Mayor Pete’s Middle Path
Pete Buttigieg has returned to the scene of the crime, or at least the site of what some progressives see as his original sin. He is back at Stevens High School in Claremont, New Hampshire, on a desultory Saturday in January. The ancient gym walls were bathed in red, white, and blue spotlights last time he was here, for a Fox News Town Hall with Chris Wallace last May. The night was seen by most as an overwhelming success, a breakthrough on the path of a 37-year-old gay mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city becoming a plausible presidential candidate.
The progressive wing of the Democratic Party saw it differently. To them, Buttigieg had not only granted an interview to Hannity Enterprises, but espoused a litany of milquetoast half measures that revealed he was a centrist at best and, according to the more conspiratorially minded, some kind of Republican sleeper agent.
Buttigieg has often said that he is immune to the type of taunts that Donald Trump dishes out. “I grew up gay in Indiana,” he says, suggesting he’s not susceptible to bullying. But Buttigieg admits the slings and arrows from his own party bug him. “It can be more frustrating when it’s folks I’m 80 or 90 percent aligned with,” he told me sitting in the gym’s tiny office.
His sins are voluminous, according to progressives. His work as a junior staffer at McKinsey, a giant consulting firm, was proof he was a corporate American toady, willing to slash jobs for a better bottom line. (It is often said McKinsey was his first real job, but Buttigieg worked before as a conference organizer for the Cohen Group, a D.C. lobbying firm, a fact that does absolutely zero to assuage the left’s fears.)
That Buttigieg has offered the awkwardly named Medicare for All Who Want It, which would allow Americans the choice to keep their private insurance or join a government plan, has outraged Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren zealots who are pushing Medicare for All. Warren famously went after Buttigieg for holding a private fundraiser with high rollers in a Napa Valley wine cave, a policy Warren used during her Senate campaigns. (Buttigieg is one of the few Democratic candidates who is not wealthy.) Even Buttigieg’s push for free or subsidized college for all except the top 10 percent of households has taken flak since Sanders and Warren are arguing that even the rich deserve free tuition.
The left’s vitriol directed at Buttigieg has been impressive or depressing, depending on where you sit. The Onion, mindful of Mayor Pete’s low level of support among blacks, ran a headline reading: “Buttigieg Campaign Appeals to Moderate Republicans by Touting Low Approval Among Black Voters.” Other attacks have bordered on the nutty. A reporter for the socialist Jacobin Magazine dismissed his military service in Afghanistan as a cynical “photo op,” in a tweet she later deleted. When Buttigieg was the last candidate to respond to the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, a Twitterite responded, “He is waiting to hear from his handlers.”
In New Hampshire, Buttigieg’s support tended to be older, and there was a dearth of “youngins” at his rallies. I approached two young women, one turned out to be 32 and the other fled when I asked her name as if I’d caught her in an opium den. I finally corralled another 18-year-old, Devon Mitchell, at Buttigieg’s Manchester appearance. She gave Buttigieg a hug and told him that she was inspired to do better in her own life after hearing him speak. She admitted most of her friends were supporting Warren or Sanders. “For me personally, I feel like we need someone who’s more moderate,” she told me. “Someone who can work together with others and can actually get stuff done.”
At the other side of the actuarial table, the olds love Buttigieg. He is an AARP member’s idea of the perfect young man. Outside of a Keene, New Hampshire, town hall, Jim Hill, a retired cabinetmaker, tells me he’s switched from Sanders to Buttigieg: “I love Bernie, but he had that heart attack and you know the Republicans are just going to hit him over and over on the socialist thing.”
I’d followed Mayor Pete last spring and the changes in his campaign style were small but noticeable. He’s adopted repetitive phrases like “We can’t wait” when taking about the environment and his tone is now less professorial and slightly Clintonian in an “I feel your pain” kind of way.
Buttigieg had strong words for his would-be general-election opponent, striking back at Trump during a town hall after the president had questioned his Christian faith a day earlier: “I’m pretty sure I’ve been a believer longer than he’s been a Republican.”
