A funny thing happened on the way to the Democratic National Committee’s presidential debate stages this June. The young gay guy with a last name no one could pronounce, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, population 101,166, whose penchant for blindingly white shirts with Kennedy-esque rolled up sleeves started showing up in third place behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in polls ranking the long list of better-known contenders vying for the opportunity to oust Donald Trump in 2020.
But why is Buttigieg the popular “it” guy of early presidential politics?
Late night host Trevor Noah and branding/politico Donny Deutsch call Buttigieg the “anti-Trump,” for his decency, war service, intellect and even- keel sensibility.
Deutsch tried to goad Buttigieg into taking an angry swipe at Trump, asserting that is necessary for any Democrat to win the nomination. Buttigieg balked. He knows Trump’s a bully.
“I’m not too worried about it. I’m from Indiana. I’m gay. I can handle bullies. And I’m literally used to incoming rocket fire [in Afghanistan] so I think I’ll be all right,” Buttigieg said, thrilling the applauding West Hollywood crowd in March.
But Buttigieg’s response to Deutsch speaks volumes about his nimble intellect, his tone of storytelling tinged with shade that plant seeds of moral comparisons while explaining why he won’t play Trump’s game, though he can be just as tough.
“My emotions about this president are not what’s going to matter most, Buttigieg tells Deutsch. “I’m not as interested in expressing my anger about him as I am in defeating and ending his presidency. If we want to have a fight over any number of things – from the way I approach service and the way he did. The fact that I was packing my bags for Afghanistan while he was working on Season 7 of Celebrity Apprentice— we can have that fight. If someone wants to raise the question of which one of us has a more traditional attitude on marriage—we can have that fight.
“But at the end of the day, it’s not about him. It’s not about me. It’s about you, the American voter,” Buttigieg continues. “Here’s the thing about this president: he has the ability to take any attention that comes his way – including attacks and criticism – and just kind of devour and grow bigger from it. So we could unintentionally be feeding the beast by competing to see who’s going to be the one to land the biggest punch, the best zinger. And the reality is—if you just step back and think of the mentality that represents, that’s an environment where he’s the one we’re trying to impress.”
Here’s the thing about Buttigieg: he’s a millennial philosopher and economist who’s been thinking about the mission of politics since Harvard. And he’s a devout Christian who wants to reclaim his faith and values from the Republican money-changers and false prophets. In some ways, he’s the next iteration of the old feminist adage “the personal is political.”
“No one has more at stake [in the 2020 elections] than the younger generation coming up,” Buttigieg says, explaining why seeking the presidency at this moment is a personal calling.
Buttigieg is also keenly aware of the burden of hope and high expectations he shoulders as he campaigns during this incredible moment in LGBT history. But the 37- year old Harvard and Oxford graduate, Rhodes scholar, Naval Reserve Intelligence Officer (deployed to Afghanistan who was awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal for his work in counterterrorism) also practices humility in exercising his public service.
Buttigieg’s calm, smart, palpable authenticity and his charm gushing over husband Chasten Glezman have made him a breath of fresh air on the political landscape.
“I do believe I’m not like the others [Democratic presidential contenders],” Buttiegieg told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday March 17. “I belong to a different generation than most of the others. Mine was the generation that was in high school when mass shootings started being the norm. We’re the generation that’s going to be on the business end of the consequences of climate change. We’re also the generation that’s on track to be the first in American history to make less than our parents if nothing is done to change the trajectory of our economy.”
Buttigieg has given considerable thought to how “America needs a narrative” with which people can identify.
“Presidencies like the one we’re living in don’t just happen. People like the person in the White House don’t come within cheating distance of the Oval Office under ordinary circumstances. And that’s why we’ve got to recognize the seriousness of this moment,” Buttigieg said during his recent appearance at The Abbey in West Hollywood.
“What’s happening right now is a symptom, not a cause,” he continued. “It’s a symptom of a deep disorientation in our economy and our democracy. But we also have the great benefit of living in one of those rare moments in American history when the decisions we make will ripple out throughout time….So, let’s get it right.”
