I covered this in my five-hour live diary from Monday night’s CNN town halls (yes, I’m a glutton for punishment), but it deserves its own post because it reveals so, so much about the former South Bend mayor whose campaign has been surprisingly successful in its early days. Watch this exchange with Anderson Cooper from the beginning of Buttigieg’s hour in the spotlight:
The whole thing starts with Anderson Cooper confronting Buttigieg with the fact that his website says absolutely nothing about policy, and asks him—in nicer words—what he actually believes in. After sputtering about his Supreme Court plan (a totally impracticable and also blandly unimaginative idea about a 15-person Court in which five of the justices are somehow chosen by consensus among the other ten), making vague promises about his website that have already been expertly skewered, and claiming to have led the Medicare for All discussion—an insane boast from a man who won’t even say whether he supports it—Buttigieg drops this bomb:
“I also think it’s important that we not drown people in minutiae before we’ve vindicated the values that animate our policies.”
Now, okay, it’s possible to be infuriated at this answer just for the weak O’Rourkeian vacuity of the language. “Vindicated the values that animate our policies” is a series of words that deserves a featured spot in the museum of empty political bullshit. But actually, that’s letting Buttigieg off the hook—despite the surface appearance of inanity, this doesn’t actually mean nothing. It means this:
We should put “values” before policy.
While you digest that, here’s the rest of the quote:
Because as Democrats, this is a habit that we have. We go right to the policy proposals, and we expect people to figure out what our values must be from them. I expect that it will be very easy and clear to tell where I stand on every specific policy challenge of our time but I’m going to take the time to lay that out while also talking about values and everyday impacts rather than competing strictly on the theoretical elegance of the proposals themselves.
Let’s take it piece by piece:
Because as Democrats, this is a habit that we have. We go right to the policy proposals, and we expect people to figure out what our values must be from them.
Sounds good to me! If I’m wondering if a politician values my health, I will look to see if he supports universal healthcare. If I’m wondering if a politician values my financial future, I might look to see if he supports student debt reduction. For education, free public college. You get the point—policies signal values to the voters, not the other way around. Without policy, a politician is asking me to just trust him based on…what? His personality? His charisma? The fact that he speaks 26 languages? Nothing?
I expect that it will be very easy and clear to tell where I stand on every specific policy challenge of our time…
Nah, it’s not clear. I have no idea where you stand on Medicare for All, because you haven’t explicitly said. I mean, I kinda suspect you don’t support it as a broad, immediate policy, and would choose some incremental nonsense instead, but I don’t know. Ditto for almost every other policy, other than that bad Supreme Court plan.
...but I’m going to take the time to lay that out while also talking about values and everyday impacts rather than competing strictly on the theoretical elegance of the proposals themselves.
Okay, you do that. In the meantime, I’ll keep on suspecting that you’re a phony, and gravitate to the politicians who aren’t being cagey about what they actually believe.
Cooper, who did a really nice job in this exchange, then interrupts Buttigieg, and basically asks him how someone can possible compare his substance-free “values” pablum with a candidate like Liz Warren, who earlier in the night stood on the same stage outlining concrete plans for student debt reduction, complete with specific numbers. “It’s like comparing…” Anderson said, trailing off, unable to find the right symbols of nothingness.
Yes, Anderson! Exactly! On one side, I know exactly what Warren is going to attempt on student debt if she gets elected. On the other, I’ve got a smirking nothingburger who wants me to trust the content of his character, or something, and who acts like spewing bland platitudes is a novel political approach, rather than the scourge of the Democratic party for three decades and counting.
Buttigieg’s snarky response to Cooper might be the most unforgivable thing he said all night:
“We’re now in the second week of my campaign being official.”
To hellllll with that. You’re not someone who just decided to run for the highest office in the land without having any political opinions—or at least you’re not supposed to be. You should strive to become president because you have very specific, very policy-based beliefs about which direction the country should move. You’re not here to learn on the fly. Why on earth would anyone possibly want to vote for you if you need a campaign to help you decide what you actually believe?
This was more than just a bad exchange—it was disqualifying. Buttigieg told us he values the superficial over the concrete, distrusts policy, and can’t possibly have the courage of his convictions because, oops, he doesn’t even have convictions. Maybe he’ll learn them along the way, but he can do it without my vote.