This was Beto O’Rourke’s big day. But I think it went pretty badly for him, though perhaps not in ways that will be immediately obvious.
This may sound odd since he got some good press, got the ritual insult from the President and landed a number of endorsements right out of the gate. But it’s the endorsements themselves that suggest a problem. Right out of the gate O’Rourke won the endorsement Kathleen Rice, the Long Island Rep most recently notable for leading the Moultonite faction which tried to deny Nancy Pelosi the Speakership by threatening the vote against the caucus’s choice on the House floor.
Over the course of the day he netted three more. One of those is Rep. Stephanie Murphy, one of the chairs of the Blue Dog Coalition, a centrist House caucus. A third was Rep. Veronica Escobar (TX) who now holds O’Rourke’s old House seat. And last was Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York.
Rice’s role trying to strong arm the caucus over Pelosi makes her somewhat toxic in an intra-Democratic contest. The others are fine. And moderates play an important role in the caucus, even if they’re not your flavor of politics. In most cases, they’re ‘moderates’ because of their districts.
The problem I see for O’Rourke is that these endorsements and the tendency behind them makes him look – maybe accurately – like the presidential candidate of Democratic ‘centrists” – a very thin constituency in Democratic politics at the moment. This may sound like I’m saying the energy of the party is on the left and you’re out of luck if you’re playing to a constituency on the right-center. Not exactly. I think the power and pull of high profile left-wing members of Congress like Ocasio-Cortez and others are greatly exaggerated by their media profiles. As is usually the case, I suspect a successful candidacy will be one who has appeal and acceptability on the left of the party without being owned by it or being perceived as a factional candidate of the left. You may or may not agree with me on that point. But let’s leave that argument for another day. What I’m really quite certain about is that the Democratic nominee is not going to be the factional candidate of Democratic centrists. And the way the roll out played O’Rourke made a good start toward becoming that guy.
To be clear on this, these aren’t just centrists, a term which can mean almost anything. They’re elected officials who define themselves by their centrism and often as a critique of the rest of the Democratic Party.
This isn’t the first time this has come out. During the Beto-mania that followed the November election a number of high-profile Sanders supporters scalded O’Rourke in a series of much-discussed opinion pieces. The aim was pretty clear: knock the new guy down several pegs to leave the road open for the Bernie millennium. Some of these attacks were downright dishonest or tendentious. Others more reasonably pointed out that for all the excitement about O’Rourke’s campaign against the odious and oleaginous Ted Cruz he actually has a pretty middle of the road voting record and even more than a few votes with Republicans. That spectacle showed the unloveliest parts of the sectarian left around Sanders. But Beto himself did a decent job today validating that critique and positioning himself in the contest in a way that will make winning the nomination a steep challenge.