June 19, 2019

Can Beto Make a Comeback?

“It’s not easy to get Beto O’Rourke to speak disparagingly about anyone. I’ve tried. He will condemn divisiveness, injustice, bad policies, inequality, and the corruption of American politics by corporate money. He believes our democracy is in danger. He’s running for the Democratic Party’s 2020 Presidential nomination, so these are not unexpected themes, and yet O’Rourke, who is tall and spare and deep-voiced, delivers them with unusual earnestness. He admits that the line that sparks the most reliable applause from his campaign crowds ends with the phrase “defeat Donald Trump.” But he doesn’t use it much. The big problems—climate change, health care, immigration, hyper-partisanship—didn’t originate with Trump, after all. O’Rourke regularly invokes a vision of national unity as the only way forward. “All of us have a seat at the table. All of us matter,” he says. “I want to show up for everybody.”

What, you may wonder, does that mean? Texas got a preview of this vaulting ambition, this post-partisan show-up politics, when O’Rourke challenged Ted Cruz for his U.S. Senate seat in 2018. No Democrat had won statewide office in Texas since 1994. O’Rourke, who is a youthful forty-six, was an obscure three-term congressman from El Paso, a border town far removed from the halls of Texas power and wealth. He vowed to visit all two hundred and fifty-four counties in Texas, and he did, usually driving himself. “We went to places so red you could see them glowing from outer space,” he says. “Places that went ninety-seven per cent for Trump. Nobody had bothered to visit those people before. I learned so much. If you want to serve people, you gotta listen to them.” He live-streamed his travels on Facebook. He never hired a pollster or a political adviser. He refused donations from political-action committees and corporations. And the campaign gained traction. Volunteers started liking, sharing, leafletting, knocking on doors.

The world beyond Texas took note after a video clip from a town hall in Houston drew forty-four million views in a couple of weeks. O’Rourke got an audience question about N.F.L. players taking a knee during the national anthem. Was that not disrespectful to members of the armed forces? “My short answer is no, I don’t think it’s disrespectful,” O’Rourke said. Not a practitioner of the sound bite, he then gave a four-minute response that soared through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, through Taylor Branch’s book “Parting the Waters” and Rosa Parks. He placed the N.F.L. protests in that civil-rights tradition, an effort to call attention to violence against black youth today: “I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, anytime, anywhere, anyplace. Thank you very much for asking the question. I appreciate it.””

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