Pete Buttigieg Is a Political Star. You Just Don’t Know It Yet.

Politics Features Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg Is a Political Star. You Just Don’t Know It Yet.

Buttigieg (orig. Maltese) is pronounced “Boot-edge-edge,” as Democratic presidential longshot Mayor Pete Buttigieg himself wrote on a Medium blog two years ago. His husband Chasten added on Twitter, “Buddha-judge,” “Boot-a-judge,” or “Boo-tuh-judge.” Before long, it may be important to know how to say his name.

Buttigieg, 37—son of a Maltese immigrant and multi-generational Hoosier—is a Harvard grad, Rhodes scholar, and Afghanistan War vet from Indiana who is married to a man. In 2011, at age 29 he took 74% of the vote in the mayoral election of South Bend, IN—pop. 102,245—making him the youngest-ever mayor of a town of more than 100,000 people. He’s held the job ever since, with the exception of a 2014 hiatus to serve a tour in Afghanistan as a lieutenant intelligence officer in the Navy reserve. Buttigieg speaks speaks Spanish, Italian, Maltese, Arabic, Dari, and French, and after reading the novel “Naïve. Super” by Erlend Loe taught himself Norwegian so he could translate more of the author’s work—then attended a Norwegian church in nearby Chicago to stay in practice.

The clean-shaven, outspoken liberal is also a guitarist and concert pianist who has sat in with the South Bend Symphony as well as Ben Folds. He and his husband, Chasten, have two rescue dogs, including a one-eyed mutt named Truman with his own Instagram account. A member, as is this author, of the Oregon Trail generation, Buttigieg will, if elected in 2020, become the youngest and first openly gay president in U.S. history.

To be sure, given Buttigieg’s youth (and, sadly, perhaps also his sexual orientation) he is—at least from this vantage—perhaps the longest of long shots. But he has a lot going for him, not least of which is his demonstrated appeal to conservatives in his home rust-belt state. He trades heavily on this, and smartly so: It sets him apart from many pack leaders, and when you combine that appeal with his unique identity as an openly gay man it might even convince you that what we now see as impossible—a semblance of cross-party unity in the middle of a pool poisoned by the right-wing’s bad-faith identitarian politics—isn’t a lost cause.

Thanks in part to a breakout performance at a CNN Town Hall, during which longtime Obama strategist David Axelrod tweeted Buttigieg was “crisp, thoughtful and relatable” and would be “a little less of a longshot tomorrow,” the candidate took in more than $600,000 from more than 22,200 donors within 24 hours of that event. His letter of support to the South Bend Muslim community in the wake of the Christchurch white nationalist terrorist attack—which went viral—Buttigieg has seen his profile and polls rise over the last week, ticking up to 3% in the most recent Emerson Poll. Major media outlets have published profiles of and interviews with him, most recently including the Washington Post and Esquire.

In certain ways—youth, style, and tone—he calls to mind on-screen media darlings like Barack Obama and Beto O’Rourke. Buttigieg speaks in paragraphs, an authoritative, professorial style that—I know full-well this sounds fawning, but I mean it earnestly—often borders on the poetic, even and especially when discussing policy details. And like Obama—but unlike O’Rourke—Buttigieg has an uncommon talent for maintaining an off-the-cuff, from-the-heart tone when he’s actually repeating the same sophisticated and well-tested talking points almost verbatim. Further, “Mayor Pete”—as his South Bend constituents call him to save time and frustration—disciplines his demonstrable passion with a commitment to inclusive rhetoric, from which he never really departs (with reasonable exceptions for extremes such as Donald Trump and white nationalism). In today’s political culture, that’s a remarkable feat, and—as reflected in BuzzFeed News’ on-the-ground reporting from O’Rourke appearances in Iowa—it offers voters a reprisal from the daily toxicity that for many Americans who aren’t absorbed with politics (or don’t simply have the time for it) supersedes the policy wonkery that the self-appointed left-wing literati place above all.

Speaking of…

On the issues

Buttigieg has two Achilles heels: youth and extraordinarily limited political experience. But for Beto skeptics nonetheless moved by the oratory and aspirations towards a semblance of unity, Mayor Pete also checks the policy and substance boxes. He’s worth a good-faith hearing out.

In fact, the bona fide intellectual—Buttigieg wrote his Harvard thesis on the influence of puritanism in U.S. foreign policy as portrayed in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” and as a Rhodes scholar earned a first-class honors degree in politics, economics, and philosophy from Oxford University—can hang with any candidate in the field. Buttigieg won’t pass the progressive purity test—he’s accurately said the term has “lost its meaning”—but he makes his liberal politics clear.

