That the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana – population 100,000 – is among a handful of serious contenders for the Democratic nomination this year is testament to both his remarkable political savvy and the strange times we live in.
One would have been hard-pressed a year ago to imagine Pete Buttigieg, with just zero high level government experience, an openly gay veteran of the war in Afghanistan and former McKinsey consultant, leading household names like former Vice President Joe Biden, and Massachusetts and Vermont Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, in the latest polls from first-in-the-nation states Iowa and New Hampshire.
Yet, only weeks from the official start of the primary season, there he is, comfortably in the top-tier, after far more hyped candidates, like California Senator Kamala Harris and New Jersey Senator, and former Newark Mayor, Cory Booker, have either dropped out of the race or are languishing toward the bottom of an unusually deep Democratic field.
“The surface absurdity of this situation – that one of the leading candidates for the job of rescuing a free nation from a corrupt would-be authoritarian is a mayor who has never won more than eleven thousand votes in an election – is generally unacknowledged on the campaign trail these days,” Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote in the New Yorker last December.
In fact, over the past few weeks Buttigieg has attracted increased scrutiny from opponents and media alike – especially more progressive outlets, for example the Intercept, evidently unhappy with his middle-of-the-road policy platform.
Closer examination has unearthed naïve blunders by his campaign staff, like letting a pair of “billionaires” host a high-dollar fundraiser in a “wine cave” or promising prospective donors access to the candidate in exchange for funds – practices that smack of smoke-filled backrooms just when Democratic voters are demanding a cleaner politics.
Buttigieg’s more serious vulnerabilities, especially his inability thus far to rally any real support among African American voters and bungled attempts at surreptitiously fixing the problem, have also been brought into starker focus.
The attacks also represent perhaps the strongest confirmation yet of his status as a serious presidential hopeful, worthy of being met head on, rather than a colorful sideshow to be simply brushed off.
“If any trait has been punished in this contest, it is not moderation at all so much as inauthenticity. The biggest flops have been perceived careerists who seemed to affect left-wingery after years of subtler politics,” Janan Ganesh opined in the Financial Times on December 4th. “Mr Buttigieg means his Emmanuel Macron-ish technocracy. Being of the centre ground is not itself fatal.”
A polyglot Harvard graduate and former Rhodes Scholar whose father, an immigrant from Malta, studied and translated the works of Antonio Gramsci at the Catholic University of Notre Dame, Buttigieg is a surprisingly adroit public speaker that leans toward the intellectual and abstract.
He can deliver a keen analysis of the past forty years – what he dubs the Reagan era after the government skeptic former President – when the political consensus in Washington effectively drove the hollowing out of America’s social safety net and consumer protections to the detriment of the middle class.
In response, Buttigieg offers a recipe of traditional left-of-center policies that, for example, would take gradual steps toward building a public healthcare system over time, sprinkled with bolder institutional reforms, like overhauling the make-up of the Supreme Court and eliminating that awkward voting mechanism called the Electoral College.
Because of his young age and from-left-field rise, he has been compared to Barack Obama, but that is a stretch. As inexperienced as he was at the time of his ascent to the White House, Obama was a full ten years older than Buttigieg and a senator from one of the country’s most populous and economically vital states, Illinois – after having served three terms in the State’s legislature.
This mayor with Midwestern manners is rather more like New Zealand’s 39-year-old Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, or Finland’s 34-year-old Premier Sanna Marin, products of a generation that sees a head of government who breastfeeds her newborn daughter, was raised by same-sex parents or is a married gay man as unremarkable facts of life.
Buttigieg’s non-ideological tones, and belief that reasonable Republicans too would go along with sensible social democratic policies if only we tried, are also reminiscent of Italy’s “sardines” movement, and its call for a more dignified political discourse, away from the extreme partisanship tainting even the most basic legislative debate.
Whether Buttigieg’s conciliatory, wholesome vision of politics carries even a kernel of possibility or is just wishful thinking is hard to say, though given most Republicans’ commitment to less immigration, lower taxes and more conservative federal judges at all costs, one would be inclined to think the latter.
With the Democratic primaries about to begin, “Mayor Pete” has still plenty of time to bomb, if party faithful that may like him in theory shy away from such an unknown quantity when push comes to shove and they are faced with the actual ballot.
But it might be wise to remember that the most improbable candidate of them all, Donald Trump, won the presidency last time around, and that over the past four years, America has become no less erratic and unpredictable.
Amid a less-than-convincing Democratic line-up – regardless of what one may think of them, it is hard to envision a Biden, Warren, Sanders, or Michael Bloomberg, defeating the demagogue-in-chief in November – Buttigieg, who is as far afield from Trump as can be, in demeanor, outlook and ideas, promises a more meaningful, honest and productive politics, and that is nothing short of a breath of fresh air.