Heart and Head on the Democratic Campaign Trail

Michael Brendan Dougherty

Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg at first glance might seem to appeal to the same type of voter. A congressman and a mayor — younger, energetic men who aren’t longtime political insiders. But it has been interesting to watch them embody their distinctive personas.

Beto is the socially conscious, big-hearted former punk-rocker. He wants to lead with emotion. He’s willing to test the patience of the squares in order to find his breakthrough. Mayor Pete is the apex predator meritocrat, a veteran and a management consultant who took a mayoral position — which, however small, requires real executive decision-making. Winning skeptics over means being sensitive to all the stakeholders and striking savvy deals. One man aims for the heart, the other for our head.

We’ve seen these two approaches play out over the last week on the issue of gun control, after Beto announced to the world, “Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15,” on the debate stage. In the days that followed, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Buttigieg whether O’Rourke was “playing into the hands of Republicans.” Presumably a simple question asking him to distinguish his own views from O’Rourke’s was too jejune; everything is really about Republican political traps. In any case, Buttigieg responded that “yes,” Beto was. Buttigieg continued as if he were closing the sale at the end of a presentation between his old consulting firm and a new corporate client. This was a “golden moment,” he said, one in which the Republicans are “open to reforms.” So let’s work with the Republicans and “get these things done.” Most Americans “come to an agreement” or “have an agreement” — but when you’re trying to get the corporate fountain pens wet, and you’re a McKinsey man, you announce that you “have agreement.”

O’Rourke, in an interview on MSNBC, chose to lead with emotion. Asked about the squeamishness of some Democrats when it came to his “Hell yes” rhetoric, Beto responded flatly: “I think what’s truly awful is a 17-month-old baby shot in the face with an AR-15, as happened in Odessa.” In light of such a horror, he went on to say, “I refuse to accept that, and I refuse to even acknowledge the politics, or the polling, or the fear of the NRA that has purchased the complicity and silence of members of Congress and this weak response to a real tragedy in America.” O’Rourke is all in. He denounced triangulating and polling and focus-group testing. He would respond to Buttigieg more in a tweet: “Let’s have the courage to say what we believe and fight for it.” Yeah, stop being such a [expletive] suit, Pete!

If you wanted to look at these two men as answers to the challenges Democrats face in the Donald Trump era, O’Rourke’s is that Democrats need to be passionate about what they believe, just as Trumpers were. And they have to call out the other party in stark, urgent, emotive terms. To lead public opinion for the future and create space for real change, you have to take the risks of defying it in the present. Buttigieg’s answer is that Democrats have to get real, do their homework, and be bloody-minded about what is truly achievable. Republicans aren’t getting everything they want, either.

You can see the same division represented between these two men on other issues. On climate change, Beto O’Rourke is hitting the panic button so hard that it risks sending people into resignation. “We’ve got ten years left within which to confront climate change, otherwise it is all over for all of us,” he said. Does he mean all humans or all carbon-based life forms? Sheesh. He just smashed the guitar.

Meanwhile, Buttigieg tries to sell people on boosting research-and-development budgets, including research on carbon storage. One gets the sense that even the most trivial problems Buttigieg faces can be budgeted for and get “buy in” from all the stakeholders at home; Mayor Pete has a slide deck for that.

And I suspect the flatlining of O’Rourke’s campaign and the more successful foray by Mayor Pete reflects the fact that Mayor Pete’s constituency is disproportionately made up of the kind of people who tune into the elections early and often: upwardly mobile, high-earning values-voting progressives. He gets good media attention and great fundraising. It’s also probably a sign that at least some Democrats were paying attention to how Nancy Pelosi built a new Democratic House majority in 2018. It wasn’t by vowing to confiscate guns.

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