Medicare for All: In his words, “Yes.” But unlike others in the field Buttigieg is also quick—and smart—to add that “any politician who allows that phrase escape their lips ought to have some accountability for how we’re going to get there.” Buttigieg’s plan to get there? “A pathway I would call ‘Medicare for All Who Want It.’ The idea is you make some flavor of Medicare for All available on the exchanges as a kind of public option, let people buy in, and if people like me are right—that this is not only going to be more widespread coverage but also better and more cost-effective—that there will be a very natural pathway toward single-payer.” In other words, phase out private insurance—exactly what Bernie Sanders’ M4A legislation proposes. (Also worth noting: Every Western nation progressives cite as a model for “socialized medicine” includes, at the least, a private option.)

Adding seats to the Supreme Court. Yes. But only “if it’s part of a structure that depoliticizes the Supreme Court.” Buttigieg’s plan to reform the “nakedly political” nature of our highest court resembles the Federal Reserve Board structure: A Court of 15 Justices, five selected by Democrats, five by Republicans, and the other five chosen by the Justices themselves.

The electoral college. “It’s gotta go. We need a national popular vote. It would be reassuring from the perspective of believing that we’re a democracy. But I also think it would be highly encouraging of voter participation on the national level.

Reparations for slavery. Depending how you define it, kind of a “no.” In his words: “I haven’t seen a proposal for cash transfer that people would be able to come together around and view as fair. But I absolutely believe we need to have some sort of accounting for the persistent racial inequities today, that are there by design because of past and present racism. That means our policies and our policy interventions from everything from criminal justice to housing need to be designed so they’re targeting those areas in our economy and our society with racial inequities driven largely by slavery—but again: not just something out of the past, but something reinforced by present racial attitudes, where those are most persistent.”

The Green New Deal. “It’s the concept that we have a national emergency commensurate with a depression or a war… in rising to meet that challenge, there’s a ton of economic opportunity… Also, the Green New Deal today is a set of goals, not a fully articulated plan. Which is fine… But fundamentally I think it’s a sound framework, and it creates the right sense of urgency in that we can kind of luxuriate in a debate over what the right gear might be to do carbon targets, but scientifically the right time to do it was yesterday.”

Socialism vs. Capitalism. Buttigieg sidesteps this false choice: Like Elizabeth Warren, he believes in capitalism “as long as there’s a strong rule of law around it.” He’s said that “the biggest problem with capitalism is the way it has become intertwined with power… the growth of business is eroding our democracy. Capitalism without democracy is Russia.” Buttigieg is conscious of his youth in this regard, and points out “we’re dealing with a whole [older] generation that was really shaped by a Cold War environment where socialism was treated as the same thing as communism. And the opposite of that was democracy and capitalism. So to be for socialism was to be for communism and against democracy and capitalism. Now you see how these things are really shaking loose from each other in a lot of ways. They’ve become unbundled. The big question is what you prioritize, and I prioritize democracy. People are trying to make sense of the distance between socialism in Canada, say, and Denmark versus Venezuela. And the answer is democracy.”

“Economic anxiety” and the rise of white nationalism. This is perhaps where Buttigieg is at his most eloquent, turning a venomously and now murderously divisive issue into an opportunity for growth. The Post’s Greg Sargent tweeted of his interview with Buttigieg that “he talks about race and the economy in a way that gets beyond the tedious ‘LOL but economic anxiety’ versus ‘not everyone in Trump country is racist’ debate.” In his recent Morning Joe interview, Buttigieg connected white nationalism to the rise of AI and automation to national service, the military, marriage, and career-hopping in 90 seconds.

In that Post interview he said, “I don’t want this to slide into the idea that some of these racist behaviors can be excused because they can be connected to economic issues. But I do think it’s easier to fall into these forms of extremism when you don’t know where your place is… There’s this very basic human desire for belonging that historically has often been supplied by the workplace. It’s been based on the presumption of a lifelong relationship with a single employer. This isn’t just a blue-collar phenomenon. We’ve come to be pretty reliant on the way that your workplace explains who you are. That’s breaking down. That doesn’t have to be a soul-crushing thing, provided that there are alternate sources for community, identity, and purpose. In South Bend, we focus a lot on enlisting people in the project of the city itself… The sense of belonging can be very powerful, and we’re very fragile without it. It’s not accidental that some areas that have seen the most disruption in our social and economic life are those that are most likely to produce a lot of domestic extremists.”

The Middle East. A two-state solution. “When you actually go to the Middle East,” the Navy intelligence officer told Esquire, “you come away with more questions than answers. On one hand, [you really marvel] at the achievements that have taken place in Israeli society. And on the other hand, seeing the extent to which no one can explain how you can have a democracy and a Jewish state at the same time unless there’s a two-state solution.”

National security and the War on Terror. Though Buttigieg’s views here might rankle isolationists on the left, this is also his strongest suit, rhetorically. Superficially trim and clean-shaven—and openly gay—he tends to surprise conservative interlocutors who try to pin him on gun rights and national security policy only to remember he served real time in the military. He believes all Democrats should pledge not to go into war without congressional authorization. In his words: “I guess the way I’d put it is that anything we do should be, one, grounded in core American interests. Two, vetted against American values. And three, consulted on with American allies whenever we responsibly can do that. Another way to put it simply is the bar ought to be higher… I think we had to act after 9/11 and so the authorization for use of military force in Afghanistan made sense, to a point. I think the open-ended commitment did not. Obviously I believe the Iraq War was a colossal mistake and I’m very concerned now to saber-rattling around Venezuela.”

