The winds of swoonery blasted through Texas this year and traveled halfway across the country to dust the Eastern media establishment with love eternal for senatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke. Not since the press corps fell in love with Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign has such a sirocco of worshipful candidate profiles and commentaries appeared in the national press.
“Is Beto O’Rourke the Left’s Obama-like Answer to Trump in 2020?” asked Vanity Fair. “Beto O’Rourke Could Be the Democrat Texas Has Been Waiting For,” offered BuzzFeed. Still more positive Beto coverage sprinkled the pages of Yahoo News, Time, GQ, Rolling Stone, the Guardian, the New York Times, Politico and Esquire as they worked off the same template. The Washington Post indulged Betomania with a feature, another feature, a column and the sort of ancillary coverage it ordinarily gives the Washington .
The media’s adoration for the three-term House member from El Paso knows a simple origin. He’s lauded and cuddled by reporters for the simple reason that he’s not Ted Cruz, the Skeletor of American politics. Former Senator Al Franken captured the cross-party feelings for Cruz in a recent book, in which he wrote: “I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.” A “jackass,” former Speaker of the House John Boehner once called him. A “wacko bird,” said Sen. John McCain. “Ted’s a nasty guy,” said Donald Trump, who knows everything about being nasty. “That’s why nobody likes him.”
By being gracious where Cruz is unmerciful, by listening instead of shouting, by spraying sunshine rather than cloaking everything with doom, by running as the underdog, by being a former punk rocker instead of a cheapjack punk, O’Rourke has given reporters the easy contrasts that make political journalism write itself. He exudes youth (he’s 46). Cruz looks old (he’s 47). He makes reporters nostalgic for the 1960s by conjuring the spirit of Robert Kennedy, complete with the bangs, the teeth, the rolled-up sleeves, the paeans to the oppressed, the uplift and the liberal platitudes. Cruz comes armed with darker purposes—as if auditioning for a part as a Blue Meanie in an amateur production of Yellow Submarine. Remember Cruz’s machine-gun bacon? Reporters got their fill of this sort of thing during Cruz’s 2016 campaign. If you were covering the Texas contest, wouldn’t you rather spend your time skateboarding at the Whataburger with O’Rourke than watching Cruz cook pig with a firearm?
The O’Rourke swoon was bolstered by his respectable showings in the polls. As recently as Sept. 21, New York magazine was calling the race “Officially a ‘Toss-up.’” The polls made O’Rourke’s crusade to turn Texas from red to blue, a prospect that has possessed liberal Texans since 1994, when they last elected a Democrat to statewide office, seem less than quixotic. In some ways, the O’Rourke campaign is a replay of Wendy Davis’ failed 2014 run for the Texas governorship, another liberal-against-conservative contest in which the Democrat was buoyed by a flotilla of encouraging East Coast coverage. But today’s Quinnipiac University Poll put O’Rourke down 9 points against Cruz, with Cruz trending up. If the poll holds, Texas will not transmogrify into California this election cycle and the attempt to run a Brooklyn campaign against his Texas opponent will have failed again.
In late August, Texas Monthly took O’Rourke swoonery to its highest altitudes when it started gaming out the political possibilities that await the candidate should he lose this contest in a piece titled “Will Beto O’Rourke Become President?” If O’Rourke loses to Cruz, he’ll be free to politick his way to the bottom half of the Democratic ticket in 2020, and if he’s lucky enough to lose that contest he’ll be perfectly positioned to wrestle the party away from the old and in-the-way Democrats—Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. “Such has been the El Paso congressman’s streak of good press and respectable polls of late that it’s beginning to look like even a loss in his Senate race might not diminish his political momentum,” the article concludes.
When the local press says you can win by losing, how can the national press disagree? By positioning himself as the anti-Trump, both in terms of policy and temperament, O’Rourke dredged a safe harbor for political reporters weary of the combat-fatigue inducing ack-ack of covering Trump. They owed him for providing this relief—and they have paid their debt.
More than Skeletor or a Blue Meanie, I’ve always thought that Cruz most resembled Spiderus from Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends. Which cartoon character do you think he looks like? Send your nominations to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts swoon for liberals. My Twitter feed swoons for conservatives. My RSS feed would rather puke than swoon.