Bad weather did Pete Buttigieg a favor when he made his presidential candidacy official on Sunday. With an ugly forecast in South Bend (surprise!), the mayor’s original plans for an outdoor launch to match the slogan he’d be unveiling for the occasion — the sunny promise of a “new American spring” — were scuttled in favor of a former train dock in one of the city’s long-abandoned Studebaker auto factories. Even with the big, raw space festooned with the campaign’s way-hip new logo, the optics weren’t exactly what Roger Ailes would have chosen for Ronald Reagan back in the day. But the setting turned out to be as weirdly charmed as the rest of Buttigieg’s formerly far-fetched quest for the presidency has been so far.
The joint was jammed with 4,000 “Pete”-chanting enthusiasts, cheering as lustily as if Notre Dame was playing USC down the road — even while a long parade of speakers, including the candidate’s favorite teacher, made them wait 70 minutes for the sheepishly grinning mayor to materialize. When he did, Buttigieg uncorked one of the rare political kickoff speeches worth attending, turning Studebaker Building 84 — which now houses start-up companies — into a metaphor for his message of generational transformation.
“Think of what it must have been like that day in 1963,” he said, referring to the date when Studebaker went bust. “Think of what it was like when houses that had been full of life and love and hope fell crumbling and vacant.” This made a smooth transition to Buttigieg’s one thin purchase on the kind of political experience that (pre-Trump) used to qualify someone for the presidency: the economic revival he’s led since he took office in 2012, shortly after Newsweek profiled South Bend as one of America’s “dying cities.”
In Buttigieg’s telling, the story amounts to more than another spin on the “Massachusetts miracle” genre; he makes it emblematic of the kind of candidacy he aims to run against Trump, and Trumpism. The tale goes that when he ran for mayor at 29, having returned home after Harvard and a Rhodes Scholarship and a stint with the consulting giant McKinsey and Company, he won by telling folks the hard truth — that when politicians kept pledging they’d bring manufacturing jobs back, they were “selling a promise of a return to a bygone era that was never as great as it was purported to have been.” Just like Trump in coal country. Just like Trump trading on “resentment and nostalgia” to appeal to aggrieved Rust Belt whites. “And that’s why I’m here today,” Buttigieg said. “To tell a different story besides Make America Great Again.”
As Alexander Burns observed this weekend in The New York Times, storytelling has been the essential ingredient in Buttigieg’s startling climb to credibility as a 2020 contender, “an enterprise driven powerfully by personality” rather than by policy specifics. That’s already driving some progressives nuts — right alongside the fact that Buttigieg is yet another white guy stealing attention, like Biden and Bernie and Beto, from the non-white-guys in the field. But on Sunday, nobody could deny that “Mayor Pete” does know how to spin a mean yarn — the most powerful of which implicitly addressed the jibes about him being just one more privileged dude who doesn’t deserve the attention.
Riffing off the old saw that “all politics is local,” Buttigieg ended his speech by positing a different maxim: “All politics is personal.” He spoke about how his mother “needed immediate heart surgery last fall,” at a time when his father (who died in January) was undergoing chemotherapy treatments. This segued smoothly into Medicare for All, of course. But then Buttigieg got personal in a different way. “If I did go back in the past, I’d just go back 20 years,” he said, and talk to the teenage version of himself, “in the basement of his parents’ house, wondering how he could belong in this world. Wondering if his intellectual curiosity means he’d never fit in. Wondering what it means that he sometimes feels a certain way about the boys he sees” at school.
“If I found him and told him what was ahead, would he believe me?” Buttigieg asked. Not just that he’d grow up to be mayor of his culturally conservative town, but then, far more improbably, “To tell him that one rainy April day, before he even turns 40, he’ll wake up to headlines about whether he’s rising too quickly in his quest to become president of the United States. And to tell him that on that day when he announces his campaign for president, he’ll do it with his husband looking on.”
Sure, it was sappy, especially when it was followed by talk of “optimism, courage and hope.” You could imagine Buttigieg’s old hero Bernie Sanders, famously averse to talking about himself on the stump, cringing as he watched. But this kind of rhetoric is the main reason that Buttigieg isn’t still sitting at zero in the polls, begging folks on Facebook to give him enough donations to qualify him for the first Democratic debates in June. And when he finished and kissed his husband Chasten, then held his hand walking off stage, history was made in the old train dock. It was a beautiful sight for anyone left of Mike Pence.
But none of it will satisfy the progressives who’ve been demanding that Buttigieg roll out more detailed policy stances, Elizabeth Warren-style, raising suspicions that he won’t because he’s not a true-blue, state-of-the-art progressive. A few, like Nathan J. Robinson at Current Affairs, have already written Buttigieg off as essentially Gay Beto — boffo at self-promotion, yes, but someone that “no serious progressive should want … anywhere near national public office.”
That’s a premature write-off for a candidate who’s still introducing himself on a national stage — and in a campaign that’s still 10 months removed from the first caucuses and primaries. But it’s also understandable. Buttigieg is positioning himself as the next young Democrat who looks and sounds like the future, in contrast to the current regime of stale reactionary Republicanism. He wants to be the Trump-era version of JFK after Eisenhower, Carter after Nixon, Clinton after Reagan and Bush I, Obama after Bush II. And he’s doing a bang-up job crafting that image of the next-gen Democrat for 2020.
But progressives remember what came after those victories, when none of the aforementioned Great New Hopes delivered on their vague promises of progressive governance once they talked the party, and then the country, into electing them. And Buttigieg has, for sure, been vague about policy thus far, especially in comparison to Warren, Sanders or Kamala Harris.
He will surely start to fill in the blanks, now that his unexpectedly successful rollout is complete. But he probably won’t ever satisfy the naysayers, because he doesn’t believe detailed policy platforms are the key to winning. “We can’t just talk policy points all the time,” he told me last fall. “As Democrats, we have to figure out how to tell a better story about our principles. Laundry lists don’t move people; they don’t persuade anybody.”
If modern electoral history is a guide, he’s right. But as Buttigieg himself made clear in his announcement speech on Sunday, history isn’t any guide to the political moment we’re living through. In the American story, he said, “We’re on one of those blank pages between chapters.” As usual, he sketched out the broad themes of the new chapter he wants to write, calling for the end of the “era” of Democrats acceding to a drastically reduced idea of what government can and should do. He told me last year, in an interview for this magazine, that he’s convinced the political center has moved left — and that Democrats, by and large, have been lagging behind the people, stuck on the outmoded idea that we’re a “center-right” country.
For some folks on the left, that sort of direction-signaling is bound to continue to disappoint. But Buttigieg has a theory of how to oust Trump — not by fighting him tooth and claw, but by crafting an alternative vision of a future that people can hear and invest in — and he’s going to stick with it. His big finish on Sunday, after his imaginary visit with Young Pete, crystallized the approach perfectly: “Do we not live in a country that can overcome the challenge of a bleak moment?” he asked. “We’ve had it with winter. You and I have the chance to usher in a new American spring.” Whether that sort of Obama-esque uplift makes you gag or cheer, it is Buttigieg’s answer to Trumpism. Where it takes him from here is, of course, anybody’s guess. But even his detractors will have to admit: He sure does know how to sell it.