Buttigieg, who is still hiring campaign staff and working on his campaign website—PeteforAmerica.com—has been criticized for not laying out specific policy positions for voters to compare with other candidates.
In fact, Buttigieg talks about issues all the time, couched within or providing context for a story that illustrates his message about freedom, security and democracy.
(UPDATE: the campaign just updated their website with an Issues page.)
Here are just some of those issues.
Hope: “If anybody tells you whether they’re not sure if America is capable in these twisted and dark times of delivering or vindicating our hopes, tell them you saw at The Abbey in West Hollywood the top tier presidential candidate on his way to the White House, moments after his husband introduced him.”
Green New Deal is more of a “goal” than a plan. But climate change is real. “We have got to do this. This timetable isn’t being set in Congress. It’s being set by reality. It’s being set by science. And it’s going to hit— those deadlines are going to hit in our climate with or without us so we have to act…. Retro-fitting buildings means a huge amount of jobs for the building trades in this country. I view that as a good thing.” On Fox News Sunday.
Climate change: “I see a family in South Bend right before school started trying to figure out what they’re going to do after they’ve been run out of their house by a catastrophic flood. The time has ended for us to debate whether climate change is happening, but we need to start talking about it happening in our communities, in the heart of America today.”
Experience: Buttigieg was elected South Bend mayor in 2011, the youngest American mayor at 29. “I have more years of government experience under my belt than the president. That’s a low bar, I know that. I’ve also got more years of executive government experience under my belt than the vice president and more military experience than anybody to walk into that office on day one since George H.W. Bush. So I get that I’m the young guy in the conversation, but I would say experience is what qualifies me to have a seat at this table.” CNN Town Hall, March 10.
Military service/War: Buttigieg served about nine months of active-duty service, with six of those months in Afghanistan as a Reserve Navy Intelligence Officer serving in the Afghanistan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC) in Kabul, placing him in “an imminent danger pay area” from late March to mid-September 2014. “We learned what it is to trust one another with our lives,” Buttigieg said in his presidential launch. In his 2019 memoir, “Shortest Way Home,” Buttigieg writes about soldiers killed President Obama announced the drawdown of the war. “I did not believe the Afghanistan War was a mistake,” Buttigieg wrote. “But as I weighed my place in a war most people at home seemed to think was already ending, I couldn’t stop wondering, how do you ask a person to be the last to die for anything?”
Abolish Electoral College: “The Electoral College needs to go, because it’s made our society less and less democratic,” Buttigieg says in the Nation, April 22, as part of a larger democracy agenda that also ends gerrymandering, extends voting rights and amends the Constitution to correct the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. He also wants to structurally reform the Supreme Court to make it less political.
Single payer slides into Medicare for all: “A single-payer environment is probably the right answer in the long term, but I think any politician who throws around phrases like Medicare for all has to explain how we would get there. What you want to do is you take something like Medicare, you put it on the exchanges as a public option, and if people like me are right that that is both good coverage and more cost efficient, then more and more people will buy in and it will be a very natural glide path towards the single-payer environment.” Fox News Sunday March 19
Economy: “The president’s promise is to turn back the clock, that we can somehow just go back to the 1950s. It’s just not true. The economy is changing, the pace of change is accelerating, and what we’ve got to do is master those changes in order to make them work for us.” To Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday.
Christianity: “When I read Scripture, when I go to church, I read about protecting the immigrant, welcoming the stranger, looking out for those who are on the margins of society….When God comes among us – frankly, priests and politicians don’t look too good in that story. He’s spending his time with sex workers. Right? He’s spending his time with those on the margins of society. And the Scripture I read is about lifting people up, not about beating them down. So let’s talk about it. I’m sick of the religious right having a monopoly on political religion in this country. Let’s have a religious left.” At Bar Lubitsch in West Hollywood March 14.
