CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Beto O’Rourke is getting a crash course in the meat grinder that is presidential politics.
Over the opening 48 hours of his trip here — his first of the campaign and first ever to the state — O’Rourke is running into all the trappings of the heightened scrutiny that comes with a hotly anticipated White House bid: a massive press corps waiting around every corner, political opponents ready to pounce on any missteps and generally a much harsher spotlight than he was under last year in his U.S. Senate race.
O’Rourke woke up Friday to a pair of stories digging into his past connections to Republican donors. Then later that morning came an investigation from Reuters revealing he had belonged to a major hacker group as a teenager. As part of the group, O’Rourke wrote online essays under a pseudonym, including short fiction from a killer’s point of view.
Emerging from a campaign stop Friday afternoon in Washington, Iowa, O’Rourke encountered a scrum of reporters and offered a mea culpa about his involvement with the group. Asked if he was surprised it would come up in a presidential run, O’Rourke said he was not — and seemed to offer an acknowledgment of the new political terrain he has entered.
“I don’t know that I’m gonna be surprised about anything, you know?” he said.
For the most part, O’Rourke took the new level of scrutiny in stride, repeatedly taking questions from reporters as he entered and exited campaign events, even as aides tried to hurry him on. And on Friday night, O’Rourke responded with contrition to an early point of criticism in the way he had been introducing himself to Iowans – specifically a joke he had been making about his wife Amy raising their kids in El Paso, “sometimes with my help.”
It was a line that O’Rourke used in the Senate race without incident but one that drew almost instant indignation from some in the context of a Democratic primary intently concerned with race and gender.
“It’s absolutely valid criticism, and it’s constructive criticism,” O’Rourke said Friday night while recording a podcast in Cedar Rapids. “It has already made me a better candidate. Not only will I not say that, but I will be much more thoughtful going forward with the way that I talk about our marriage.”
It was not the first time on the Iowa trip that O’Rourke addressed in some form his privilege as a white man, another thing that barely scratched the surface while he ran for Senate. In remarks to reporters and voters, O’Rourke has repeatedly acknowledged since touching down in Iowa that he has enjoyed advantages in life that women and people of color have not — and that he needs to be cognizant of it.
On Friday, O’Rourke also grappled with the sky-high expectations that have accompanied his White House bid, particularly when it comes to fundraising. He shattered records in the Senate race, and his presidential campaign revved to life Thursday morning in hopes of replicating the same success nationally, sending out multiple emails to supporters hyping the potential for a blockbuster haul in the first 24 hours. But long after the one-day mark passed, O’Rourke had yet to offer any numbers as he navigated the media gauntlet.
“I can’t right now,” O’Rourke told reporters Friday afternoon in Washington.
You could, a reporter pointed out.
“You’re right,” O’Rourke said before clarifying somewhat playfully. “I choose not to.”
There were moments where O’Rourke flashed signs of frustration with the newfound magnifying glass on him. It was evident when O’Rourke left a morning stop in Mount Pleasant, where a reporter asked him about a vague answer he gave Thursday night on whether he supports reparations for slavery.
“If you weren’t there, I’m sure there is video for it,” O’Rourke told the reporter, who then raised the fact that O’Rourke’s campaign has not been telling all reporters about all his stops in advance. O’Rourke replied before getting into his car: “You’re here. The press is here. I’ve been pretty open. I’ve been pretty available.”
The reparations answer, which came at a house party in Muscatine, featured O’Rourke doing what he does best: delivering sweeping rhetoric about a persistent social issue — in this case, systemic racism. But he never seemed to arrive at an actual stance on reparations beyond agreeing on the need for conversation about them, and it fueled the criticism that he is wobbly on the issues.
O’Rourke has nonetheless been well-received on the three-day Iowa swing, which ends Saturday night, and few voters he encountered seemed to be desperate for a granular policy discussion.
“Some of us political nerds who are constantly following these things like to get deeper into the weeds,” said Jeff Fager, chairman of the Henry County Democratic Party in Mount Pleasant. However, Fager added, “most folks are moved by the exciting rhetoric, the general philosophy and less interested in details of policy and procedure.”
That does not mean voters have been uninterested in learning more about the general political positioning of O’Rourke, who declines to place himself on a spectrum or even embrace the term used by many others in the 2020 field: progressive. In Mount Pleasant, an audience member asked him how he can be a progressive Democrat when his congressional record suggests he is prone to collaborating with Republicans — and O’Rourke doubled down on bipartisanship, touting his work with the other party on issues like veterans health care.
O’Rourke also got a question in Mount Pleasant about whether he is a capitalist or socialist — and showed with his response that he may be listening to critics on his left. Rather than just declare himself a capitalist and express confidence in the system — as he had done recently in response to similar questions — O’Rourke added that despite his support for capitalism, “it is clearly an imperfect, unjust, unfair and racist capitalist economy.”
“So you asked the socialist-capitalist question,” O’Rourke said in conclusion. “I’m a capitalist, but I think there’s a lot more that we have to do to make sure that this capitalism is just.”
Despite O’Rourke’s new and improved answer, it did not thrill the questioner, Garrick Dodson, who fit the profile of the kind of voter O’Rourke sought in 2018 and will likely pursue in 2020: a 17-year-old high school student who plans to vote for the first time in the 2020 presidential election.
“I want a candidate that’s going to say: ‘I’m a socialist. I’m a progressive,'” Dodson said. “I think the era of the neoliberal corporatist Democrat is over, and I think Beto O’Rourke has a little bit of that in him, and I don’t like that.” As for O’Rourke’s pledges to prioritize progressive priorities like universal health care and fighting climate change, Dodson added: “It’s not that wild of a claim to make because everyone running in the Democratic Party supports those two things, so why am I voting for him over someone like Bernie, who I know is consistent and more progressive?”
Of course, Iowans pride themselves in their role vetting presidential candidates before any other state, and O’Rourke got a taste of that more than once Friday, including later at a house party in Fairfield. Called on for a question, a man in the front row told O’Rourke that he “took the bait” on the capitalist-socialist question in Mount Pleasant and handled it well but probably should not “even go there” in the future. Meanwhile, O’Rourke’s comments in Mount Pleasant on the New Zealand mosque attacks “sounded really presidential, ” the man said.
The candidate nodded and listened.