Last week, as O’Rourke dug into his plate of spaghetti, I asked him what he made of Buttigieg. “He comes across to me as a very thoughtful, very smart person. And that’s—that’s definitely my superficial takeaway,” he said. When I asked Buttigieg to talk about O’Rourke, he declined through an aide.
Of course, Buttigieg isn’t the only one in O’Rourke’s way in the scramble to get in the mix with the leading candidates. Among the most obvious others is Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who is also talking up human connections and the need to come together. Booker was in Flint on Wednesday afternoon too, though without any public events—he was meeting with Mayor Karen Weaver and local state Representative Sheldon Neeley (who’s also the head of the black legislative caucus). He walked through the farmers’ market and an arcade with Little Miss Flint. (Booker beat her at Street Fighter; she beat him at Ms. Pac-Man.)
O’Rourke is sensitive to the criticism that he is superficial and his campaign is thin on policy plans. He has released several big proposals—on immigration reform, on a caregiver tax credit, on tackling structural inequity in education. “I talk about a $500 billion permanent education fund and $20 to $25 billion that spins off every year that’s invested in addressing the gap in equity funding for majority-minority schools. Does that connect with you? I don’t know—maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe those are all abstractions and numbers.” He began to trail off. The most succinct explanation I’ve heard O’Rourke give of what he thinks his campaign is about came at the beginning of June, in South Carolina, when he had just a few minutes onstage to make his case at Representative Jim Clyburn’s fish fry. O’Rourke told the crowd he was “making sure that the full story of the United States of America is told to the people of the United States of America—because we know that when everyone’s story is included in our national story, it is only then that we can right the wrongs and set this country on the right path.”