Later, Buttigieg — after two days in a suit jacket — sat down with me in his original uniform of white shirt and blue tie to talk Trump, faith, his progressive credentials, and foreign policy.
How do you address the Trump religion jibe against you?
First of all, it’s a strange message, and I’m also not sure what he was going for there. We can debate religion anytime. I’ve been clear on my view that this country belongs to people of any religion and no religion…but also that people of faith have a choice right now.
I don’t think he’s speaking certainly the way I would to people of faith.
Yesterday, you were the last candidate who chimed in with your opinion on the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. Did you take extra time to decide what you wanted to say, or was it just the nature of when your event was?
My comments on those decisions are going to be deliberate. There’s a lot of risk of knee-jerk reactions. This killing, itself, may have been a knee-jerk reaction. It’s important to me that we’re being thoughtful about where we’re headed, especially if it’s something as volatile as war and peace in the Middle East.
It seems the evidence of Soleimani plotting an attack may have been thinly sourced….
It’s not hard to believe that he was plotting an attack. On any given day, he was plotting an attack on American interests. What has not been made clear or proven, or as far as I can tell, even convincingly asserted, is that killing him had anything to do with preventing an attack. One thing that looks like a likely outcome, when we’re sitting right here, is that our influence in Iraq has been diminished, which by the way, was one of Soleimani’s main objectives. What he couldn’t achieve in life, he may have achieved it by getting blown up.
What is the foundation of how you approach foreign policy?
I’m not sure I can name my approach after a school of thought. I believe in a lot of the commitments to institutions and liberal values that my party has had for some time. Because the Iraq disaster gave U.S. leadership a bad name, we’ve had a hard time untangling the fact that we should have more, not less, U.S. leadership even as we have less, not more, military adventurism. It is based on U.S. values and that you can’t separate our interests from U.S. values. Every time you try, it catches up to us.
What made you decide to join the reserves? You obviously must have known that there was a possibility you would have to deploy. By 2009, Afghanistan had already been going on for eight or nine years. Even back then, did you think this was becoming an endless war.
Like a lot of Americans, I felt an ambivalence against Afghanistan that was very different from my opposition to the war in Iraq. Actually, around the time I joined the reserve, the message was kind of “You’re going to go to war, and we’ll let you know which one.” So I was mindful that I not only might wind up in Afghanistan, but I might wind up in Iraq, where I didn’t think we should go in the first place.
Did that give you any twinge when you were joining, that you might be going somewhere where you thought the policy was wrong?
No, because part of what was on my mind was that there were a lot of people, like me, opining on where we ought to go, who weren’t subject to actually being sent there. I felt that I should live with the consequences of the decisions my country makes.
There’s been a lot of slings and arrows coming your way from the progressive side of the party, suggesting everything from every step you’ve taken has been a résumé builder, to “He’s some kind of Republican plant.” What would you say to those who have a visceral reaction against you?
I mean, the first message is to remind folks that I would be the most progressive president we’ve had in the last half century and that we share the same values and, in many ways, the same objectives. I think a lot of this is the heat of competition. It’s not based on substance. After all, even on the substance, some of the areas where I’m most differentiated from the candidates to my left, the idea of more choice in health care coverage, the idea of targeting free college where it’ll make the biggest difference [are], actually, positions that are more progressive than Bernie held himself just a few years [ago]. It’s not going to bother me that much that Trump says something mean about me because we have planetarily different world views.
Sen. Warren is now attacking you for something she did a very short time ago, and I know that you’ve talked about maybe an amendment to repeal Citizens United. Do you feel that you are just taking advantage of the rules as they are laid out today?
First of all, I’m not a fan of the rules as they’re laid out today, which is, of course, why I proposed reform, but also I don’t think anybody would have guessed that they would benefit me much. The office of mayor of South Bend is not an establishment fundraising powerhouse. I started this thing with barely any mailing lists, no personal wealth, and no big account of federal money, either. We had to get out there and work to build this campaign. It’s individuals, not corporate PACs. It’s everything from people chipping in a few bucks online to house parties and events that are also an important part of the strategy.
