Biden is now in the unenviable position of not punching down against the former mayor of South Bend, but punching up.
He didn’t really land any telling blows in the Friday debate. Buttigieg is prepared and articulate to a fault, and in addition, has an Obama-like confidence in himself as a man of destiny. To stand and take all the shots he did from the other candidates and not blink once is hugely impressive. It’s hard to imagine the pressure of these kind of moments (it’s what led to Marco Rubio’s meltdown when attacked by Chris Christie in a New Hampshire debate four years ago). Buttigieg was closest to being cornered on his criminal-justice record (not woke enough), and took the heaviest incoming from Amy Klobuchar, who seems to regard Pete with the disdain of an intern who has brought her her coffee the wrong way.
Biden’s video mocking Pete’s mayoral experience was much more effective. It had all the makings of a devastating hit — memorable, funny, with a large element of truth to it.
The problem for Biden is two-fold. One, a candidate who goes negative in a multi-candidate field rarely helps himself. Two, it’s hard to think of a more stark past v. future dynamic than Biden v. Buttigieg, and in American politics, the past is usually a losing proposition. Biden has barely even tried to make his campaign about the future. Instead, he promises a restoration, and the case for himself mostly consists of the remembered glories of the Obama years and even more distant supposed achievements in the Senate. In the Friday debate, hardly an issue came up where Biden didn’t say he’d already dealt with it years or decades ago.
Buttigieg’s campaign can feel so ridiculously cliched because, thematically, it’s so familiar: Fresh-faced outsider wants to move beyond the partisan divisions of the past and bring generational/transformative change to Washington. This pitch has a natural appeal in our politics, and in fact, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama were all elected president running on some version of it.
This isn’t to say that Buttigieg is going to win the presidency or even New Hampshire. But by owning the future he’s occupying favorable thematic ground.