Elections

Fare Thee Well, Former Mayor Pete

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg hugs his husband Chasten Buttigieg as he arrives at the podium to announce his withdrawal from the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination in South Bend, Ind., March 1, 2020. (Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune via USA Today Network/Reuters)
Buttigieg will be back, but until then, he should be remembered as a glib progressive masquerading as a moderate.

Over the weekend, Pete Buttigieg bowed out of the Democratic presidential race, leaving a substantial number of delegates up for grabs. Reports indicate that the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., is strongly considering endorsing Joe Biden, though he declined to do so in his speech announcing the end of his campaign, instead making a pitch for unity.

Dropping out was the smart thing to do for the sake of preventing Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders from running away with the nomination; his exit means there’s one fewer non-Sanders option dividing the field and splitting the vote.

But it was likely an easier decision for him to make than it would’ve been for Elizabeth Warren, who’s still in the race and several decades older than Buttigieg, who only just turned 38. He’s saying goodbye to 2020, perhaps, but evidently has his eye on 2024 and beyond.

Buttigieg undoubtedly will be back, and perhaps for good reason. It was a stunning feat to go from being the barely known mayor of a mid-sized, Rust Belt city — a place whose prospects he did markedly little to improve during his tenure — to winning Iowa and finishing a close second in New Hampshire. A large part of that success owes to his ability to come across as highly articulate, though close listening revealed that he’s less eloquent than glib. He seemed to model his campaign as the second coming of Barack Obama, but he lacks the charisma of the former president and substituted an impressive ability to memorize so many talking points so thoroughly that he was able to emote as if his comments came from the heart.

As a gay man, he could play the identity-politics card with vigor, arguing that support for his campaign would be a step forward for America. In what turned out to be one of his final campaign events, Buttigieg welcomed a nine-year-old boy on stage to come out as gay and discussed the bravery it has required of him to blaze a trail as a gay politician.

On policy, Buttigieg was a moderate only because so many candidates in the Democratic field had run so far to the left. His “Medicare for all who want it” was a handy cop-out, allowing him to embrace the idea of socialized health care without accepting the unpopular fact that it would require removing millions of people from private health insurance.

He managed to give vocal support to the national Green New Deal policy while also rolling out his own paper on the subject, calling it “a bold and achievable Green New Deal” and a “realistic plan,” pitching it as if he had found a middle way to keep the goals of the program without the exorbitant costs.

On every policy, he either embraced the standard progressive position or came as close to it as he possibly could while offering a rhetorical spin that aimed to please everybody. But it was on matters of culture and religion that Buttigieg most revealed his instinct for division.

Despite having said in the past that he worked well with Mike Pence when Pence was Indiana governor, Buttigieg spurred an entire news cycle last spring by suggesting that the vice president’s support for traditional marriage is an animus-driven misapplication of Christianity. “That’s the thing that I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand, that if you have a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me,” Buttigieg said in a speech last April. “Your quarrel, sir, is with my Creator.”

Never mind that, not very long ago, Democrats as prominent as Barack Obama espoused the same views about marriage as does Pence. For Buttigieg, it was a way to pick a fight, to drive up his name recognition, to portray himself as a progressive martyr in a cultural holy war.

Again and again, it turned out that no one but Mayor Pete understood what Christianity really demanded of us and of our politics. “The Left is rightly committed to a separation of church and state, but we need to not be afraid to invoke arguments that are convincing on why Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction,” he told USA Today.

Christianity requires us to be progressive, and Buttigieg anointed himself the prophet of this leftist religion. In a September interview, he attempted to rationalize his support for unlimited abortion by suggesting that “there’s a lot of parts of the Bible that talk about how life begins with breath.” And he didn’t limit himself to sharing his own twisted interpretation of Christianity; he also used it as a cudgel to accuse his political opponents of insincerity.

“The Republican party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion. . . . We should call out hypocrisy when we see it,” he said during a primary debate last summer. “For a party that associates itself with Christianity, to say that . . . God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claim to ever use religious language again,” he added.

In another debate, Buttigieg levied his religious expertise to scrutinize fiscal conservatism. “The minimum wage is just too low,” he asserted, “and so-called conservative Christian senators right now in the Senate are blocking a bill to raise the minimum wage, when scripture says that whoever oppresses the poor taunts their maker.”

The media will aim to preserve Pete’s memory as a reasonable, subdued statesman who brought a voice of moderation to the Democratic primary and pulled off an admirable campaign before his time had really come. He should be remembered instead as an inexperienced progressive who attempted to disguise his actual policies and contempt for his opponents by dressing them up in the jargon of an ex–McKinsey consultant.

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated since its initial publication, as Amy Klobuchar ended her campaign this afternoon.

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