In a Democratic presidential contest so far defined by two septuagenarians, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke may be the first fresh face to break through to national recognition. So why does he remind me of the past?
O'Rourke gives off a very John Edwards vibe. No, not in a creepy, sex scandal sort of way. Edwards' unconscionable philandering while his wife was dying of cancer will always occupy its own space in unhappy memories of primary campaigns past. But there are similarities in the political personae and positioning of the two Democrats that are hard to ignore.
Edwards totally reinvented himself between his two presidential campaigns. He ran in 2004 as a centrist, and, at the time, that seemed to be the best opportunity for the North Carolina senator to carve out a space in the Democratic field. It worked well enough that he was tapped to be John Kerry's running mate on the losing ticket. But Edwards swung left four years later, running as a "Two Americas" anti-poverty progressive when that became the better strategy.
O'Rourke has made a similar shift. When he launched his first congressional campaign back in 2012, the Texas Democrat made a pitch to Republicans in his state: He was a savvy centrist who could work across the aisle to achieve the entitlement reforms fiscal conservatives held dear. "To win their backing, Mr. O'Rourke opposed ObamaCare, voted against Nancy Pelosi as the House Democratic leader, and called for a raise in the Social Security eligibility age," The Wall Street Journal reported of that year.
But six years on, O'Rourke transformed himself into a full-throated liberal to win national progressive backing in his campaign against Sen. Ted Cruz. The conservative Texas Republican was an inviting target to Democrats nationwide, helping O'Rourke raise $80 million. O'Rourke plans to tap that same donor base for his presidential bid, so he now touts progressive mainstays like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and legal late-term abortion.
In both his failed Senate race and now the Democratic primaries, O'Rourke aims to fulfill the progressive dream of turning Texas blue (though he lately appears sympathetic to abolishing the Electoral College, which would make Texas less important to Democrats' national plans). Though he didn't win statewide in 2018, he was competitive enough against Cruz last year to make the feat plausible, if not probable.
That brings up another similarity with Edwards: Yes, Edwards at least won his Senate race (once). But just like O'Rourke, he ran as a presidential candidate with a questionable claim to be able to turn a red state blue. Whatever he told donors, Edwards was unlikely to win a second Senate term and did not help Kerry in North Carolina in 2004.
O'Rourke and Edwards are also both gifted speakers. Edwards was a successful trial lawyer, while O'Rourke boasts star power on the stump, which might be needed in the crowded 2020 primaries and against reality TV President Donald Trump. But like Edwards before him, he struggles with authenticity in the minds of voters not captivated by his charms, whatever Vanity Fair may enthuse about his supposed "preternatural ease."
In the end, O'Rourke may follow Edwards' path to his undoing. Edwards became the third wheel in an epic clash of Democratic titans Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom would ultimately win their party's nomination. O'Rourke could very easily have the same problem against those leading septuagenarians, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Given the dynamics of the 2020 race, which features a much larger field than recent Democratic primaries, O'Rourke may have an even tougher challenge than Edwards did. If a lane opens for a lesser-known candidate, will it be a third white male? Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Cory Booker of New Jersey are all attractive options who actually made it to the upper chamber of Congress. And Warren in particular boasts far stronger progressive credentials than O'Rourke, though she may have missed her moment by waiting too long to run. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is perhaps the freshest face of all.
The big question is how much Democratic primary voters want to scrutinize candidates' records. We've already seen opposition dumps about Harris' history as a prosecutor, Booker's dalliances with the pharmaceutical industry, and Klobuchar's temper with her staff. But in 2004, relatively obscure and moderate Vermont Gov. Howard Dean became a liberal darling — completely upstaging Edwards for months — due to his passionate opposition to the Iraq War. Obama likewise had a shorter record than Clinton, but his anti-Iraq War bonafides probably helped put him over the top in 2008.
Democrats may decide they like O'Rourke's youthful image, combined with a reliably progressive platform and soothing, un-Trumpian rhetoric about bringing the country together. Or they might decide he's an Edwards-like pretender they should shun in favor of more seasoned options. Only time — and primary results — will tell.