Written by Matt Flegenheimer and Jonathan Martin
Diana Martinez, 70, looked at Beto O’Rourke, 46, and made her choice: It was time for Generation X to fix this country.
“Doesn’t he remind you of Kennedy?” Martinez said as O’Rourke offered firm handshakes and music recommendations to a coffeehouse crowd. “He’s young. That’s what it’s going to take to try and beat Trump.”
Some closer to O’Rourke’s age were less convinced. Standing near the back, Erin Cruz, 41, sized up O’Rourke — and then praised septuagenarian socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“I’m looking for someone to be as progressive as Bernie,” Cruz said, tugging on a Red Hot Chili Peppers shirt.
Actually, she amended, perhaps just Bernie himself.
O’Rourke entered the Democratic primary race this past week with an aspirational pitch and a semi-improvisational tour of Iowa, with a Hawkeyes baseball cap and bilingual profanity on the stump, broadcasting his message of generational uplift and immediately thrusting age into the main currents of the 2020 race.
The contenders leading in initial polls, Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, will be 79 and 78 by Inauguration Day 2021. President Donald Trump will be 74.
Yet as party activists begin to appraise the field, they are already grappling with whether to once again embrace a younger candidate who reflects the future or shrug off age and elevate a veteran politician who most clearly represents their simultaneous craving for undiluted liberalism and someone who can thwart Trump.
If history is a guide, O’Rourke and other Democrats betting on a youthful appeal — like Cory Booker, 49; JuliánCastro, 44; or Pete Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard, both 37 — should have an advantage. Of the last five Democratic presidents, only Lyndon B. Johnson, who ascended to the job because of the assassination of a 46-year-old president, was older than 52 when he was first elected president. The roster of Democratic losers in modern times is littered with nominees who were neither young nor new to the political scene.
But for many in the party, dedication to this critical component of past success — putting forward a new face — is being tested in the 2020 race by twin impulses: the devotion to Sanders among voters many decades younger than him, who share his belief that American society is rife with inequities that will not be solved by candidates like O’Rourke, and an overriding desire among Democrats to defeat a president they believe is a menace to democracy.
Supporters of Sanders believe he offers transformational change — the promise of not merely ousting Trump but also remaking the country into a more just place — and brings experience that would help him survive a general election and expand the electorate.
At the same time, moderates in the party are tempted by Biden, wagering that the political equivalent of comfort food to America may prove the safest recipe.
This combination of a primary electorate that is at once hungry for structural, even radical, reform and deeply nervous about nominating someone too callow to defeat Trump poses perhaps the most serious challenge to a candidate like O’Rourke. He shuns ideological labels, even chafing at “progressive” in the past; often avoids being pinned down on policy; and has no experience in the crucible of presidential politics.
“I know Bernie has a laid-out plan for Medicare and free tuition,” said Austin Palmer, 25, a South Carolinian who went to see Sanders vow political revolution Thursday night in North Charleston. “Beto has made some broad statements so far.”
Palmer invoked the recent scandal involving parents committing bribery to get their children into elite colleges, shaking his head at what he sees as a rotten society that must be razed, not reformed. Yet he also indicated that he was most enthusiastic about Sanders because of the polls he recalls showing that the Democrats’ 2016 runner-up would have defeated Trump.
“I’m really concerned about being able to beat Trump,” he said. “That’s my big worry.”
O’Rourke has ample time to flesh out his agenda — he spoke fondly, if not always specifically, this past week of “bold, progressive ideas” — and he enjoys considerable assets: a history of record-shattering online fundraising, the appeal of celebrity in a country besotted by fame and a grip on the imagination of a party that loves to fall in love after his star-making-if-campaign-losing Senate race in Texas.
But he is facing a 2020 campaign and election that differ considerably from when Democrats last rewarded a generational argument in a presidential race by nominating then-Sen. Barack Obama.
“There’s still a big part of the party that wants to fall in love, and there’s another part of the party that will settle for anything that will beat Trump,” said Sen. Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, at 45 the youngest Democratic senator. “I think that’s a real, daily tension in the party that’s going to play out in real time.”
There could ultimately be a best-of-both-worlds solution — “It just happened that in 2008 and 2012 we fell in love with the most electable candidate,” Murphy recalled — but like many Democrats, he could only guess for now.
“I would generally make the case that the Democratic Party should always be nominating the next-generation candidate,” he said, “except I’m not sure any of the old rules apply.”