Reaching out to Black voters:
“Part of it is by laying out an agenda of the issues that black voters are asking me about most often: democracy in the way that a lot of voters of color have been excluded or found their voices diminished. Or the issues that are going to be tackled by that democracy—homeownership, entrepreneurship, heath, education, criminal justice reform. But a lot of it is also about a relationship. The black voters who know me best, voters in South Bend, which is a racially diverse city, helped return me to office with an overwhelming majority in the primary and in the general election….I’m hoping to appeal to anyone who is focused on the future—that includes anybody from a blue collar workers in the industrial Midwest to a transgender woman of color, which, by the way, could be the same person.” NBC Today Show.
Demoting the black police chief: Buttigieg says he doesn’t know what’s on the five tapes allegedly of phone conversations inside the South Bend police department that may contain racist comments about former Police Chief Darryl Boykins, who is black. “[T]he reason I don’t know is these tape recordings were made in a way that violated the federal wire tap act. That is a federal law that controls when you can and can’t record people….That’s a law punishable by a term in prison and so I’m not going to violate it, even though I want to know what’s on those tapes like everybody else does.” Buttigieg demoted the chief because he found Boykins “was the subject of a criminal investigation, not from him but the FBI, and it made it very hard for me to trust him as one of my own appointees.” CNN Town Hall, April 22
Buttigieg’s 1,000 home policy: Buttigieg used expedited code enforcement to demolish 1,000 deteriorating houses in 1,000 days, which critics said adversely impacted communities of color. However, Buttigieg says “the number one can complaint we heard, especially from minority and low income home owners in the neighborhood, was what took you so long?” He added: “No policy is perfect and we learned things the hard way on this one.”
Immigration/asylum: Buttigieg supports DACA and a pathway to citizenship, as well as fixing the legal immigration system. On trans women seeking asylum, he says the US should accommodate them “because we are responsible for their safety. And they are coming here because they believe in us, because they believe they are safer here….They are fleeing what we’re fighting. And that means we need to look at them not as a problem to be handled, but as an asset to this nation and part of the fabric of this country. And we should be lucky to be the place that turn to when they’re in that kind of need.” At Bar Lubitsch in West Hollywood March 14
Supports gun control and universal background checks:
Buttigieg is a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns; supports universal background checks, opposes guns for teachers in schools, and opposes “Stand Your Ground” laws. PBS Newshour, Feb 15.
Equality Act: “I know what it means to question whether your job will be viewed differently because of who you are. And it motivates me all the more to make sure that all of us are equal. And I want to fight for anybody who is on the wrong end of discrimination. But as part of a community that’s experienced that directly, it’s something that obviously matters to me a great deal.” Los Angeles Blade, March 14, in West Hollywood
Why should women vote for him? “Let’s pause and talk about the war on women that is underway. And it’s one of many reasons we’ve got to talk more about freedom on our side of the aisle. They talk about freedom like the only thing that could make you un-free is like a tax or a regulation. Like government’s the only thing that can make you un-free. Well, you know what makes you un-free? If you cannot make your own reproductive health decisions because of the intervention of some male boss or politician. Let’s talk about freedom that way.”
Late term abortion: “We’re talking about situations where the life and health of the mother is at risk and/or the child can’t survive….You only get to that late moment if you have been planning to bring a pregnancy to term. These are women facing some of the most unbelievably excruciating decisions and if they don’t think it’s easy, it’s certainly not going to be any easier for government officials like me to come in and tell them what to do….In wrangling with those issues, does anyone really think an extra layer on top of the conscience of the woman facing the choice….that somebody else that comes in with their interpretation and their religion is going to make that decision any better? I just don’t think that’s how we handle these things in America.” Morning Joe, April 18.
No free college tuition: “I think we need an expansion of Pell grants. I think we need the ability to re-finance student debt. I think we need to act on the way when your debt is forgiven with income-based re-payment, the way that that’s taxed – I think we need to press states to step up and cover more college costs so it isn’t falling on the students in the form of tuition. And I think there are a number of other steps that are going to expand access to college.”
Trump’s nicknames: In an interview with Politico, President Trump compared Buttigieg to the goofy-looking, gap-toothed cartoon character in Mad magazine. “Alfred E. Neuman cannot become president of the United States,” Trump said. Buttigieg used the presumed insult to make his own point. “I had to Google that. I guess it’s a generational thing.”