- Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is running for president as a self-described pragmatist who wants to bring generational change to Washington.
- The Harvard-educated Navy veteran told INSIDER he’s not ready to get into many policy specifics, but he’s already put forward a few proposals – including expanding the Supreme Court and getting rid of the Electoral College – that are making waves.
- Some Democrats say Buttigieg isn’t ready to run for the nation’s highest office, but others say the bid is a strategic way to build a national profile and turbocharge his promising career.
Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is on the older cusp of the millennial generation.
But almost 20 years ago, he caught on to one millennial trend way before the rest of his cohort.
As a senior in high school, Buttigieg won the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Essay Contest for a piece he wrote praising Bernie Sanders, then a congressional representative. He called the Vermont socialist an “outstanding and inspiring example” of authenticity and idealism in politics.
“Sanders’ positions on many difficult issues are commendable, but his real impact has been as a reaction to the cynical climate which threatens the effectiveness of the democratic system,” Buttigieg wrote.
Fast-forward two decades, and the two men are competing against each other in the Democratic presidential primary.
The difference between Buttigieg and his 77-year-old opponent?
“A somewhat different message and a very different messenger,” Buttigieg said.
Elected mayor of his hometown at 29, Buttigieg has for years drawn national attention as a rising star in the Democratic Party from an unexpected ZIP code. President Barack Obama mentioned him on a shortlist of promising young Democrats in 2016.
Buttigieg told INSIDER in a March phone interview that as the lone millennial voice in the 2020 field, he hopes to reframe the policy debate around values and make pragmatic the new progressive.
“It does seem like we’re at potentially a watershed moment for generational leadership, and new perspectives need to be out there,” he said.
While critics say the bid is doomed, his supporters say “Mayor Pete” has nothing to lose.
Something entirely new?
When Buttigieg’s supporters talk about his candidacy, they inevitably point to his unique identity.
A former Navy Reserve officer who was deployed to Afghanistan, a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar, and an out millennial mayor in a deep-red state, Buttigieg has “a bio that reads like it was written by Aaron Sorkin,” as the MSNBC host Chris Hayes put it. The mayor often says he’s the only 2020 candidate living a “middle-class lifestyle in middle America.”
So Buttigieg (pronounced BOOT-edge-edge) is framing himself as “something completely new.”
But while he might be a Washington outsider, he’s a political insider. He likes to say he has more government experience than the president, more executive experience than the vice president, and more military experience than any president since George H.W. Bush.
He’s hesitant to compare himself to perhaps the most influential millennial in politics, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, but he does think that he and other younger emerging leaders in the Democratic Party similarly “don’t accept some of the orthodoxies that we’ve been fed about what can or can’t be done, and have a really bold disposition,” despite different personal styles. And he said he admired Ocasio-Cortez’s digital-first approach.
I launched a presidential exploratory committee because it is a season for boldness and it is time to focus on the future. Are you ready to walk away from the politics of the past?
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) January 23, 2019
Values over policy
Buttigieg seems more interested in engaging in what he calls a “contest of values” than a policy debate.
He argued that conservatives had co-opted concepts like freedom, security, and democracy, while liberals buried values-based messaging in 14-point plans. So at least for now, he said, his campaign will stay away from policy specifics.
“I think we’ll probably introduce some things people haven’t seen before, but it’s not about having a shiny policy proposal that demonstrates in some way that I’m better or smarter than the others,” he told INSIDER. “I think largely it’s about the willingness to engage in a contest of values that the right has been focused on for decades and that the left kind of ignored so that we could get right to the policies.”
He argued that Democrats had for too long used language that alienates or condescends to voters in red states.
“We often convey our positions and our values in a way that would make it almost psychologically impossible for a conservative person who might be open to what we have to say, for the first time in a long time, to actually get there,” he said.
Buttigieg wants the party to instead reframe discussions around words like freedom, explaining how the government protects freedom by enshrining civil rights, rather than letting conservatives limit freedom to the struggle against big government. He wants to talk about democracy in terms of expanding voting rights, and national security in terms of climate change.
