AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Jack Shafer is Politicos senior media writer.
Windmilling his arms as if operated by an amateur puppeteer and drawing on the leftover youth-pastor energy that powered his losing Senate campaign against Ted Cruz, Beto ORourke commenced his presidential campaign on Thursday in Keokuk, Iowa. Having cemented in the Cruz contest the political persona of a better angels candidate who preaches positivity and uplift, who espouses the right thing rather than the expedient thing, and who hails the other Democratic contenders and flatters his audiences with every breath, ORourke slathered the Iowa crowd with his usual campaign honey.
And they loved it.
But like any great chef, ORourke also knows when to sprinkle the vinegar.
This is a defining moment of truth for this country, and for every single one of us, ORourke said in the video announcing his candidacy earlier in the day. The challenges that we face right nowthe interconnected crises in our economy, our democracy and our climatehave never been greater. And they will either consume us or they will afford us the greatest opportunity to unleash the genius of the United States of America.
Challenges have never been greater? The economy looks pretty good, doesnt it? Our democracy just replaced the Republican majority with a Democratic one in the House in an orderly election, so no impending crisis there, either. After conceding the climate point to ORourke, youve still got to ask: Whats behind his hysterics? We are truly now more than ever the last great hope of earth, he said in the video. But he had still had not emptied his tank of gassy superlatives. At this moment of maximum peril, and maximum potential, lets show ourselves and those who will succeed us in this great country just who we are and what we can do.
If ORourke promised to seize all the tendrils of power, encouraged race or class war, blocked dissent or promised the impossible, we wouldnt hesitate to call him a demagogue, which he isnt. President ORourke is more likely to host the bands from the Vans Warped Tour in the Rose Garden then he is to order the 3rd Infantry Regiment to dissolve Congress at bayonet point. Think of him instead as a semigogue, a temperate politician who exploits the naivet of the mob with his hollow yet passionate appeals to goodness, light and possibility. A demagogue traffics in fear. A semigogue peddles hope. A demagogue hoses gasoline onto a fire. A semigogue pours milk or maybe a craft brew. A demagogue bangs the table with a closed fist. A semigogue talks with fluttery hands. Because he never issues genocidal orders or establishes totalitarian regimes, the semigogue can also escape our deep scrutiny. Instead, he lulls his targets into political sleep with his eternal kindness, his overdone decency and his endless speeches.
Will it work?
Ill admit that a couple of ORourkes Senate campaign speeches and his general charisma flushed me with uncharacteristic feelings of generosity. His garage band style of campaign against Cruz, in which he rejected corporate money, avoided negative attacks and refused to employ pollsters or consultants, as my colleague Tim Alberta put it, impressed me as genuine. His willingness to defend the kneeling NFL players counted for something, too. It wasnt until I read transcripts of his speeches in which he made incessant references to trusting one another, listening to one another and working together that I started to doubt his rhetorical radiance. Like most pop lyrics divorced from the music, ORourkes speechesgiven in that weirdly hypnotic poetry-reading voicedie when read on the page. His words inspire best when performed, a similarity he shares with Donald Trumpand with Barack Obama, whose hope and change platitudes filled the 2008 campaign skies with rainbows.
Like your garden-variety demagogue, ORourke projects himself as one of the masses who seeks only to do their bidding. Top-heavy with the words we and us, his speeches make constant common cause with his listeners. But its hard to imagine him channeling demagogic rage into the connection he has crafted. Nor could anyone envisage ORourke violating societal norms in pursuit of power or accusing his foes of imagined crimes or shouting vulgarities. A deliberate gentleman, he rarely took off the gloves against Cruz. When asked at a debate what he admired about Cruz, ORourke cited his opponents sacrifice and public service. Cruz sent dittos back to ORourke, but proceeded to compare him to Bernie Sanders, saying ORourke believes in expanding government and higher taxes. ORourkes meek counter shot was, True to form.
On the issues, ORourke stands in the shallow end of the Democratic pool, with conventionally centrist Democratic views on gun control, health care, criminal justice, trade and immigration (though he is open to shuttering ICE). As Vox points out, ORourkes voting record was more conservative than the average House Democrats, so when audiences cheer him, theyre not cheering his policy choices but the emotive package he delivers them in. When talking about issues, he has a way of sandpapering the Democratic label off them, presenting them as nonideological problem-solving.
Semigoguery worked a near miracle for ORourke in the losing Texas contest, where he raised more money$38 million from July through Septemberthan any senatorial candidate in history. The strategic upside of semigogueryand I suspect candidate ORourke has calculated thisis that it can taste as sweet to Republican palates on the first chug as it does to Democratic ones. But a candidate who both tastes great and is less filling wouldnt automatically satisfy the voters hunger for something more presidential than what weve got. All ORourke has demonstrated so far is that his formula raises money, earns flattering notices in the press and fails to deliver enough votes. Semigoguery is a better technique, it seems, for making friends than it is for winning elections.
Is exceptional decency a good substitute for experience? We can do this together, reader, and bring all the creativity and genius of our fellow human beings to solve our problems. Email your answer to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts swoon for Beto. My Twitter feed is all in for Buttigieg. My RSS feed has Ted Cruz as his avatar.