When Beto O’Rourke takes the stage on the campaign trail, it’s to his favorite song, “Clampdown,” by The Clash, whose dark intro builds to the line What are we gonna do now?
Many Americans are angry, frightened, and frustrated these days. Yet the Democratic presidential campaign remains largely a procession of speeches and photo ops. Tonight, in O’Rourke’s home state of Texas, 10 candidates will appear on the debate stage and again smack one another with heavily rehearsed answers, as if there’s much relevant or revelatory to be found in this performance art.
Much of O’Rourke’s presidential campaign can seem like a rolling existential crisis, playing itself out via livestreams and the journal entries he posts on Medium. Now, O’Rourke says, he’s actually had an existential crisis—and he thinks the rest of the country should be having one too. For O’Rourke and his aides, his campaign can be divided into two phases: before the August 3 mass shooting that targeted Latino immigrants in his hometown of El Paso, and after. In the days that followed the violence, he told me in a recent interview, he was in such a dark place that he wondered how to go on, and even whether he should.
O’Rourke says the shooting has given him a new kind of mission. But his challenge now is jamming his epiphany into the presidential race: explaining how El Paso changed him and why voters should care enough about that change to give him a second look, while sticking to his promise to campaign in forgotten parts of the country without insulting the picky and provincial residents in early-voting states. In the process, he needs to move the polls that have had him solidly in the low single digits since his initial post-campaign-launch burst in March. In a national CNN poll released yesterday, he crept up to 5 percent, but he’s still far behind the leading candidates in the race.