August 15th, 2020


The Stronger Sell: The First Beto Or The Second Bobby?

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published March 19, 2019

 The Stronger Sell: The First Beto Or The Second Bobby?

Would you buy a ticket to a concert that had Paul David Hewson, Gordon Sumner and Stefani Germanotta as its headline acts?

Probably not.

But you might be willing to pay top-dollar if you knew them by their stage names: Bono, Sting and Lady Gaga.

Speaking of playing to sold-out arenas, one wonders if the same brand-appeal applies to Beto O'Rourke, the latest entrant in the ever-growing Democratic presidential sweepstakes. Would the former Texas congressman, most famous for nearly upending Sen. Ted Cruz last year, enjoy the same media and political buzz if he went by his birth name?

Maybe that's why Karl Rove, the venerable Republican political strategist, always refers to the man as "Robert Francis O'Rourke".

It might be a turf thing. In this case, that would be a fellow Texan like Rove thinking the theatrical, El Paso-born O'Rourke – he rides a skateboard (already a source of mockery), speaks with exaggerated hand gestures (as President Trumphas duly noted) – is "all hat, not cattle" as they say in the Lone Star State.

Or maybe Rove, who made it to the White House in part because "Dubya" sounded a lot folksier than "George Walker Bush," knows the potency of one-name wonders – and thus doesn't want to play along with "Betomania."

A funny thing about candidate O'Rourke: he's not the first Robert Francis to seek the presidency. Or maybe you didn't know that Bobby Kennedy came into the world as Robert Francis Kennedy. It's not a coincidence: O'Rourke's step-grandfather was Navy Secretary of the Navy during the "Camelot" years.

To me, this raises an interesting question: if O'Rourke wants to win the Democratic nomination, does he have better shot of doing so by running as the first Beto or the second Bobby?

The advantage of running as Beto: besides voters arguing over the origin of the name and its pronunciation (Beet-O or Bet-O?), it gives the candidate a first-name familiarity few of his rivals enjoy. There's no confusing who Bernie and Kamala are. Beto joins this more abbreviated list. Besides, it looks good on a laptop or bumper panel.

A second advantage: O'Rourke can market "Beto" as not only a name but a style – as we've already seen, Vanity Fair chic. That is, unless I'm missing something and every Democratic who's running is posing for Annie Leibovitz. O'Rourke is Gen-X cool. He's casual (button-down shirts and jeans). And it's a reminder of another Democrat with style swerve: Barack Obama.

Add to all of this: O'Rourke has a Trump-like cockiness that glosses over the reality that, with only a stint in local government and an unremarkable stay in the House of Representatives, he's not all that qualified to sit in the Oval Office.

O'Rourke's rationale for his candidacy: "Man, I'm just born to be in it, and I want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment."

But what if O'Rourke decided that doing everything he "humanly can do" to become the 46th president included moving in on the sacred turf of the Kennedys – i.e., running not as Beto but Bobby O'Rourke, the heir to Bobby Kennedy and his liberal promise?

O'Rourke could start by echoing words from RFK's candidacy announcement, which was 51 years ago today (just so long as he doesn't plagiarize RFK's words, as did Joe Biden back in the day):

That would include the announcement's first full paragraph: "I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I'm obliged to do all that I can."

As well as RFK's closing words: "I do not lightly dismiss the dangers and the difficulties of challenging an incumbent President. But these are not ordinary times and this is not an ordinary election. At stake is not simply the leadership of our party and even our country. It is our right to moral leadership of this planet."

Bobby, the sequel, would have to figure how to navigate past 2020 versions of Eugene McCarthy (Bernie Sanders?) and Hubert Humphrey (Biden?).

Bobby, the sequel, would have to do his best to tap into nostalgia for a previous Democratic president, while trying to emerge from that famous man's long shadow (Obama in 2020 a wee bit like John F. Kennedy in 1968).

Bobby, the sequel, could run a campaign based on inclusive populism, as did Bobby Kennedy back in 1968.

And Bobby, the sequel, might be looking at an unsettled national convention in Milwaukee, where he'd have to figure how to wrest the nomination from a more established rival (a scenario facing RFK had he made it to Chicago).

Then again, purely imitating the original Bobby would mean adding a toughness on crime and values and work ethic to the sequel's message. And that might not fly in a party that the two Kennedy brothers might not recognize.

Better, then, to leave the original alone.

And stick to being the original Beto.