The young American mind is up for grabs.
Despite its flaws, capitalism has made the United States prosperous and innovative, and created opportunities millions of Americans wouldn’t have under another system. But many young Americans don’t see it that way. They think some form of socialism would be better. For the first time in 2018, more 18- to 29-year-olds had a positive view of socialism than had a positive view of capitalism, according to Gallup.
Beto to the rescue? Maybe. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas has now joined the Democratic race for president, providing an intriguing counterweight to old stalwarts like former vice president Joe Biden (presumed to be running), and to left-leaners such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
O’Rourke, 46, served three terms in the House, and is famous for narrowly losing a Texas Senate race last year to Ted Cruz. Despite losing, O’Rourke’s campaign drew small-dollar donations from individuals all over the country, giving him a broad, built-in base of support for a presidential campaign. O’Rourke has sworn off corporate donations—very zeitgeisty—and he’s a social-media addict who live-streamed much of his Senate campaign, including unscripted and unflattering moments. He seems authentic and might actually be authentic.
But he’s not going to tell voters there’s a big government program for everything that ails them, a la Sanders or Warren. O’Rourke is actually an economic centrist who supports free trade and frequently points out how it has benefited his home town of El Paso. As a Texan, he’s a vocal supporter of the oil and gas industry who accepted donations from energy interests before changing his stance on corporate cash. He supports universal health care, but hasn’t signed onto “Medicare for all” or other big programs that would shift most or all care out of the private system and put it under government control.
To be a viable candidate, O’Rourke will have to further define where he stands on key issues, such as taxes. He opposed the Trump tax cut law of 2017—as virtually all Democrats did—but he hasn’t detailed what he’d do differently. He’ll now have to explain what health care plan he does favor, if not Medicare for all, and how he would address global warming while still supporting fossil fuels.
Still, O’Rourke could be a messenger young people want to listen to, because of his social-media acumen and willingness to reveal vulnerability. Young voters showed a surprising affinity for Bernie Sanders in 2016, and it wasn’t because the candidate, then 75, reminded them of their lovable grandpa. It was because Sanders called out the abuses in a system many voters see as rigged in favor of elites. But Sanders turned off moderates with his plans to enact costly new benefits that would require sharply higher taxes and nationalize parts of the private sector.
O’Rourke won’t automatically win over young voters and open-minded moderates. He’ll have to espouse ideas that make sense, address middle-class anxieties and avoid coming across as self-absorbed. He also faces very tough competition that includes the firebrand Warren, the telegenic former prosecutor Harris, and an immediate front-runner in Biden, assuming he enters the race. But with more interesting candidates by the day, the Democratic field increasingly offers something for everybody, and O’Rourke will probably force the other candidates to raise their game.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman