Randy Naber is really a Joe Biden man, although he could also see himself voting for Kamala Harris. But here was former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, America’s newest presidential candidate, in Naber’s living room, and the retired teacher wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“Beto is one of the candidates I would like to be a choice for the party,” Naber said judiciously. “But I love Biden. Biden’s experienced. Biden has a working class background. But I’m old and I know that we need to look at younger people to be the political leadership.”
Naber was only told on Tuesday that O’Rourke was going to turn up at his comfortable but not expansive house close to the centre of Muscatine, a small Iowa city on the Mississippi River famous, a least within its own borders, as the “pearl button capital of the world”. The local Democratic party needed somewhere to host a meeting with a state senator and an unnamed potential presidential candidate. Naber knew who he wanted. But he got O’Rourke.
Naber invited 30 people. Hours before the gathering, O’Rourke declared his run for president. One of Naber’s friends estimated 125 people were squeezed in to the house, including a sizable press contingent.
O’Rourke was barely in the door on the last stop of his first day of campaigning for president and he was off – bouncing up and down, gesticulating and pointing, as he punched out his messages. Equality. Climate change. The damage that economic deprivation does to democracy. But, above all, the need to work together. He talked about himself in the White House in the plural. Not “me” as president but “us”.
It didn’t always hang together.
One moment he praised American democracy “as the most effective system of government known to man”. A few minutes later he lamented its “capture by corporations and their money”, and voter suppression in his home state of Texas.
A flicker of nationalism shone through even as O’Rourke did not shy from holding America’s failings up to scrutiny. The US can use its status as “the indispensable nation”, he said, to provide global leadership on climate change – a role others have long since taken on without the benefit of American guidance.
O’Rourke eased back on the throttle as he took questions, staring intently at his interlocutors and treading carefully with his answers.
The first questioner wanted to know what O’Rourke thought about the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, “saying that Israel is only for Jewish people”, which “sounded like apartheid”. And what was O’Rourke’s stand on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) – the powerful pro-Israel lobby group criticised by congresswoman Ilhan Omar which sparked accusations of antisemitism against her?
These are not the questions a Democratic candidate for president hopes for.
O’Rourke avoided talking about Aipac altogether, and sidestepped the politically deadly quagmire of what it means for Israel to be a Jewish state. Instead he fell back on the time-tested strategy of lamenting that he had “serious concerns about leadership on both sides” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He pronounced himself in favour of the two-state solution, which seems to live on only as a solution for American politicians looking for a way out of difficult questions about Middle East peace. But at least it was an answer that wasn’t going to get him into trouble with Aipac.
O’Rourke was similarly noncommittal when asked about whether the US should pay reparations to the descendants of slaves. He reflected that the root of the word reparations is repair, and that “to repair this country we first have to confront truth”. He spoke of “systemic racism” in the US and said he “wants to bring a reckoning to this country that has been hundreds of years in the making”.
But the questioner never found out if O’Rourke thinks reparations should be paid.
There was one thorny question he could not sidestep. Asked whether the country really needs another white male presidential candidate, he recognised the problem but suggested he might be the exception.
“I believe that I have some unique things that I bring into this race,” he said.
O’Rourke was, he said, the only candidate from US-Mexico border at time when Donald Trump has put such a focus on it. Before long he was talking about his close run Texas Senate race against Ted Cruz, and “coming together”.
Andrea Pustell, a retired nurse decked out in green ready for St Patrick’s Day, was persuaded. She said the Democrats need to win over moderate swing voters who supported Trump. Bernie Sanders can’t do that, she said, because he’s too confrontational.
“O’Rourke is like a young Biden. We need young people. They’re going to be taking over. I want to see them negotiate and not saying ‘it’s my way or the highway’,” she said.
Pustell also liked his bounce.
“I appreciate the energy,” she said.
Was the host persuaded by O’Rourke?
Naber said he barely heard a word the candidate said. He was stuck outside his own front door by the crowd.