‘It’s a bit much’: Beto drags out his 2020 tease at South by Southwest
The Texas Democrat confirmed more than a week ago that he’d made his decision on a potential run for president. He just won’t say what it is.
By DAVID SIDERS
AUSTIN, Texas — Beto O’Rourke took his 2020 campaign tease to South by Southwest on Saturday — and even by this city’s eccentric standards, the act was getting weird.
With a thick crowd waiting in front of Austin’s Paramount Theatre, O’Rourke slipped into the premiere of his own documentary through an alley in the back. He waited for the lights to dim before joining the audience. And 10 days after declaring that he and his wife, Amy, had decided “how we can best serve our country,” he once again refused to discuss his 2020 plans.
“I want to make sure I do it the right way and I tell everyone at the same time, so I’ll be doing that,” he told reporters when asked by POLITICO about the delay. “I’ve got to be on the timeline that works for my family and for the country.”
What is unusual is not that O’Rourke hasn’t said yet if he is running — Joe Biden hasn’t, either. It’s that O’Rourke, unlike any other potential presidential candidate, confirmed more than a week ago that he made his decision. He just won’t say what it is.
Instead, the politician who sowed his entire persona on a thread of authenticity — crisscrossing Texas while eschewing pollsters and political consultants in his Senate run last year — is now manufacturing suspense.
“It’s a bit much,” said one Democratic strategist who has spoken with O’Rourke about working on the 2020 campaign. “The question is, does he have a secret sauce that no one knows about — that no reporter, no operative, no strategist understands? Or is this just the ‘Beto Show.’ And if this is just the ‘Beto Show,’ there’s a breaking point between strategy and narcissism.”
Even on Saturday, while O’Rourke was watching “Running with Beto,” the documentary chronicling his closer-than-expected Texas Senate run last year, his campaign sent supporters an email instructing them to share their phone numbers and email addresses “to be one of the first to hear the announcement” about any campaign.
Mingling in the crowd, O’Rourke’s family members said they still don’t know what O’Rourke plans to do.
O’Rourke has privately discussed using Austin, among other cities, as a headquarters for his presidential campaign. The city is easier to fly into and is closer to East Coast media and political centers than his hometown of El Paso, which is one time zone and more than 500 miles to the west. And with the South by Southwest music, technology and film festival underway, the city this weekend was playing host to thousands of young, internet-connected progressives that Democratic presidential candidates covet.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg were all in town, appearing on stages across the city. So was Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks chief executive mulling a run as an independent.
O’Rourke is widely expected to announce his campaign soon. And if he is running, there are some practical reasons to delay.
“The benign explanation is he wants to have his ducks in a row, and running for president is hard and requires an immense amount of planning and he doesn’t want to do it willy nilly and make mistakes right out of the gate the way a lot of candidates do,” said Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way, who worked on the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Wesley Clark. “And if that’s the case, then good for him.”
But waiting does not come without risk, including the possibility that the euphoria surrounding his Senate campaign may subside. Numerous Democratic activists, donors and high-profile politicians from across the country have complained privately that their calls to O’Rourke’s advisers still go unreturned.
“In Iowa, there’s a bunch of elected officials and county chairs and party chairs and activists and donors and staff that you would be talking to,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats. “And I still don’t know anybody that he’s talked to in state.”
Bagniewski added, “I think there was a really good window after the 2018 election where people were craving star power” but that with other Democratic contenders campaigning, “now they’re seeing there are legitimate stars in the Democratic field right now.”
Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic strategist based in New York, called O’Rourke’s demurrals “good media theater.” But he said, “It’s lousy politics … Your supporters are going to dissipate.”
In Austin on Saturday, there were few signs of O’Rourke’s star dimming. Appearing in a liberal oasis in this heavily Republican state, the former congressman was met by supporters wearing old “Beto for Senate” T-shirts. And with nearly a year before the Iowa caucuses, it is possible O’Rourke’s dithering will soon be forgotten by an electorate that is not yet following every machination of the 2020 campaign.
Inside the theater, viewers saw an intimate, overwhelmingly favorable portrayal of the candidate. And when the prospect of a 2020 run was raised in the documentary, the audience cheered.
Yet there was one potentially foretelling moment of frustration, too. At one point in the film, O’Rourke is seen admonishing an aide, “You’ve got to keep us on a better schedule.”