He has taken a more moderate stance than some other 2020 candidates on key issues like healthcare and immigration. He’s calling for a public option – what he calls “Medicare for all who want it” – rather than single-payer healthcare. He’s said he would support some physical barriers on the US-Mexico border. He talks about the national debt at a time when even Republicans rarely bring it up.
But he has a few ideas of his own.
His first priority as president, he said, would be passing a set of “democratic reforms,” including ending gerrymandering and expanding political representation for Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. Most ambitiously, he supports a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College.
And he’s received attention for his proposal to expand the Supreme Court to 15 justices from nine, a concept gaining traction on the left. The plan would allow Republicans and Democrats to each appoint five justices, who would unanimously agree on the remaining five appointees.
Court-packing is “no more a shattering of norms than what’s already been done to get the judiciary to where it is today,” he said last month.
This position has excited some on the left.
“Mayor Pete has taken an important step forward by calling the court out for what it is: a fundamentally partisan institution bent on dismantling the progressive agenda,” Sean McElwee, a progressive pollster and political strategist, told INSIDER. “I look forward to more Democratic presidential candidates willing to openly say what is plain to see.”
Building a national brand
Buttigieg has criticised his party for ignoring the industrial Midwest and deprioritizing local and state races, leading Democrats to lose hundreds of seats during Obama’s eight years.
But now the Midwestern mayor is following the party’s example by jumping into presidential politics.
Some argue that his time would be better spent running for governor of Indiana in 2020.
“There are other things to run for, and I just don’t know if your first real national race ought to be president,” Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist, lobbyist, and former top adviser to House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, told INSIDER.
But Elmendorf added that the campaign could help Buttigieg in a future run for statewide office in Indiana or for Congress, or raise his profile enough to join a presidential cabinet.
“If Gephardt hadn’t run for president in 1988, I don’t think he wouldn’t have been the House majority leader,” Elmendorf said. “I think it took him to a different level.”
Many in Indiana say he has little choice – the state is most likely too conservative for him to win any statewide office.
“Running for governor would probably bore him because I don’t think he’d win, and it would be talking to a whole lot of people who aren’t very receptive to his message,” Christine Barbour, a professor of political science at Indiana University in Bloomington, told INSIDER. “He’s not a Beto O’Rourke – he’s not going to be the kind of guy who enjoys talking to conservatives.”
David Axelrod, a former top Obama adviser who has long been a fan of Buttigieg, appears convinced the mayor is making a smart strategic move.
“The practical political point is it’s hard to see where he’s going in Indiana,” he told The New Yorker last month. “If it doesn’t work out, if there’s a Democratic president looking for talent, I know Pete well enough to know he’s going to be high on the list, and higher for having run.”
Indeed, this wouldn’t be the first time Buttigieg has improved his position through an unsuccessful campaign. He was crushed in a run for Indiana’s treasurer in 2010 and ran an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship in 2017.
“He’s got chutzpah – who runs for statewide office or who runs for DNC chair when he’s held one office in his life?” Robert Dion, a professor of political science at the University of Evansville, told INSIDER. “And yet he did it, and he made a good impression.”
And the mayor’s supporters say he has a real opportunity to influence the national Democratic debate through his campaign. Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist and spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, argued that Buttigieg’s candidacy would put pressure on the eventual nominee to reach a younger generation.
“It forces the candidates to take on these longer-term issues and to fight for millennial voters,” Ferguson told INSIDER.
And he might have some bipartisan appeal. Meghan McCain, a conservative commentator and the daughter of the late Sen. John McCain, described the mayor as “an interesting voice” during his appearance on “The View” earlier this year.
In a recent Morning Consult poll, 62% of respondents said they’d never heard of the mayor. But he broke 1% support in an Iowa poll in March, ahead of candidates like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado.
This Buttigieg town hall is worth watching. Polished and thoughtful presentation with clear answers. Underscores military exp. Of course, it’s a big field and he’s a young Midwestern mayor. But he’s using his time on stage effectively here. This is a focused candidate.
— Robert Costa (@costareports) March 11, 2019
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