published the day before, in which O'Rourke, who spent much of his youth as a freewheeling musician, deals in lines like this: "Man, I'm just born to be in it."
O'Rourke's rise to political stardom came when he challenged and came closer than anyone expected to beating widely loathed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2018 midterm election, running a social media-heavy race VF described as "a marathon of live-streamed political performance art" that drew inspiration from punk rock and didn't accept corporate donations.
His credentials include three terms as a U.S. Representative for Texas' 16th District, which he spent in the minority party, not getting much of a chance to leave a legislative footprint. He has a voting record that will undoubtedly be challenged by opponents, since he has voted with Republicans on immigration, financial regulations, and healthcare, although he has defended this by saying it was difficult to get legislation passed in a Republican-controlled House. Being a native of El Paso, he has spoken out against President Trump's border wall and has promised to challenge him on immigration and border security, but his votes to ease requirements on Customs and Border Protection agents are likely to come up.
In the profile, O'Rourke comes off as earnest, bookish, enthusiastic — that loaded term "likable," even. But as far as his actual policy ideas go, so far, he's all romance and little substance. And trying to beat Donald Trump is going to be very different from almost beating Ted Cruz. In such a crowded race, it remains to be seen what he will bring to the table.
"It definitely will not be sufficient to just have an inspiring aura. Democratic voters want to know what worldview a candidate has," Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backed O'Rourke for the Senate but has endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren for president, told the Dallas Morning News. "In the Texas Senate race, when someone as inspiring as Beto had a plausible chance to defeat Ted Cruz, it was a no-brainer to support him, and there weren't many questions asked about his specific positions on a lot of issues. In a presidential primary with many good options, including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, a lot of progressive voters will obviously apply more scrutiny."
It certainly stings that in spite of his comparable lack of experience or detailed proposals (or maybe, because of these things?), O'Rourke is already getting the rockstar treatment. (There may not be an issue section on his website, but there's already a ton of merch for sale.) The VF profile is loaded with the freedom and poetry distinct to being a man, a luxury women running for office aren't afforded. Men are allowed to "just feel" that they're going to win, as O'Rourke declares. The writer even suggests that O'Rourke could be "destined" for the presidency: "He has an aura." It's certainly worth it to do a mental exercise and try to imagine whether a woman could get away with O'Rourke's hubris.
Pundit Erin Gloria Ryan pointed out how differently Warren, a two-term senator with substantially more accomplishments under her belt, was treated by the same magazine. "For a fun experiment, switch the genders. 'Is Beto O'Rourke actually unlikable?' 'Elizabeth Warren: I was born to do this,'" she tweeted.
2 candidates, same mag. 1 is a 2nd term senator with detailed policy proposals that have driven the substantive side of the 2020 primary conversation, the other just lost a Senate race to a guy everybody hates. What else is different about them?? Hm gonna need a thinking cap pic.twitter.com/JngsGo7OTi— Erin USC Sailing Recruit Ryan (@morninggloria) March 13, 2019
NBC's Kasie Hunt asked how people would react if it had been Hillary Clinton, whose credentials also topple O'Rourke's by far, saying the cover quote, "Man, I'm just born to be in it."
O'Rourke, being the charismatic progressive that he is, is of course "acutely aware" of being a white man in the most diverse field of candidates ever, in a country where demographics are swiftly changing and people want more leaders who represent them.
"The government at all levels is overly represented by white men," he told VF. "That's part of the problem, and I'm a white man. So if I were to run, I think it's just so important that those who would comprise my team looked like this country. ... But I totally understand people who will make a decision based on the fact that almost every single one of our presidents has been a white man, and they want something different for this country. And I think that's a very legitimate basis upon which to make a decision. Especially in the fact that there are some really great candidates out there right now."