The Morning Jolt


Beto Goes On the Road

Beto O’Rourke speaks to supporters at a rally in Austin, Texas, November 4, 2018. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Beto O’Rourke’s journey and mind are wandering, the editors of USA Today offer a qualified endorsement of border-security fencing, and Joe Biden apologizes for his past legislation on crime and drugs.

Beto O’Kerouac

Kamala Harris is announcing her presidential campaign on Good Morning America, Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders are speaking in rallies in South Carolina, Kirsten Gillibrand is visiting coffee shops in Iowa and meanwhile . . . Beto O’Rourke is driving through Kansas and Colorado alone.

He’s on a solo road trip through the Western states — although someone’s taking pictures of him for him at his various stops — laying out his thoughts big and small, including which songs are getting stuck in his head:

Drove through Johnson City west out of Kansas and into Colorado. Up to Animas and over to Pueblo. Beautiful. Big open skies, no traffic, no fog. I listened to the radio until the station would start to fade, try to find another one, or just turn it off and sing to myself, think, or zone out. Then Rich Girl by Hall and Oates would pop in my head – a consequence of the jukebox at the Bar and Grill in Bucklin – and I’d turn the radio on again to see if I could find another song to take its place.

Imagine being a free-agent Democratic campaign staffer and hoping to work for this guy. Everybody else is lining up at the starting line, and your dream candidate picked the worst possible time to go on an Australian Aboriginal Walkabout.

In 2018, O’Rourke enjoyed wildly laudatory national-media coverage, driven in large part by the fact that so many folks in the media loathed his opponent, Senator Ted Cruz. In a Democratic presidential primary, O’Rourke wouldn’t enjoy that advantage, and as I wrote last year, there was plenty of material for a completely different portrait of O’Rourke . . .

a boarding-school-attending son of a judge who escaped serious consequence for a DUI and burglary charges, used gentrification to jump-start his career in El Paso city politics, supported the use of eminent domain to drive out poor residents, and married into the family of his region’s most influential businessmen. In Congress, O’Rourke was largely ignored until his Senate bid; he’s been the primary sponsor for just three bills that became law. One of them renamed a federal building in El Paso.

You think Harris or Sanders or any other top rival would let that slide? Fat chance. Right before the end of 2018, the Sanders team began their first shots across the bow of O’Rourke. Take away the media love from O’Rourke and he’s just another tall former congressman from Texas. Sometimes the next fresh-faced up-and-coming star in the Democratic party decides to run for president and you get Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. But sometimes those stars jump in and you get Howard Dean, John Edwards, Gary Hart, or the 1988 edition of Al Gore.

Maybe O’Rourke wants to amend his previous Lone Star Jesus image to incorporate the themes of the American frontier and the man who wanders the countryside to experience the real life of ordinary people. This is a hugely influential archetype in modern American culture, represented by all kinds of heroes from the old Westerns, Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name,” Easy Rider, Route 66 — or, if your tastes lean towards 1980s television, Michael Landon in Highway to Heaven, Knight Rider and The A-Team. Worst case scenario, you’re constantly on the move like Richard Kimble.

But if O’Rourke really means what he’s saying in these public diary entries, it’s possible that the man has grown to hate the hype and frenzy and pressure of high-stakes campaigning and is quietly wrestling with the fact that he doesn’t really want to run for president. In his most recent entry, he describes a meeting at Pueblo Community College:

At first politely raising hands and asking questions. And then, just speaking, having a conversation and not asking polite questions but sharing experience, suggesting solutions.

This kind of conversation wasn’t really possible by the end of the Senate campaign this past fall. The schedule had become too intense, too much in a day to spend enough time to hear someone’s story all the way through. Too may stops, so many people. I was really glad that we could take the time and hear each other out in Pueblo.

It was cathartic, even somewhat emotional for many of us, for me.