Buttigieg has also pointed out that kids turning eighteen today were born after 9/11, the casus belli for the War on Terror and subsequent controversial and absurdly outdated AUMF. As for acknowledging Obama’s imperialistic abuse of the AUMF, he says, “I don’t know that there’s much to be gained in relitigating that. It’s certainly the case that Obama did many things that just followed from the approach of presidents before…I don’t know if you ever want to tie your hands completely. But I think we’ve all learned the cost of Congress abdicating its responsibility. Probably the single biggest thing in foreign policy and security the next president has to do is clarify what the standard will be for the commitment of U.S. troops. It’s frighteningly vague right now.”

Higher education. “College is supposed to be the gateway to the middle class for a lot of Americans,” Buttigieg says. “It’s almost become a marker of whatever class you already come from, when you look at the disparities of who can get in and who completes college and who could afford it.” Buttigieg supports expanding the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, allowing college grads to exchange public service for government loan forgiveness. This would, he says, introduce “a social norm that anybody would put in a year after high school with some kind of service. We would fuse those with a with a major break on college costs, tuition or debt.”

Immigration. Buttigieg is staunchly pro-immigrant. He wants to roll back Trump’s policies and raise immigration caps across the board, but he also manages somehow to embrace possibilities for reconciling that position with the right wing’s obsessive and baseless xenophobia: “You might have followed this widely publicized case involving a small-business owner from Granger, the next community over, very conservative. This guy was an important part of the community, undocumented, went in for an annual ICE visit and didn’t come back out.

“The fiercely protective response came mostly from white members of the community who were conservative and largely voted for Trump, but did not view what he was talking about as going against somebody like Roberto, who they loved.

“Yes, you have a lot of people in my part of the country who feel we’re spending too many resources on immigrants, even though that’s inaccurate and immigration subsidizes us. But it doesn’t necessarily apply to people you actually know and meet and see.”

On his youth and the prospect of generational change. One of his Achilles heels. When asked on Morning Joe, “You have 30 seconds to introduce yourself, what’s the message of your campaign?” Buttigieg replied, “the reality is: When you take one look at me, my face is my message. A lot of this is simply the idea that we need generational change, that we need more voices stepping up from a generation that has so much at stake in the decisions that are being made right now… And look, let’s be very clear: You’ll see older candidates voting for younger candidates, younger candidates voting for older candidates. And that’s fine—that’s good.” He observed that when he first ran for mayor at age 29 he could only afford to do one attribute poll, which he said found “the older the voter was, the more likely they were to say me being 29 was a positive.” He says his age was actually a strategic motivator behind his decision to run: “It’s why I often talk about how the world is going to look in 2054, when I get to the current age of the current president. It’s to remind us that this isn’t just about one election. This is about an era. The decisions that are being made in our politics right now will decide how the next 20, 30 or 40 years will go.”

LGBT issues. He married a dude. But obviously that’s not an explanation in itself. Members of the LGBT community have expressed a desire for Buttigieg to be more comfortable advocating for their issues—which are clearly near his heart—but the same people also understand the political complexity he faces as a gay man, and because he hasn’t exactly been silent on the issue—here’s an interview in Out Magazine in which he explains why he believes America is ready for a gay president—many in that community trust he’ll deliver.

And Buttigieg does indeed find himself in a tricky spot, and so far he’s placed his other demographic definers above this one in his rhetoric. In one way, ignoring the elephant in the room is a subversive message itself: This shouldn’t matter today; many other identity disparities are more politically significant, components such as generational, class, and racial divides. (This, for better or worse, echoes Obama’s cautious approach to discussing race.)

Truth is, Buttitgieg sexual orientation probably won’t matter much to most Americans. Still, it seems he’s feeling it out: Continue on the subversive high-road for a while and in the near term risk upsetting LGBT Americans who want him to more publicly own his identity and use his platform to advocate for them; or speak up forcefully now, call attention to his identity, and risk kick-starting what will unfortunately but inevitably be ugly, ugly backlash from the right. If he hangs in the race, he won’t be able to ignore it forever—the only question is when he turns that corner.

Which brings us to what might be the best way to frame the Buttigieg doctrine: Unite at all costs. Obviously this could break either way. In his Esquire interview, when asked, “Is there anything that is considered right now a progressive idea and that the Democrats are associated with that you wish the Democrats would ditch?” Buttigieg replied, “I think a lot of it is tonal. You just gotta make sure that even as we demonstrate we can fight those in power right now—stand up to them and reject everything that’s wrong and correct everything that’s false—but we don’t have to be a*****es about it.”

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