So I wish we were in a different system, and I’ll work to bring about that system, but also insisting that we’re strategic before we issue these purity tests. First of all, building the organization that’s going to go on to beat Donald Trump, and also being sure that we’re clear on why we’re doing this and what our positions are. Hopefully, anybody who supports the campaign understands too, the only promise I’m making to them is that I’m going to work to do the things that I’m offering as my positions in this race.
Do you see the differentiation between you and the other candidates on health care and college as a difference between what is possible and — I don’t know if you want to use the word “utopian,” but that what you want to do is more achievable?
I also think it’s a better policy. I mean, what I think makes our health care approach better is that it cooks in some humility to the policy because, basically, if you’re saying that we’re going to throw a switch and put everybody on the public plan, or even if you’re saying that we’re going to wait but, on a certain date, we’re going to throw everybody on that plan, you’re assuming a lot about your ability to decide what’s going to work for people. It’s precisely because I believe that a public plan can probably be the right answer for everybody that I’m willing to put it out there and let folks decide for themselves. On college, I think my view is more progressive. I think it’s more progressive to offer the dollars where they’d make the biggest difference.
What was your primary reason for going to work at McKinsey?
First of all, I’m not out to trick anybody. It paid well. That was helpful and important. In fact, to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever made that much money. But the main thing was I felt like there were areas of my education and understanding of the world that were missing. I understood politics, at least a little, from working on campaigns. I understood, as much as you could familiarize yourself with academically about history, literature, philosophy, politics, and economics, but I didn’t have any professional responsibilities related to understanding a balance sheet or an income statement or how people and money and goods move around the world. That felt like a gap.
You’ve talked about McKinsey recommending job cuts at Blue Cross Blue Shield two years after you left. You’ve also pointed out as mayor you could only do so much with the police.
I try to be very clear about what I was responsible for. Look, at the end of the day, when you’re the mayor, you’re responsible for the city. I held myself responsible even for trying to at least be helpful in areas where I had no formal control, like the schools. With McKinsey, I mean, the idea that I took down Blue Cross Blue Shield my first few weeks? Right. I thought it was meaningful that I worked at a firm that was very good at what it did, and it was responsible for doing good analysis and providing good information. But it’s been a little fanciful to see what people are extrapolating from that.
How do you respond to criticism that anything you did in your career was with this idea that “10 years from now, whether it’s president or senator, I’m building toward something”?
Like anybody else, I think about the future. But if you’re plotting every move perfectly in order to go on to become president and you’re a Democrat, you don’t move home to Indiana. I’m optimistic, but not delusional. Not that it hadn’t crossed my mind that I’d run for office…but I wound up running for office on an extremely uphill path, because I cared about the issues at stake in state treasuries. After getting clobbered in that race [for Indiana state treasurer], I ran for office in South Bend because I saw that I could make myself useful. So this idea, if you’re plotting your every move, I think I probably would’ve plotted myself into a different state.
The polling on this is not precise at this point, but there’s at least the idea, and you can correct me if I’ve got this wrong, that you were doing quite well with older Democratic primary voters, but struggling with roughly the people of your generation or slightly younger. Is that a challenge?
I think we’ve always found that older voters are more likely to respond to me as a younger candidate. Even in South Bend, we found that, and I don’t know all the reasons for it. One of them, I think, is that age and experience may be a little demystified when you’re older. There may be more impatience with one generation holding an office. I think that impatience is greatest, actually, among those who were from that generation, and they’re ready to kind of watch their kids’ and grandkids’ pick up the ball and run with it. Part of it may be ideology, although I want to make sure that young progressives or any progressives hear the message that I would be the most progressive president in their lifetimes.
