Beto: On second thought, that "Vanity Fair" cover I did announcing my candidacy reinforced perceptions of my privilege

My strong sense from this guy is that he’d quit the race today if he could. He’s not licked yet; a good retail politician with a core of ardent fans remains a threat in Iowa. If he won the caucuses, he’d be in business as a top-tier candidate once again.

But realistically, if Betomania! was going to be a thing nationally, it would be happening already. Watching O’Rourke’s campaign launch had the same sense of mystery as watching an aerospace start-up test a new experimental rocket. Spectacular success and spectacular failure seemed equally possible, with no in-between option. Maybe there really was an ocean of O’Rourke admirers left out there who had watched his Senate bid closely and were prepared to hand him the presidential nomination. Or … maybe there weren’t. Maybe most of the Beto passion was localized in Texas. Maybe there were simply too many other choices on the menu for Beto to be a top pick of Democrats nationally. He had little to commend him except raw charisma, but he had plenty of that and it’s been known to win primaries before. So which would it be, spectacular success or spectacular failure?

It seems like we already have our answer. Since Biden jumped into the race, Beto’s best showing in any poll outside Texas, national or state, is six percent. In the latest polls of New Hampshire and South Carolina, he’s at two percent, essentially tied with Andrew Yang. Thanks to Pete Buttigieg, he’s not even the default option for liberals who think the party needs a white guy to beat Trump but suspects Bernie and Biden are just too old to get elected.

Is it likely that he’s going to grind his way out of the second or third tier with charisma when that charisma wasn’t enough to elevate him in the first place? It is not. Especially with his critics having been so effective at delegitimizing him with attacks aimed at his “privilege.” Meghan McCain recycles some of those attacks in the clip below. Didn’t he regret announcing his run in the pages of a tony, glamorous mag like Vanity Fair? Didn’t he regret the weird Kerouac-ian road trips to “find himself” while his wife was home raising their kids? The point of the “Beto is privileged” arguments, I think, is to make voters who find him dynamic and personally appealing — his core strength — question their own reaction to him. “Do I like Beto because he’s handsome in a Kennedyesque way and engaging? Or do I like him because my mind’s been colonized by the white male power structure so that I find middle-aged rich white men who have an easy rapport with crowds ‘presidential’?” I cringed through this entire clip because, apart from O’Rourke floating a climate change plan recently, it feels like 98 percent of my exposure to him through the media thus far during his campaign has involved him apologizing for who he is or for innocuous things he’s said. He made a dad joke about his wife staying home with the kids while he’s off farting around on the presidential trial and he’s still answering questions about it weeks later. He told Vanity Fair he was “born to be in it,” obviously meaning the fray of a political race, and now he has to explain that he didn’t mean he was born to be president by dint of being white and male.

How does he get out of that hole? No one is so charismatic that they can win a popularity contest while constantly reminding voters that they should feel at least a little bad for supporting him. (Just try to suppress a groan when he says, “I have my work cut out for me to be a better person.”) And it’s transparently obvious that his opponents mean to steer him into that position; as I say, reducing his appeal to “privilege” is a devilishly clever way to drain the life out of his charisma. I think he’d be better off at this point getting politely defensive about it instead: “I take the point about my privilege, it’s a fair criticism, but I wouldn’t apologize for being who I am any more than I’d ask my opponents to apologize for who they are. We’re the big-tent party. That’s how we beat Trump.”

I don’t know if he has it in him, though. Like I say, given how far uphill this climb is and how few credentials he has to move him into contention with Biden and Sanders, I think he’d just as soon declare that the rocket launch failed and that he’ll try it again someday. But too much money has been raised, too many hires have been made, and the race is still too uncertain to fold the tent already. He’s going to have to grit his teeth and prepare for a long slog of nine months to Iowa, with seemingly little prospect of success. It’s not like there’s some other office within his grasp, either: He’d have a harder time knocking off John Cornyn for Senate in Texas than he had with Cruz, and it’s been many years since Texans elected a Democratic governor. His best play is to hang around, try to make himself matter to the race, and hope that his endorsement is worth something to the eventual nominee.