Robert “Beto” O’Rourke’s biggest fans and supporters insist he is a forward-thinking, future-oriented visionary, but no contender for the Democratic nomination feels more familiar than the former three-term congressman from El Paso.
That’s because he has the highest combined score in both déjà vu and nostalgia, which are two different things. Déjà vu is the unsettling sense that you are repeating a specific experience. Nostalgia is a kind of sentimentality, a homesickness for the past.
Of the other straight white men officially or presumably vying for the nomination, only Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe Biden can compete with O’Rourke on these fronts.
There’s a lot of déjà vu to the Sanders campaign, because it feels like it never really went away. When he announced for 2020, it was a here-we-go-again moment.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of nostalgia to Biden, but not much déjà vu, because he’s never run for president when voters actually took him seriously.
But in the combined category, O’Rourke wins the nostalgia-déjà vu biathlon by a mile.
Everything about his candidacy feels like a triumph of nostalgia peddling. The constant refrain that he’s this generation’s Robert F. Kennedy is an interesting play on the time-tested effort by Democratic candidates to claim the Kennedy mantle, thought usually it’s John F. Kennedy, not RFK. Then again, it makes sense given that RFK moved left of JFK — and so has the Democratic Party.
Then there’s the déjà vu. His candidacy feels like a rerun, and not merely because the media covered his recently concluded race against Ted Cruz as if it were a presidential contest. (A race, it’s worth nothing, that O’Rourke lost despite having raised more money than any Senate candidate ever, and despite the fact that his opponent was wildly unpopular.)
No, the real queasy feeling I get from the O’Rourke candidacy is that this feels like the new normal: A charismatic candidate develops a cult of personality, then uses the party apparatus as a platform not for any ideas, but rather to promote a celebrity brand.
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