• Ryan O'Connell

Does Pete Buttigieg Have a Shot at the White House?

April 13, 2019

Are Americans ready to elect a gay man as president? Are Democrats prepared to nominate a candidate who has never held statewide or Federal office?

If the answers to these questions are “yes”, then Pete Buttigieg may be a viable candidate, even though he’s a long shot. His campaign seems like a fantasy, until you hear the man speak.

Like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Buttigieg has a natural eloquence and a commanding presence on the stage. He speaks in paragraphs (succinct paragraphs) and has a rich vocabulary; the mayor casually refers to the “tectonic” shifts taking place in our society. (The current occupant of the White House would probably think that Buttigieg is talking about computers.)

However, “Mayor Pete” comes across as down-to-earth and humble, within the context of presidential contenders, not as a condescending intellectual. He is a progressive politician, but a moderate, pragmatic one. Unlike Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, he does not thunder from the podium or rail against the evils of American society. Buttigieg takes a more optimistic approach, like Beto O’Rourke, but he conveys a keener grasp of policy issues than the Texan does.

The mayor also has an impish sense of humor and a gift for well-aimed sound bites. In his war of words with Mike Pence, Buttigieg criticized the V.P., an evangelical Christian, for supporting the “porn star presidency”—an epithet that has stuck. Buttigieg usually takes the high road rather than the low road, but he can also strike for the jugular in self-defense. Trumpistas, take note.

The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a blue enclave in a deep-red state, Buttigieg has compiled an admirable track record of running his city since 2011. He has adopted innovative policies to help revive a town that, like so many, has suffered from the decline of American industry.

However, his political experience has remained limited to the local level; he governs a city of about 100,000. Buttigieg has twice run for broader offices, unsuccessfully. He lost races to be state treasurer in 2010 and the Democratic National Committee chair in 2017.

This raises some questions: Does Buttigieg have, or can he quickly build, the extensive nationwide network needed to run a successful campaign for president? If he were elected, would he have the background to deal with complex national and global issues?

Mayor Pete Buttigieg

An Immigrant Success Story, On Steroids

Still, Buttigieg has an unusual life story that helps him stand out in the crowded Democratic field of presidential candidates. He is an intriguing blend of disparate elements that may appeal to a broad group of voters.

The son of an immigrant from Malta, Buttigieg is a classic American success story, albeit on steroids. Like Clinton and Obama, he is a brilliant intellectual, with a star-studded academic resume: Harvard and Oxford, as a Rhodes scholar. However, he also gained experience in the business world, spending four years at McKinsey & Company, the prestigious management consulting group. Buttigieg is reportedly fluent in eight languages.

Unlike most recent presidents or candidates for the White House, Buttigieg has served in the military. Enlisted in the Naval Reserves, Buttigieg was called up for duty while he was mayor of South Bend. He took a leave of absence and served for seven months in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer.

Buttigieg is openly gay. He won re-election as mayor resoundingly in 2015, taking 80% of the vote, after he decided to come out. Buttigieg is married to a school teacher and he is very comfortable, matter-of-fact, really, in talking about his sexuality and his marriage. The mayor does not hit you over the head with the issue or make strident appeals for gay rights, though he calls for a national law to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

Buttigieg is also deeply religious, which is refreshing in a Democratic candidate and a welcome counterweight to some elements in the party that disdain people of faith. Raised Catholic, he became an Episcopalian. In his ongoing duel with Pence, Buttigieg has shown that he is very comfortable quoting Scripture, as he defends his marriage against attacks from the far right.

Buttigieg’s sexuality could cut both ways for him. Many voters may not yet be ready for a gay president or a First Husband in the White House. Homophobia is still a powerful force in our country, and we should expect Trump (or his surrogates) to hammer away at that theme.

However, younger voters, particularly Democratic ones, may be indifferent, preferring to focus on the candidate’s merits. Buttigieg’s non-confrontational approach on this issue may reduce its significance for some older voters, too. It’s also possible that his campaign may benefit from proud gay supporters, in the same way that Obama’s campaign energized black voters.

Appealing to Moderates

Buttigieg’s youth—he is only 37 years old—and his relatively low-level experience in government may be more difficult obstacles to overcome. Buttigieg addresses both issues head-on, noting that he can communicate easily with his fellow millennials and that he has more government experience than Donald Trump does.

