by William Saletan
On Sunday night, Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, dropped out of the presidential race. With each passing week, he had lost ground—first in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, third in Nevada, fourth in South Carolina—and he was facing a grim landscape on Super Tuesday. Many people, including some of my friends and colleagues, saw him as arrogant, shallow, bigoted, or bought. He was none of those things. He made the Democratic Party more inclusive, and he showed how progressivism could be more effective.
A year ago, I watched Buttigieg speak to an audience in Ankeny, Iowa. I knew nothing about him. I was a fan of Sen. Kamala Harris, who had announced her presidential campaign two weeks earlier. I liked Harris’ strength and clarity, and I thought it was time to elect a woman to the White House. It seemed crazy that the mayor of South Bend was running for president. But the more I watched him, the more he surprised me.
It wasn’t just that Buttigieg knew way more about the complications of national policy, on one issue after another, than you’d expect from a mayor. It was how he dealt with what he didn’t know. He was sensible, open-minded, and wise. He weighed alternatives and reflected on how to apply lessons and principles. In Ankeny, he grappled with automation, a universal basic income, and a national infrastructure bank. You could see how he would handle incoming challenges. And this, I’ve learned, is one of the most important things to look for in a president. We don’t know what’s coming: a virus, a terror attack, a financial meltdown. A president needs the heart and mind to deal with whatever comes.
Buttigieg’s debate performances—his main avenue to national audiences—rubbed some people the wrong way. I can see why. He came across as scripted and calculating, probably because that’s how he prepared for debates. Sometimes he was just plain awkward, trying to deliver canned lines on a crowded stage. But that’s not how he talks in extended interviews. What gradually drew me toward him, and away from Harris, was how differently they responded when pushed beyond their sound bites. She was defensive. She didn’t seem to have thought through issues. He welcomed the give-and-take.
Many critics on the left saw Buttigieg as a sellout who tugged the Democratic Party to the right. In reality, he did the opposite.
Astonishingly, this minor league mayor raised a boatload of money. A lot of it came from high-dollar fundraisers, and that aroused suspicions. Some of my friends and colleagues bought the argument, made by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, that Buttigieg was a tool of billionaires. It’s one of those arguments that makes you think you’re seeing beneath the surface of politics, but it’s actually shallow. Yes, it’s good to know who’s funding whom. But that’s no substitute for studying what the candidates have done and what they’re proposing. From education to health care to taxes, Buttigieg’s platform, like Sanders’ and Warren’s, was about helping ordinary people, not the rich.
Buttigieg wasn’t as aggressive as Sanders or Warren. He didn’t agree that a state monopoly on basic health insurance should be federally imposed. His alternative, “Medicare for all who want it,” reflected a different approach to governing. He believed that most people, after experiencing public health insurance and comparing it with private plans, would prefer the public option. But he refused to mandate that result. “If progressives like me are right that it’s the best plan, then everybody will choose it,” he reasoned. “But if we’re wrong, and for some people their other plan was better, we’re going to be really glad we didn’t kick them off of it.”
That’s a prudent way to introduce progressive ideas. It allows for the possibility that a program will turn out to be a disappointment or a mistake. It also respects freedom of choice. Buttigieg knows that well-intended policies can fail. And as a gay man from Indiana, he understands that sometimes you have to connect with people who don’t see things your way. In his withdrawal speech on Sunday night, he saluted, as he always does, the “future former Republicans” who supported him. They supported him because at every opportunity, he reached out to them. He spoke for a movement “defined not by who we push away, but by how many we can call to our side.”
Many critics on the left saw Buttigieg as a sellout who tugged the Democratic Party to the right. In reality, he did the opposite. By sending signals of inclusion to moderates and disaffected Republicans, he made us comfortable with a candidate whose ideas were often well to our left. I didn’t agree with him that the filibuster should be abolished or that justices should be added to the Supreme Court. But because those ideas were coming from him, I was willing to listen to them.
He also spoke bluntly about his Christianity. Many secularists don’t appreciate this, but it’s important. Democratic politicians tend to treat religion as an implicit threat. Buttigieg doesn’t. He defends Christianity as a progressive faith, and he attacks Trumpism as a perversion of it. In his remarks on Sunday night, he pointed out that Trump “cloaks in religious language an administration whose actions harm the least among us: the sick and the poor, the outcast and the stranger.”
It’s true that Buttigieg failed to clean out racial bias in South Bend’s police department. He’s hardly alone: This problem has long afflicted cities where other 2020 candidates served as mayors or district attorneys, including New York City; San Francisco; Newark, New Jersey; Minneapolis; and Burlington, Vermont. I wish he had dealt with it more aggressively, and it probably contributed to his poor showing among black voters in South Carolina. But I’m also struck by how frankly he has faced it in the past year. I’ve never seen a white public official show up, absorb rebukes, and answer questions the way Buttigieg did at a South Bend community meeting after the police shooting of a black man. Nor can I remember a white politician reaching out and listening as Buttigieg did with the Root’s Michael Harriot. These conversations are just a start. But they’re a step in the right direction.
Buttigieg was sometimes described as “Mayo Pete,” just another white guy. That label, which completely ignored his sexuality, marks an astounding sea change. Sixteen years ago, same-sex marriage was so unpopular that President George W. Bush used it as a boogeyman in his reelection campaign. The Supreme Court case that made same-sex marriage a constitutional right was decided less than five years ago. Now a presidential candidate who talks about his husband at campaign events has won the Iowa caucuses and nearly won the New Hampshire primary—and he’s shrugged off as a bourgeois centrist. Buttigieg has done what radicalism couldn’t: He has made gay marriage unremarkable.
What undid Buttigieg, in the end, was his youth. He didn’t start with a national network of committed supporters, as Sanders did. He didn’t have a résumé strong enough to close the deal with voters who were intrigued by his success in Iowa. He didn’t have a decadeslong bond with black leaders or black voters, as former Vice President Joe Biden did. If Buttigieg works on those shortcomings, there’s a good chance that someday he’ll be president. And we’ll be lucky to have him.
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