This has been a season of discontent for almost all of the Democratic presidential aspirants. Some have dropped out, while others have dropped off the Democratic National Committee’s monthly debate stage — and into obscurity. Even in the campaign’s upper orbit, stars have faltered, faded, or fallen.
In this period of futility and frustration, only one hopeful has demonstrably and dramatically improved his standing. That’s Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. A little-known long shot at the start of this campaign, the 37-year-old small-city mayor is now a formidable figure, a well-funded, hyperarticulate, thoughtful contender who has climbed not just into the top tier but into the lead in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Yes, big challenges remain for Buttigieg, but that hardly makes him unique. What does set him apart is his remarkable ascension as a well-modulated, politically shrewd, relative moderate.
The fact that Buttigieg is gay is a double-edged sword. It has helped with fund-raising, as the gay community has opened its wallet in the hope of boosting a landmark candidacy. But it has just as obviously created an electoral question mark, leaving Democrats who are inclined to like the young mayor wondering if he could carry the Midwestern swing states the party must reclaim to win an Electoral College majority.
But look at what Buttigieg has accomplished so far — and the frustrations that have befallen the others over the same period. The mayor of a city of 101,166 has prospered politically. Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, population 8.4 million, quit the race after generating little but negative interest.
Former vice president Joe Biden remains the national front-runner, but his status has slipped in the early states. His candidacy now depends in no small part on whether he can retain the support of appreciative older African-American voters in South Carolina. Bernie remains Bernie. The senator from Vermont is still in the hunt, but diminished and ultimately unpersuasive to the larger party.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who had briefly wrested front-runner’s status from Biden, has wandered into single-payer quicksand, an escape from which seems to defy her talents. As Warren flounders, Senator Kamala Harris of California foundered. A candidacy too dependent on biography and gimmickry clearly wasn’t clicking. On Tuesday, she quit the race.
Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey has also failed to connect. His problem, Peter Beinart argues persuasively in The Atlantic, is that he wasn’t willing to contrast his pragmatic center-left politics with more adamant leftists Sanders and Warren until too late. And so Buttigieg has eclipsed him among Democrats looking for a pragmatic antidote to the ideological warriors, and for a generational alternative to Biden.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has tried to fill that lane as well, but she hasn’t shown Buttigieg’s skill in coolly and consistently underscoring dynamic-defining differences with the lefties.
To be sure, Buttigieg hasn’t yet been the focus of a concerted take-down attack from his rivals. Or from the party’s increasingly strident lefty legionnaires — though Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has weighed in to charge that by not endorsing tuition-free college-for-all, Buttigieg is adopting a “Republican talking point.”
That tedious critique lacks power. Still, look for more to come. Buttigieg, like any candidate who claims the catbird seat, will face his own tests and trials.
His biggest problem, however, is the question Electoral College-fixated Democrats regularly ask each other, even while wincing at the prospect of importing others’ prejudices: Can middle America be persuaded to vote for a gay candidate?
It’s too early to answer that question definitively. My (perhaps hopeful) theory: The fact that Buttigieg served a tour in Afghanistan and, though not a combat veteran, was at times out in the field carrying an assault rifle, should help erode some latent biases.
A second problem is his failure to connect thus far with African-American voters, who play a limited role in Iowa and New Hampshire, but will be hugely important in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday.
That’s a very real primary season challenge for Buttigieg.
And yet, in the general election, one could easily imagine a Buttigieg-Susan Rice ticket as a dynamic and complementary team that would have considerable draw across both generations and races.