Analysis: Beto O’Rourke and the biggest no-experience-required job in America

It’s a funny way to hire someone, isn’t it?

The same week we buried one of the Americans most qualified, on paper, to be the president, Democrats were speculating about the electoral attractiveness of an American whose resume is comparatively anemic.

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Not that it really matters, historically speaking.

Exhibit A is the late George Herbert Walker Bush. Successful in business. Member of Congress who finished second — twice — in runs for the U.S. Senate from Texas. U.S. Ambassador to China. Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Loser in a presidential run who became vice president.

That is a formidable set of experiences for a nation shopping for a chief executive. He took over the Oval Office, after all of that, in 1989.

Exhibit B has a couple of things in common with him. Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke is also the son of an elected official. He also started a successful business. He was a three-term member of Congress who gave up that seat for an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate. Like Bush, he wasn’t a big player in the U.S. House. Unlike Bush, he doesn’t have the markers on his resume that point to some kind of expertise in running a country.

The unusual case, though, is Exhibit A. Run the list in your head. Donald Trump never held elective office. Barack Obama served in the Illinois and U.S. Senates before moving to the White House. George W. Bush was a governor — the same qualification for the job that Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had. Richard Nixon was a former U.S. representative, senator and vice president. John Kennedy served in the U.S. House and Senate. Dwight Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe in World War II, chief of staff of the Army, and president of Columbia University.

The people who lost to those presidents were, in many cases, just as qualified. Sometimes, more qualified — at least on paper. It didn’t matter: It’s pretty obvious that resumes aren’t the only thing, or even the main thing, that Americans consider when they’re voting.

Or the political parties, when you get down to it. The Republican field of presidential candidates in 2016 included current and former governors, senators, business execs, attorneys and cabinet members. You know who won that one, and you might even have a friend or two who predicted the outcome way back in the beginning; more people claim to have seen Trump coming, though, than actually saw him coming. That group includes a lot of Republican candidates.

Democrats now are in a similar situation to the Republicans last time. The next election, like the last one, will be partly a referendum on the current occupant of the White House, and of his political party. If they follow form, the Democratic contenders will be describing themselves as remedies to what they see as the incumbent’s deficiencies.

And like the Republicans before them, the Democrats in 2020 enter the race without a favorite candidate. Nobody comes into the race on the first day as the one to beat. The list of potential candidates is both incredible and factual: It’s got at least three dozen names on it.

Everybody wants to bust out. The donors want someone to bust out; competition is expensive, and the prospect of backing a loser is unnerving to some of them. Activists want someone to bust out, so long as it’s a candidate from their branch of the party.

Lots of prospects meet some or all of those requirements. That’s why O’Rourke is getting the looks he’s getting: He’s a charismatic candidate with a proven ability to draw crowds and to raise lots of money in small, social network-sized contributions. He’s enough of an ideological cipher to allow Democrats from different factions to believe he might just be one of theirs. He did better in red Texas than any Democratic statewide candidate has done in decades. But he lost his race for U.S. Senate, and there are some grumblings about that, notably from former Chicago Mayor and former U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel.

“If Beto O’Rourke wants to go and run for president, God bless him, he should put his hat in and make his case,” he told MSNBC a couple of weeks ago. “But he lost. You don’t usually promote a loser to the top of party and then take a winner and say, ‘We’re going to cut your knees off.’”

Look back at that list of former presidents for people who lost races on their way up: Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush. It didn’t seem to stop those guys.

To top all of that, O’Rourke and others are part of a potential field without a frontrunner. Each has reason to think they have a chance — as much chance, anyway, as the tenderfoot Republican who jumped into that party’s presidential primaries in 2015.

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