What characteristics might you look for in a political leader? Courage is universally desired, but there are competing conceptions of what constitutes courage. Some people might think courage means unabashed political incorrectness and willingness to express outrage. But often this manifests itself as momentary outbursts that feed off of and rally a crowd.
Sure, you’ll get a strong reaction and might start trending on Twitter, but that’s easy to do. What’s harder is to maintain composure, advise that others do the same, and advocate for level-headed solutions in the midst of chaos. The former is the coward’s way.
Enter Beto O’Rourke.
Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke is best known for the hotly contested Senate election that saw incumbent Ted Cruz edge him out by a slighter margin than what was expected in a state like Texas. His captivating performance in a traditionally red state was routinely lauded by the media.
He made the rounds on late night comedy, received high-profile celebrity endorsements (most notably from those living outside the Texas region), and even drew comparisons with former presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. At that point, it became a forgone conclusion that he would run for president.
Things, however, have not exactly gone according to plan for Beto. After last week’s debate, he was parked at just 1% among Democratic Primary voters, according to a recent NBC/WSJ poll. With such dwindling numbers, Beto is finding any way he can to reinvent himself in order to generate the requisite support to stay in the race.
In recent weeks, there has been a conspicuous change of tone to Beto’s campaign. Following tragedies, he has — in contrived fashion — had public outbursts that are ordinarily uncommon in politics. After the El Paso shooting in early August, he labelled Trump a white nationalist and said, “Members of the press, what the f*ck?… he’s [Trump] inciting racism and violence in this country.”
After the tragic mass shooting in West Texas, Beto tweeted a video reading, “We don’t know how many have been killed. We don’t know the motivation. But here’s what we do know: This is f*cked up.” Later, he went on CNN and made sure to repeat the slogan “this is f*cked up” when addressing the issue of gun control or lack thereof.
His proclivity for profanity even prompted the DNC and ABC News to warn candidates ahead of last week’s debate not to swear — a warning he ignored when he brazenly stated, “hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15,” despite holding an entirely different position just one year ago while running for senate.
It may seem overly cynical to suggest that these outbursts are contrived. But such incivility and crassness can no longer be labelled accidental. Since then, he has only doubled down and monetized off of the societal unrest by actually selling shirts reading “this is f*cked up” and “hell yes we’re going to take your AR-15.”
This brings us back to political courage. Political courage would look like pushing back on the excesses of a mob and encouraging civility in moments of unrest that follow horrific events. In the midst of panic, the solutions offered are generally draconian, not carefully constructed, and should be met with skepticism. It should be disconcerting to see a presidential hopeful this obsessed with pleasing a political mob.
Nowadays, politicians are measured by authenticity over cogency. Using profanity and speaking in hyperbole can buy a lot more than preaching civility and crafting passable legislation. In a healthier political environment, outrage would not be viewed as a currency, and Twitter popularity would not govern political decisions.
In Beto’s case, this is a final effort to recapture some of the enthusiasm on lost over the course of 2019. Buried under the platitudes and cheap slogans is a man who seems to just want to be popular. He entered the presidential race with a Vanity Fair cover story, where he was quoted saying, “I want to be in it. Man, I’m just born to be in it.” But he doesn’t have the ideological pedigree of someone like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, and since his announcement in March, he’s been found apologizing to the crowd more often than offering solutions.
One can only hope that his ritual of public displays of outrage and crassness will be seen for what they really are: cynical attempts at gaining popularity. We can only hope that such political cowardice will not be rewarded.