Sometimes politicians act in ways that reflect badly on their judgment and character and dishonor the cause they seek to advance.
Such was Robert Francis O’Rourke’s stunt on May 25, the day after 19 students and two teachers were killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. About 15 minutes into a news conference by state and local officials to update the press on the investigation into the shooting, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate strode into the high-school auditorium, slipped into a seat near the front that had been held by a supporter, and waited for his close-up.
When Gov. Greg Abbott finished his briefing and turned to other leaders for comments, Mr. O’Rourke stood up, walked to center stage, and confronted the governor, pointing his finger and saying, “You are doing nothing.” While Mr. Abbott sat grimly, not making eye contact, others on the stage angrily denounced Mr. O’Rourke. As officers escorted him out of the hall, he turned to wag his finger at the governor and grandly declare, “This is on you.” He then held an impromptu press scrum in the parking lot.
Back inside, Mr. Abbott appealed for unity: “There are family members whose hearts are broken. There’s no words that anybody shouting can come up here and do anything to heal these broken hearts.”
At roughly the same moment, Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign blasted an email to supporters saying that he’d phoned his wife as soon as he heard of the attack and that his kids “seem to expect” school shootings like this latest one. Mr. O’Rourke wrote that “our broken hearts are with Uvalde,” thanked first responders, then blamed the shooting on the governor, declaring “these massacres” were “direct consequences of the choices made by Greg Abbott” and the Texas Legislature and were “totally predictable.”
By May 28, Mr. O’Rourke was using the mass shooting as the subject of fundraising emails asking for a $3 campaign contribution to “keep standing up, keep organizing, and keep fighting.” More such email appeals followed on May 29, May 31, June 1 and June 2, each using the tragedy to prospect for new donors and solicit campaign funds.
Politicians often try taking advantage of events to further their ambitions, but prospecting for new campaign contributors—just $3!—off the massacre of children was shallow and classless even by Mr. O’Rourke’s low standards. And to say the shooting was “totally predictable” is obviously false. If it were foreseeable, why didn’t Mr. O’Rourke call 911 before it happened?
“If we want to finally save lives,” one email declared in a revealing aside, “we have to win political power.” Political power is what Mr. O’Rourke craves, and he’ll twist himself into a pretzel to get it. Recall that during the September 2019 Democratic presidential debate in Houston he declared, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” The line was obviously preplanned, for by the time the debate ended, his campaign was selling T-shirts online bearing the slogan.
Mr. O’Rourke calculated that gun confiscation was a winning issue when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. His campaign flamed out. But he depicted his stance as a profile in courage: “I know saying that is the right thing to do, and the consequences, be they what they may.”
But he decided “the right thing to do” when seeking the presidency in 2019 was the wrong thing when running for governor of Texas in 2022. Lagging in the polls, Mr. O’Rourke told reporters in conservative East Texas in February that he wasn’t “interested in taking anything from anyone.” Instead, he said, “what I want to make sure we do is defend the Second Amendment.” After Uvalde, he’s flipped back to his earlier gun-grabbing opinion. His perspective on the Second Amendment is apparently tied to his political ambitions of the moment.
Opportunism in politics is unattractive but not unusual. What’s uncommon is attempting to rescue your flailing campaign by turning an official event into a political circus and then using the death of innocents to prospect for $3 donations.
Contrast Mr. O’Rourke’s sordid activities with the patient, behind-the-scenes work of Sens. John Cornyn (R., Texas) and Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) and a bipartisan group of colleagues to see if in these days of grief, they can find common ground on sensible steps to confront gun violence. Let’s hope they succeed.
In this era, it’s hard to make politics look any worse. But Robert Francis O’Rourke has managed to do so. For those who’ve followed his vainglorious, vacuous procession through the nation’s politics, that’s no surprise.