Democrats had a good night last Tuesday, flipping dozens of seats to recapture the House of Representatives for the first time in eight years. On the surface, the party looks confident and newly ascendant. It seems to have shaken off the 2016 jitters, which gave liberals around the country a mild form of PTSD.
Yet, underneath the veneer, Democrats are still their usual listless selves. They may seem unified and ready to do battle against President Donald Trump, but the party remains divided about which course to take, how to bring the white working class back into their corner, and which candidate would be their best hope in 2020 to make Trump the first one-term president since 1992.
The Democrats are desperately searching for their own white whale. The clearest sign of that desperation is chatter about Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke as the next great agent of ‘hope and change’. Democratic strategists and campaign veterans have been gushing about O’Rourke’s Senate campaign in the Guardian, the Washington Post, and the New York Times as if the former punk rocker is the party’s savior – a cross between John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, someone charismatic enough to bring the Democratic masses together, yet one is able to steal some of those beleaguered moderate Republican voters in the suburbs. As one strategist intimated to the Hill newspaper this weekend, O’Rourke is Obamaesque, a politician with a hopeful message of a tolerant and progressive America. ‘I had friends calling me to ask about him,’ the strategist recalled. ‘I would overhear conversations about him. He’s generating the kind of buzz we haven’t seen since “hope and change.”’
No doubt O’Rourke pulled off something impressive in Texas last week. Before him, the Texas Democratic Party was uninspiring. No Democrat had won a statewide election since 1994, when Bob Bullock was re-elected Lieutenant Governor. O’Rourke’s star power aided Texas Democrats down the ballot, where two Democratic challengers bested GOP incumbents and 12 seats in the Texas state house turned from red to blue. O’Rourke raised $70 million – the most any Senate candidate has collected in history – and came within three points of Ted Cruz, winning over four million votes. Paul Sadler, the last Democrat to take Cruz on, barely broke three million. The fact O’Rourke made Ted Cruz sweat for months is an achievement in itself.
But the Democrats talking up Beto O’Rourke as their 2020 presidential candidate sound desperate. The party is the middle of a constant fratricidal squabble about which direction Democrats should take and who has the ability to cut the Trump show short. Democrats are always looking for the next Barack Obama, a political force of nature who can unite Democrats far and wide and capture the the nation’s political soul while walking into the White House. But no single figure, however charismatic, can gloss over the party’s profound divisions.
Indeed, if the O’Rourke coverage tells us anything about Democrats in the age of Trump, it’s that they remains captivated by the past and lost in the present. Democrats have yet to adapt to a political world where Obama is no longer the big, bright sun of the political universe. The party would rather turn back the clock to a time before Donald Trump was a presidential candidate, which is why Obama’s pre-midterm speeches had a strange, nostalgic quality.
The Democrats need to change just as quickly as the political atmosphere changes. To win in the age of Trump, Democrats must convince voters in the Midwest that the party is about more than die-hard social activism; that is has something to offer the working class. A rich, handsome Texan is not necessarily the answer. The hype around Beto 2020 suggests that not much has changed, and there is little hope.