Monday 14 October 2019

Tim Stanley: 'Beto's sex appeal conceals a fractured party'

Beautiful people: Beto O’Rourke speaks during a campaign stop in Burlington, Iowa. Photo: Joshua Lott/Bloomberg
Beautiful people: Beto O’Rourke speaks during a campaign stop in Burlington, Iowa. Photo: Joshua Lott/Bloomberg

Tim Stanley

The average American will earn $1.4m (€1.23m) in their lifetime. Last week, Beto O'Rourke announced his candidacy for president and raised $6.1m (€5.37m) in 24 hours.

Why the astonishing interest? He has accomplished very little; he inherited millions and married billions. He's been arrested for trespass and driving under the influence. According to the 'New York Times', his apartment was once robbed while he was sitting in it. He's famous only for losing a Texas Senate race last year and... I'll stop right there.

He's hot: that's why he's rolling in donations. He's got a Kennedy smile and looks great in jeans. I've never seen a candidate get such bad press in their first days of running, but that's because most journalists and nearly all conservatives are ugly - average-looking at best - so we're predisposed to dislike him. It's jealousy.

Sex distorts politics as it distorts life. That's why it tends to be liberal activists who have the hots for pretty rich kids.

Think Macron, Trudeau, both Kennedys - crucially, none of them socialists. The liberal playboy doesn't represent an insurgent working-class, as Bernie Sanders tries to, but a patrician bourgeoisie which, like Beto, reaches across the boundaries of class to help their fellow man. Even the nickname is post-racial. "Beto" was christened Robert Francis.

As he charges across America with charming enthusiasm the press, lost for a category, calls him a centrist, a word ringing with privilege in a politics obsessed with identity. Centrist means Bill Clinton, means big business, means power, means winner. Beto is good-looking. He must be a centrist! He must be the man to beat Donald Trump in those bellwether states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Right-wing commentators are not so sure. They're suspicious of sex. The Republicans are happy to nominate a rich white man, of course - but looks are far less important than character or common sense. (Remember, they were gaga for Rick Perry in 2012 until he opened his mouth in a debate and his support mysteriously disappeared.)

The GOP has enjoyed electoral success since the 1960s by pitching itself as the party of Mr Average, what Norman Mailer called "The Wad": middle-class, low-brow, homely. It was in the 1960s, as liberals went weak at the knees for Robert Kennedy's Irish eyes, that the Democrats morphed into the party of the "beautiful people": well-educated, attractive kids allied with the fashionable causes of race, war and inequality.

You can look at US politics as a battle of the rich and the poor on one side, the Wad on the other - and Beto could canvass every member of the Wad with a candlelit dinner and I'm not sure he'd challenge that dynamic. He didn't in Texas.

Everyone applauds him for doing better than any Democrat for a long time, but he ran against a very unattractive candidate in a very anti-Republican year in a state that is changing thanks to a growth in urban areas and immigration (Ted Cruz, who is himself a Latino, won 65pc of whites but O'Rourke won 63pc of Hispanics). Maybe Beto did reach out to some swing voters, but he also mobilised the state's growing liberal base.

One more problem stands in his way: too few Democrats have listened to what he's saying. That often happens with good-looking people. While they rabbit on about education or healthcare, all you can hear is the crashing of waves and Beto running across the beach. But if you pay attention, you'll hear that he's very left-wing on the environment, healthcare, immigration and guns. He called the capitalist economy "racist".

The Democratic contest ought to be a debate on strategy: do they beat Trump from the left, by galvanising that coalition of top and bottom, or from the centre by appealing to the middle? The media interprets the primaries through this prism and mistakenly casts Beto as a moderate because it assumes a white male candidate will do better in Ohio than, say, a black woman (Kamala Harris) or Jewish socialist (Mr Sanders).

But in reality, the Democrats have shifted so far to the left and so completely embraced identity battles, that the contest is just as likely to be fought between tribes as philosophies or strategies, as demonstrated by a deeply uncomfortable moment when America was mourning the innocents killed in New Zealand and a student accosted Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of Hillary, and accused her of racism because she had denounced anti-Semitism. Chelsea looked confused. Welcome to the illogical politics of radical purity.

The Democrats seem more like the fractured party of the 1960s and 1970s than any time since, and Beto is no Bobby Kennedy, although they apparently share an affinity for the classics. Kennedy could quote Aeschylus, and Beto has likewise looked deep into that pool of self-knowledge and found enlightenment.

"The Greeks got me, man," he once said. What giants walk among us! (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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