You have admitted you got clobbered in your first race, and you ran for DNC and you did not win. So make your pitch that you are electable…
Well, first of all, one thing most of our nominees and certainly our successful ones have in common is having lost a race or two. In fact, one thing Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, George W. Bush, for that matter, all have in common, they all tried to run for Congress in their 20s. I would actually argue the experience of losing a race or two makes you better. Maybe it shouldn’t be a prerequisite, but having that experience, I think, really helps. Also, if we’re thinking about electability and you do think that precedent and recent history matters at all, I’ll often point out, in the last 50 years, every single time my party’s won it’s been with somebody who’s new on the national scene, hadn’t run for president before, who was talking about values, and wasn’t viewed as belonging to Washington, and offered new generational leadership. That’s how we win.
What do you think is the most important issue facing the country?
The big picture that I’m concerned with is belonging. It’s unity, and when I say unity, I don’t mean everybody agreeing on policy, I mean transcending every political disagreement. I don’t necessarily mean shooting the middle ideologically, either. What I’m talking about is just a sense that, even when you don’t agree with a president, you still view that president as belonging to the same country that you do. There is a way to have the courage of our convictions and also try to understand people who have viewed the world differently than we have. So are there issues that I think are central? Of course. Obviously climate, racial and economic inequality, perhaps behind it all, democracy.
That’s why I’m actually further forward than a lot of my competitors on Democratic reform issues because I think it’s the issue of how we deal with every other issue. But, behind it all, part of why we’re getting the resonance that we are, is this search for belonging that’s on people’s minds.
You talk about the main factors in rural suicide is the lack of mental-health care and access to guns. You speak to that often. Does that come to you from your own life?
I saw people waving away the gun-violence problem by saying, “Hey, half of it is suicide.” It was me thinking, “That’s doesn’t make it better, that makes it worse.” Yeah, certainly people in my community, people I’ve been connected to through military service, have been lost to suicide. We have a responsibility to make sure that we’re battling that on all levels, from the clinical to the matter of access to guns. It is not only about gun crime. It’s about gun violence in all its forms.
The first time we talked was right after people started pointing out the lack of support among African Americans. Do you see progress? Have you learned more about the African American community, both in the South and other places, just from your travels?
Yeah, of course. I think we’ve succeeded to some extent in demonstrating that working class should not be a code for white working class. When people hear rural, they often think white. One of the things you see in the rural South, the problems of rural economic development, for example, are often problems mainly impacting black folks. In order to have conversations with more diverse voters, we needed to create smaller conversations that were more two-way, and we did. They went very well. But we had to do that. So especially in the last couple of months, with the Southern swing and other things we’ve done, it’s focused on that.
Are you seeing results on the ground?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, you could feel it. But you can also feel that we’ve got a lot of work to do, and the good news is, and this is actually corroborated in the numbers, but it’s what I feel when I’m out and about: If you look at the numbers that are out there, there’s no higher level of unfavorable views on me among voters of color — there is just way fewer folks saying they’ve got a strong opinion, period. So I recognized that responsibility to get to know people that some of my competitors have had a few decades to do.
What has been your great professional setback?
My first election. I had my ass handed to me the first time I dared to put my name on a ballot. Now, we knew it was uphill, so it wasn’t a shock. But you could certainly say it was a setback. There have been moments in South Bend where things haven’t gone well. I’m very proud of the things that have gone well, including in very sensitive areas, like policing, where I think we took a lot of good steps but have had to stand on national television and answer for the fact that our diversity in recruiting wasn’t what I want it to be. Every time someone gets shot in our city, it feels like a setback. You feel that way when you’re talking to a mom. There’s nothing you can do for her. I don’t know if I can call it a professional setback for me. The important thing is the effect it had on the people who were impacted. But when you’re there, you live and breathe everything good and bad that happens in your city.
You have a line in your speeches about saying to soon-to-be-former Republican voters basically, “Come on over. We need as many hands as we can get.” Is there any worry that this goes to the idea that you are too moderate and that this is just going to piss off the Sanders and Warren voters?
Look, the point for me is that we don’t define this campaign based on who we reject. I’ll go toe-to-toe with anybody on how progressive my plans are. Sure, some folks want to take it to extremes, but I don’t think it makes sense. This is plenty progressive. The whole point is that I can be clear about my values and bold in my policies and still connect with people from across the aisle.