Editor’s Note: David Axelrod, a CNN commentator, was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Beto O’Rourke is driving the political class nuts.
At a time when many might feel the former Texas congressman should be cloistered with aides, planning his much-anticipated presidential candidacy, he instead has been wandering around the Southwest on an unannounced one-man listening tour, filing dispatches from the road.
The first of these essays – published to his “Beto blog” on Medium – raised particular bewilderment among the salons and scribes of Washington. “Have been stuck lately. In and out of a funk,” O’Rourke wrote, on January 16, two weeks after leaving Congress.
“Maybe if I get moving, on the road, meet people, learn about what’s going on where they live, have some adventure, go where I don’t know and I’m not known, it’ll clear my head, reset, I’ll think new thoughts, break out of the loops I’ve been stuck in.”
Funk? Loops? Aspiring presidents aren’t supposed to acknowledge such human frailties. No one wants a funk-ridden or loopy president!
As someone who has been around this process for a while, I had my own doubts. But then it struck me that the breezy, confessional nature of O’Rourke’s writing, and his searching, respectful observations of people he has met along the way, reflect the qualities that led him to the brink of an upset victory last fall in his epic race with Senator Ted Cruz.
O’Rourke’s campaign was a steady stream of unscripted social media posts in which he freely shared his thoughts and encounters as he barnstormed Texas. Their sheer openness and authenticity, and the dignity he afforded everyone he met, won him a national following, particularly among the young. It is what placed the three-term congressman in the unlikely position of losing his way into the 2020 picture.
So why would we have expected this unconventional politician to ponder a campaign for president in a conventional way? This is his exploratory phase – these conversations with everyday Americans, whose stories he has faithfully and fluently shared.
His solo road trip has bought him some time and space for deliberation. But O’Rourke, who was an English major at Columbia, also has a keen sense of narrative, and it is clear this trip was meant to establish one. Now, as his miles and word counts mount, they are beginning to add up to a powerful predicate for a presidential candidacy, should he decide to launch one.
Here’s how he concluded his latest dispatch Thursday, a day before the shutdown ended in Washington:
“So – at this moment that the government is shutdown for its longest period ever, over a wall, with a President who warns of immigrants coming to get us, with every possible division among us exploited by every unscrupulous politician, with the United States as divided as we can remember – how do we come together? How do we stop seeing each other as outsiders? How do we reconcile our differences? …As the country literally begins to shut down, how can we come together to revive her?
“I know we can do it. I can’t prove it, but I feel it and hear it and see it in the people I meet and talk with. I saw it all over Texas these last two years, I see it every day in El Paso. It’s in Kansas and Oklahoma. Colorado and New Mexico too. It’s not going to be easy to take the decency and kindness we find in our lives and our communities and apply it to our politics; to all the very real challenges we face.”
The unremitting acrimony in Washington, led by a President who provokes and feeds off of it, is dispiriting and exhausting. What O’Rourke is offering in his travelogue is a compelling counter-narrative, rooted in the day-to-day struggles, the kindness, decency and common values of the people he has met.
Beyond a condemnation of Trump’s divisiveness, it is also a tacit critique of the zero-sum game of politics in Washington that Americans revile.
“A big part of it has got to be just listening to one another, learning each other’s stories, thinking ‘whatever affects this person, affects me,’” he wrote. “We’re in this together, like it or not. The alternative is to be in this apart, and that would be hell.”
There is always a risk that O’Rourke goes too far with his Kerouacian musings. His message of reconciliation may not sit well with Democrats infuriated by Trump and his implacable, nativist base in Congress and the country.
Should he run, his every utterance will draw heightened scrutiny from probing critics and opponents who will want to test whether he is a plausible leader worthy of all the hype or simply a modern-day Chance the Gardener, reciting soothing truisms.
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The wayfaring demi-candidate will get a taste of that in early February, when he heads north and submits to onstage questions from Oprah. He is the only politician on the bill at her celebrity-drenched “Supersoul Conversations from Times Square.”
He could also surprise again with his ultimate decision on the race.
Just as his exploration has been unconventional and confounding to traditionalists, it’s entirely possible that O’Rourke will decide to walk away from what almost certainly would be his best and, perhaps, only chance to become president.
But even if he demurs, those who do run could learn something from the peripatetic Texan about shattering old political shibboleths; about the value of genuinely listening, the power of empathy and the need for an authentic, connecting narrative that can help lift our divided country out of the morass we’re in.