Politics & Policy

The Embarrassing Spectacle of Betomania

Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke greets supporters at the “Turn out for Texas Rally with Willie & Beto” event in Austin, Texas, September 29, 2018. (Erich Schlegel/Reuters)
It’s enough to drive even the most mild-mannered Texan crazy.

Attention, journalists of America: Time is running out! You have under three weeks left to publish your last batch of over-the-top pre-election puff pieces on Texas Democrat/cross-country liberal sensation/wing-and-a-prayer Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke!

It is here that we must face the difficult truth: Barring a GOP-related disaster of some sort, O’Rourke — he of that ineffable “cool factor” and “special sauce,” at least according to easily impressed columnists at the Washington Post — is likely to lose big. According to the latest polls, Senator Ted Cruz leads him by anywhere between seven and nine points. Tuesday’s debate between the two, meanwhile, was so mismatched that O’Rourke’s best moment might have involved a random deer-in-the-headlights story in which he described how he “got to meet this blind squirrel who is slowly regaining its sight.”

In summary, this year’s Betomania — a somewhat weird phenomenon, as we’ll explore in a bit — seems set to disappear from view just as quickly as it arrived, at least in the Lone Star State. On one hand, this possibility warms my heart, given that in my neck of Texas, it has grown rather exasperating to have to wade through 15,000 blaring BETO yard signs when I’m simply trying to get a breakfast taco or four. On the other hand, I also feel a tinge of melancholy and regret about all of this, given that I never got my act together enough to print ironic t-shirts with the following brilliant slogan I made up all by myself: “You BETO vote for Ted Cruz.”

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. I’d like to further discuss the debate between O’Rourke and Ted Cruz, and also actual policy issues, and also perhaps the fact that many people in politics seem to be slowly going insane. But first, can we talk about how embarrassing Betomania is? Friends, I am deeply concerned for our culture. When you look at a middle-aged establishment politician as an icon of “rock star” cool, you’re doing something wrong.

“Skateboarding Beto O’Rourke Shreds Whataburger Parking Lot,” read an actual recent headline on the website of the Dallas Morning News. This all sounds really rad and sick and gnarly and whatever until you actually watch the video, which features O’Rourke gently coasting around the parking lot, soccer-dad style, looking precariously close to biting the dust when he gives a bystander a high five. Don’t get mad: I’m not judging! I would do exactly the same thing, except I’d probably actually fall! But no wide-eyed journalist would write a headline claiming that I “shredded” anything, nor credulously act like I belonged on the cover of Thrasher magazine.

Of the countless head-scratching elements of the O’Rourke phenomenon, one wins handily as the head-scratchingest of all: A troubling percentage of the Betomaniacs I have met in Texas moved here after fleeing places ruined by Beto’s favored policies. These locales are often expensive, increasingly dysfunctional, wildly overregulated, sometimes mystifyingly poop-ridden despite being wildly overregulated (here’s looking at you, San Francisco!), and inevitably run by Democrats. Why does no one seem to make this connection? I don’t know! One hero in Austin has taken to posting stickers around town featuring an image of a giant locust, paired with the following text: “I MIGRATED TO A THRIVING TEXAS FROM A LEFTIST [NIGHTMARE] AND NOW I’M VOTING FOR BETO FOR SENATE.” (The posters feature a word much worse than “nightmare,” which I’m not reprinting because I run a PG-13 column here.)

“But Heather,” you might be thinking. “Surely you must have seen the countless articles in national publications describing how annoying Ted Cruz is and how Beto O’Rourke is going to lead our generation in rising up above the terrible cynicism that dominates modern politics, acting as a bridge uniting and respecting the diverse voices of Texans as long as you join in lockstep support for things like abortion on demand, higher taxes, and a list of leftist hobbyhorses that drive out-of-state donors wild!”

Why yes, thanks, I have read those articles. I laugh every time!

I used to think that O’Rourke didn’t even really want to win — if he did, after all, wouldn’t he at least pretend to be even a teensy bit more moderate? — but Tuesday’s debate disabused me of that notion. Judging by the slightly panicked facial expression that emerged from time to time, he really does want to win. (As an aside, I don’t know which jokester at the TV station made O’Rourke stand in front of an image of multiple oil rigs relentlessly pumping while Cruz pummeled him for supporting a massive gas tax, but sir or madam, here’s to you.)

Alas, now that times have gotten tough, after months of nice-guy “rise above the fray” narratives, Mean Beto has finally emerged. On Tuesday, he whipped out Trump’s old “Lyin’ Ted” nickname for Cruz, and his campaign has launched a series of attack ads claiming Cruz is engaged in “selling paranoia and fear.” Well, politics is politics. Meanwhile, thanks to the enduring power of Betomania, even a loss this fall might be a win for O’Rourke.

“Beto O’Rourke Matters Even If He Loses,” a headline at Bloomberg recently declared. O’Rourke “defies gravity,” argued The Ringer. Comparisons to Barack Obama flow freely, and the presidential speculation grows. “Will Beto O’Rourke Become President?” asked a column at Texas Monthly back in August. “It might help if he loses to Ted Cruz.”

Stay tuned, America. We live in interesting times. Anything can happen! And Betomaniacs, if O’Rourke does indeed lose, don’t fret: He’ll undoubtedly be back and BETO than ever! Okay, okay, I’ll stop. I’m sorry. I blame the unending sea of yard signs. They could probably crack the best of us.

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