The evidence was conflicting at Sanders’ South Carolina rally Thursday.
As unfathomable as it may be to the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, many in attendance made the case for Sanders as much on his electability as his liberal platform.
“I want to support someone who I think really has a chance of winning,” said Brandon Greene, 27, a student and pastor. “We can’t take a gamble on a new candidate.”
And Tasha Horton, 45, a real estate broker with college-age children who “love the Bern,” allowed that her “love is for Kamala but strategically it’s either Bernie or Biden.”
Horton, who went to the same church gymnasium recently to see Sen. Kamala Harris, 54, added: “We have to think that way. You can’t think with your heart.”
Yet even as Greene and Horton, who are both African-American, made the case for Sanders, the bulk of the audience reflected limits in his appeal: In a city where nearly half of the population is black, the rally attendees were overwhelmingly white. As a soloist sang gospel music that doubled as a filibuster for the tardy senator, some in the crowd noodled as if it were a Phish jam rather than an organ-backed hymn about joy coming in the morning.
Many of the voters at the Sanders event said they were open to other candidates; they just wanted to hear “about specifics,” as Greene put it, and be convinced that a younger alternative could prove viable.
Still, as Sanders took the stage and thundered against economic inequality, excoriating the compensation packages of individual health care executives, the contrast between his unsparing indictment and comprehensive agenda and O’Rourke’s frequent generalities could not have been starker.
“I want to do something that very few public figures will do, and I want to tell you exactly what justice means to me and I hope to you,” the senator told his youthful, sign-waving charges.
In Iowa, meanwhile, the newest candidate in the race was casting his political worldview as a kind of high-minded pragmatism, describing bipartisanship as a necessity during his six years in the House minority.
“I made it my mission to ensure that the perfect never becomes the enemy of the good,” O’Rourke said to cheers in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, boasting of a veterans’ health care measure signed into law by Trump.
He frames his events as two-sided conversations, at times prodding voters to say how they might solve the challenges they cite. “Thoughts? Ideas? Suggestions? Advice?” he asked high school students in Fort Madison.
When pressed, by voters and reporters, for more details, O’Rourke has equivocated or vacillated on several policy questions. Asked about health care at the first of eight events Thursday, O’Rourke steered clear of “Medicare for all,” the progressive proposal he once endorsed without apparent reservation, calling more generally for a “guaranteed, high-quality” system instead.
“I think that’s one of the ways to ensure that we get to guaranteed, high-quality health care for every single American,” he said of “Medicare for all” in Washington, Iowa. “I’m no longer sure that that’s the fastest way to get there.”
Asked at another event about reparations, a growing issue in the Democratic race, O’Rourke held forth for four minutes — on John Lewis, Martin Luther King, the arc of systemic racism — without answering the question of where he stood.
But O’Rourke’s lack of detail does not dissuade his most ardent supporters. As with Obama’s, the Texan’s admirers are galvanized by a message that, with leadership that can bring people of good will together across party lines, a better day for the country awaits.
“Trump appeals to the worst of America, candidates like Beto appeal to the best of America,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, 48, a Democratic leader who may become the first Generation X House speaker someday and has not backed anyone in the race.
Across eastern Iowa, O’Rourke encountered many young people excited by his candidacy, arriving in T-shirts from his Senate race or, in one case, a customized “Betomania” button featuring the candidate with a guitar.
“Everything about him is an inspiration,” said Angela Scott, 27, after meeting (and high-fiving) O’Rourke at a sub shop in Burlington, Iowa. “You can’t help but like that man.”
In other moments, though, his audiences included a striking dichotomy: enchanted older voters, convinced that younger voters would flock to O’Rourke and rescue the party from Trump, and younger voters excited by someone else.
As O’Rourke spoke in Mount Pleasant, standing on a cafe counter, a cluster of teenage fans of Sanders watched in the wings, curious about O’Rourke but unmoved by any suggestion that Sanders is not a man for the times.
“That’s ageism,” said Garrick Dodson, a self-described socialist progressive who will turn 18 next month. “I don’t have a problem voting for an old person I agree with more than a young person.”
Dodson and his friends suggested that their elders underestimated the boiling anger of the teen and 20-something generation, aghast at what they see as their forebears’ indifference to climate change and student loan debt.
“Gen Z, baby,” Dodson said.
“Gen Z is coming,” warned a peer, Madison Brady, 18. “We’re so angry.”