Calling Pete Buttigieg a serious White House contender is like saying the Boston Red Sox are out of World Series contention because they currently have the worst record in the majors. It’s early April. Get a grip, people.
Just as it’s a long road to October, the 2020 campaign is also just getting started. We’re still two months from the first Democratic debate. That’s not to say that Buttigieg, (that’s BOOT-edge-edge, and you’re welcome), the mayor of South Bend, Ind., isn’t turning heads and garnering major financial support. In January, when he launched his exploratory committee, few outside of the small city he’s run since 2011 had ever heard of him. Now he has raised $7 million in 2019’s first quarter, has bumped up in the polls, and is garnering the kind of rapturous coverage his better-known rivals are struggling to muster.
“Could Pete Buttigieg become the first millennial president?” asked a Washington Post Magazine headline. “Conservatives better stop cheering and better start fearing Mayor Pete Buttigieg,” warned the Daily Beast. Even Vogue couldn’t resist: “Who is Pete Buttigeig, the gay millennial mayor the Democrats didn’t see coming?”
Yes, Vogue misspelled his surname, but he’s probably accustomed to that. His good humor around his difficult name has only buoyed his image. That’s Buttigieg’s appeal — a nice young man who hails from a state closer to the middle of the country than those nasty bookending coasts with their radical ideas and elitist disdain for real God-fearing Americans.
It’s a kind of curated nice-white-guy blandness that some are finding desirable, especially with an increasingly unstable president in the White House.
Buttigieg understands this. During a swing through San Francisco last month, he said, “I feel sometimes like I’m an emissary from the middle of the country just pointing out that things look a little bit different in rural communities, industrial communities like mine, and that we really need to find ways to knit this picture back together into one America.”
It’s clear who Buttigieg is speaking about in those rural communities. Buttigieg may call himself a “progressive Democrat,” yet he wants to appeal to red-state white conservatives who are both Trump-weary and convinced that they’re losing traction in a world moving too fast — and getting too brown — for their tastes. He’s looking toward anyone suspicious of progressives and their attempts to move the party to the left, where it belongs.
In a Washington Post interview, Buttigieg wasn’t above reviving disproved ideas about the road President Trump used to get to the White House. He “got elected because, in his twisted way, he pointed out the huge troubles in our economy and our democracy.” He added, “At least he didn’t go around saying that America was already great, like Hillary did.” That Clinton swipe was a bonus for candidate-shopping Trump voters.
“Economic anxiety” didn’t get Trump elected, and Buttigieg knows it. Racism and Trump’s villification of immigrants and Muslims did. It was code for mounting fears around the dismantling of the white supremacy on which this nation was founded. But for Buttigieg, that inconvenient truth isn’t a winning message for the voters he seeks, even as hate crimes have spiked since Trump’s campaign and election.
With Buttigieg, there’s something for everyone. At 37, he’s the youngest candidate in the field. He’s a Harvard graduate and a Rhodes scholar, a Christian, and an Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan. He’s social media savvy. He looks like Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman’s better looking cousin, and projects a similar “What, me worry?” temperament. Oh, and he’s an openly gay man with a schoolteacher husband. Refreshingly, his sexual orientation hasn’t become an issue. Yet.
This ticks the diversity box and elevates him from being “just another white male candidate,” although that sets the bar rather low. At this point, Buttigieg is running more on cult of personality than policy proposals. It certainly says something about this perilous political moment that a man who runs a city of about 102,000 people is called a viable candidate to be one of the most powerful people in the world. Then again, that’s still more experience than Trump had.
Eventually, Buttigieg will need to do more than make nervous white people comfortable. By the time the Red Sox shake off their post-World Series doldrums, we’ll see if Buttigieg is still touted as a serious contender after his enticing new-candidate smell wears off.