CNN’s senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson wrote a surprisingly tough piece about O’Rourke’s travels, calling it “navel-gazing, self-involved, rollout of a possible rollout of a possible presidential campaign. Oprah Winfrey’s couch is next. This could never, ever be a woman.” She’s got a point — although it’s far from clear that this is such a great way for a man to launch a campaign either. (Mrs. O’Rourke is taking care of their three pre-teen children while Beto, 46, is out trying to get out of his “funk” and “have some adventure.”)

If the knock on O’Rourke in a Democratic presidential primary is that he hasn’t paid his dues — literally, in the case of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — and that he’s more focused on selling himself than the party’s agenda, this is not the way to dispel or refute those accusations. This stream-of-consciousness travel diary is too unflattering to be a contrived campaign stunt. Also notice O’Rourke’s small admissions against interest, like when he relates this anecdote which amounts to an argument against government-run health care systems: “A man who’d immigrated here with his wife from Canada talked about how much better their healthcare was in the U.S. She had serious health issues, and they found a lack of urgency in treating her conditions in Canada and a much better experience here.”

The Editors of USA Today Endorse Border-Security Fencing in ‘Certain Areas’

The editorial board of USA Today offers plenty of “ pox on both your houses” this morning, but that’s actually progress for the Trump administration. The key part of their editorial is their call for a “deal [that] should include more money for immigration enforcement, including physical barriers in certain areas, as well as a path to lasting legal status for approximately 700,000 “Dreamers” who were brought to the USA illegally as children.”

Someday, it is possible that a comprehensive immigration package will be enacted that will combine improved border enforcement, employer verification, guest workers and an arduous path to legality for many of the 11 million people thought to be here illegally. But for now, a deal covering more enforcement money and deportation relief for Dreamers is the deal that is politically plausible.

As early as Tuesday, the Republican-controlled Senate is expected to vote on Trump’s plan to increase spending for personnel, drug detection and immigration courts, plus $5.7 billion for an additional 230 miles of fencing.

While Trump’s plan is a non-starter in the Democratic-controlled House, particularly because it includes permanent barriers but only temporary protection for Dreamers, some creative difference-splitting could bridge the divide.

Temporary protection for Dreamers and non-fence border security now; permanent protection and barrier funding next when the government’s reopen. It could happen — but it would require Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats to move from their position that border fencing is, ispo facto, “an immorality.”

Joe Biden: Hey, Sorry About All that Legislation I Helped Pass in the 1980s

Last week I spotlighted Biden’s past statements boasting of expanding the death penalty and his pride in helping pass the 1984 Crime Control Act, which abolished federal parole, reestablished the death penalty, expanded civil-asset forfeiture, and increased federal penalties for cultivation, possession, or transfer of marijuana. Today’s Democratic party feels quite different about issues of crime and punishment than the one of the 1980s and 1990s.

Yesterday, Biden expressed regret for what had been one of his biggest accomplishments in the Senate.

Biden said he regretted supporting the tough-on-crime drug legislation of the 1980s and 1990s, expressing remorse in particular over a bill that created different legal standards for powdered cocaine and street crack cocaine.

“It was a big mistake that was made,” Mr. Biden said of the measure, which has been criticized as disproportionately affecting black Americans. “We were told by the experts that ‘crack, you never go back,’ that the two were somehow fundamentally different. It’s not. But it’s trapped an entire generation.”

The former senator, who helped write the 1994 crime bill now cited as having led to an era of mass incarceration, went even further, allowing that he “may not have always gotten things right” in regards to criminal justice.

Democratic primary voters might forgive him, but his Democratic rivals might ask whether Biden did enough as vice president to undo the policies he helped enact.

ADDENDUM: The Oscar nominations are out. I’d love to see Black Panther win Best Picture, just to blow up Hollywood’s belief that overwrought, heavy-handed historical dramas are the best possible movies of the year.

It’s a pleasant, odd day when the Kamala Harris article is positively cited by . . . a New York Times columnist — and it’s not Ross Douthat or David Brooks!

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