The first point is fair and important. It’s time for the baby boomers to move on and let a younger generation take over in politics. There’s a place for 70-year-old- plus political leaders, but probably not in the White House. Buttigieg, who proudly describes himself as a capitalist, also presents a welcome alternative to Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other “democratic socialists”.

This is particularly important because, as The New York Times reported last week, only about 30% of Democrats consider themselves “progressive”. The press has repeatedly talked about the Democratic Party’s supposed drift to the left, but over 50% of Democrats describe themselves as “moderate” or “conservative”. Lefty Democrats dominate social media, but moderate Democrats are the larger constituency. The Midwestern mayor’s pragmatic views may appeal more to those voters, while Sanders, Warren and Gillibrand try to outflank each other on the left.

Buttigieg is a progressive, but he tends to have more nuanced opinions than some other candidates. He is not afraid to admit he does not have all the answers, too. Case in point: Medicare For All. Bernie Sanders has doubled down on his signature program, refusing to support Nancy Pelosi’s proposals for improving the Affordable Care Act. Buttigieg is also enthusiastic about Medicare for All, but he favors an incremental approach.

Rather than waving a magic wand and abolishing all private insurance companies, Buttigieg would give Americans the option to join Medicare via a public exchange. The mayor believes that eventually our health care industry would move to a single-payer system, because patients would prefer it. However, he is willing to let the system evolve over time, rather than roll the dice and force the issue.

But Is Pete Buttigieg Ready for Prime Time? Buttigieg’s lack of experience on the state and national level is a more serious issue. Buttigieg dismisses this concern by comparing himself to Trump. But that’s a very low bar and hardly reassuring. The proper comparison is with the other Democratic candidates running for president. Many of them have extensive experience running cities, states or large government agencies. Several of them have also learned how Congress and Washington operate, serving as senators or representatives. They know whom to call and to cajole.

Mayor Pete’s answers to questions on the campaign trail show that he has thought deeply about many national and global issues, such as climate change, the war in Afghanistan, and the proper role of tech companies in our society. His answers are generally crisp and decisive. For example, when asked if the U.S. should withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, this veteran said: “It’s time to end endless wars”. Buttigieg has clear positions…but could he manipulate the levers of power in D.C. to implement his ideas?

Running campaigns is expensive, so we have to follow the money in evaluating candidates’ prospects. Buttigieg has done surprisingly well on this front, taking in $7 million in campaign contributions. That’s less than Bernie Sanders ($18 million), Kamala Harris ($12 million) and Beto O’Rourke ($9.4 million). Still, that’s an impressive start and no doubt a source of envy for Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker. The question, of course, is whether that’s a sustainable pace.

Can A Mayor Leapfrog to the White House?

Mayor Pete is an impressive candidate, but let’s do a reality check. I live in New Rochelle, a city of about 80,000 inhabitants. We have a very talented mayor, who has launched several creative initiatives that should improve the city’s downtown and growth prospects. He is a charismatic leader and a compelling public speaker. I expect him to move up the political ladder. But if our mayor suddenly announced that he was running for president, I’d be surprised.

So why hasn’t Buttigieg run for higher office in his home state? After all, Joe Donnelly, a Democrat, represented Buttigieg’s Congressional district until 2012, when he successfully ran for the Senate. Why didn’t Buttigieg challenge Jackie Walorski, the Republican Representative, in 2018?

Mayor Pete probably calculated his odds and decided they were not promising. Indiana has become hostile territory for Democrats. It is stunning to recall that Birch Bayh, a very liberal Senator, represented the state for decades; times have changed. Sen. Joe Donnelly lost his bid for re-election in 2018, after serving only one term. Rep. Jackie Walorski has beaten a series of Democratic challengers by large margins since her election in 2012. She crushed her opponent by 55% to 45% in 2018.

Consequently, Buttigieg may have concluded that he did not have attractive options at the state or federal level. This raises another question: how strong a base of support, does he have in his home state and around the country? A candidate needs more than good ideas and charisma to run a successful campaign. He needs backers, a network.

Pete Buttigieg is a gifted politician, and he may play a role on the national scene. But is it realistic for him to aim for the White House? Or is he really campaigning for a Cabinet-level post? Mayor Pete would be a vast improvement over the mediocrities Trump has assembled.

The Wall Street Democrat

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