Magazine December 22, 2019, Issue

Pete Buttigieg, Progressive Saint

(Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
He hasn’t done a lot, but then neither has your minister

Don’t bet against the attractiveness of platitudes, sanctimony, and a vague promise of refreshing the American spirit. It worked in 2008. But Barack Obama had a global financial crisis and war weariness to run against. He also had a way with the electorate. Does Pete Buttigieg? His elevator pitch to American voters is essentially “Obama, But Gay.” Some recent polls have him leading in both Iowa and New Hampshire. His strength seems mainly an indicator of the comically obvious weaknesses of the party’s three stumblin’ septuagenarian front-runners, yet his base of college-educated white Democratic-primary voters were the first ones to get really excited about Obama, even before black voters did. 

What’s the appeal? The way Pete Buttigieg talks. He gets the juices — the sap? — of idealism flowing through liberal veins. He speaks in the language that they don’t merely respect, they revere — the language that hushes them up and makes them knit their eyebrows in sympathy. It’s that Harvard-McKinsey-PowerPoint-problem-solving-speak that sends a thrill up the leg of Kennedy School, good-government Dems. To gentry liberals, this is the new Scripture. Buttigieg connects with his Atlantic-reading, six-figure-earning, Whole Foods–shopping flock as convincingly as Joel Osteen does with his. Asking “Er, what exactly has Pete Buttigieg ever accomplished?” is, to this crowd, wholly irrelevant. Do you ask what your local priest or minister has accomplished? No, you simply revel in their homilies. Buttigieg isn’t really Mayor Pete. He’s Saint Pete.

No one has ever gone directly from being mayor of a large city to the presidency before, much less mayor of a small city. Moreover, Buttigieg faces a singular problem in that it’s easier to pronounce his name than it is to cite anything he’s done. He’s all hat and no cattle. He’s human vaporware. He’s Credential Man. Check out all the brands he’s accumulated: Harvard, Rhodes Scholarship, the Navy, McKinsey & Company.

Buttigieg oozes so much Millennial arrogance that he invites the kind of dismissal Joe Biden showed when, sizing up the less-than-half-his-age competitor, he sarcasm-bombed Buttigieg with a greeting of “Mr. President.” Mayor Pete is a walking “OK, Boomer” T-shirt. Recently he suggested on Showtime’s The Circus that the Democratic primary is now a two-person race, those two being himself and Elizabeth Warren. Except Biden has held the lead in national polling virtually nonstop since he got in the race, and he’s still ahead. As of December 3, Biden was still 16 points ahead of Buttigieg in the RealClearPolitics polling average. Buttigieg has never surpassed Biden in national polls. In places like South Carolina and Nevada, Biden is stomping all over Buttigieg. Moreover, to say Buttigieg has thus far failed to make the sale to black voters is like saying Tom Brady isn’t so well liked in Buffalo. At this point Mayor Pete seems about as likely to capture South Carolina as Donald Trump is to be asked to host the Academy Awards. So far, his plan to achieve support from the black community is to pretend he already has support from the black community. To promote his alleged “comprehensive investment in the empowerment of black America,” Buttigieg rolled out a list of 400 black supporters, many of whom were either not black or not supporters. He promoted it with a photograph of someone who isn’t even American — a Kenyan resident who was surprised to find she had turned up in a stock photo that whiz kid Buttigieg was using to tout his bona fides among people of color. Buttigieg, a son of two professors, has begun gingerly hinting that being gay is kinda sorta like being black. Do blacks feel that way?

When Buttigieg talks, the substance usually amounts to the equivalent of the Monty Python sketch about how to play the flute: “Well, you blow in one end and move your fingers up and down the outside.” What few remember is the next line of that sketch: “Next week we’ll be showing you how black and white people can live together in peace and harmony.” Here’s Buttigieg’s grand strategy for winning black votes: “So, what’s working for us best right now in engaging the black community is two things: first, substance. And secondly, engagement.” So “engaging the black community” is done by “engagement.” Simple! 

How to unify the country? Why, elect a unifier like Buttigieg! He gets how important it is, right? “The purpose of the presidency is not the glorification of the president, but the unification of the American people.” Never mind how breathtakingly fatuous that is; it sounds good to Democrats, who hear, “I’ll unify us by using my magic powers of calm reasonableness to get the Republicans to stop being crazy and opposing everything we do.” Blow in one end . . . He says things like “I will not waver from my commitment to our values or back down from the boldness of our ideas. But I also will not tire from the effort to include everyone in this future we are trying to build — progressives, moderates, and Republicans of conscience who are ready for change.” So: Get ready for the bold, but also everyone has to be on board with the bold. On Rachel Maddow’s show, Buttigieg said national service would be a great idea, but hinted it should be a social “norm” rather than mandatory. Huh? Bold support for the status quo.

When he does get specific, Buttigieg’s schemes sound moderate only in comparison with the dizzyingly extreme rhetoric of the likes of Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. As Buttigieg properly points out, “Medicare for All” would yank nearly 200 million Americans off their private insurance. “Medicare for all who want it,” Buttigieg’s supposedly more moderate option, would do the same thing; it’s a kinder, gentler way to suffocate private health insurance. It would do the thing Buttigieg and almost everybody else concedes to be radical, but in slo-mo, over a course of several years. He admits this; the public option would be “a glide path” to single-payer, he has said, much as lethal injection is a glide path to the next world. 

Buttigieg has perfected the brand of “being smart,” and in this he is aided by all of the breathtakingly dumb things said by other Democrats. Among his whiz-kid boasts is the claim, often made by others on his behalf, that he speaks seven or eight languages. This claim is exaggerated. He said one of those languages is Italian in an appearance on Ellen. A clip on the Web in which he takes his Italian out for a spin displays him making four mistakes in twelve seconds, concluding with “Sorry, I’m out of Italian.” His famous ability with Norwegian goes the same way; he stumbles through a few words and manages the Norwegian for “Sorry, I just ran out of Norwegian.”

Buttigieg may be a bit too green to run for president, but for an ambitious liberal Democrat from Indiana there appears to be no intervening step. He ran for statewide office once — for Indiana treasurer in 2010 — and lost. He lost in a bid to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2017. All he has to brag about is South Bend, which is, with a population of 100,000, smaller than a New York City Council district. It’s the No. 4 city in Indiana. As Montana governor Steve Bullock put it, “He got 9,000 votes in a college town that last voted for a Republican in 1964.” Buttigieg, in response to such attacks, employed a masterly usage of apophasis in a remark to the New York Times: “I’m not going to comment on the emotions of my competitors.” OK, Boomer. 

Buttigieg claims, accurately, that the unemployment rate in South Bend fell by more than half while he was in charge, but the numbers fairly closely track U.S. unemployment, which also fell by more than half since 2012. Specific initiatives don’t look so great. In 2016, his McKinsey-data-nerd instincts led him to this beauty of an idea: using state grants to build 32 apartments for drug addicts and the mentally ill. This maybe sounds better in a PowerPoint presentation around a conference table where everyone has an MBA than it does on the ground. One resident told ABC 57 about the resulting chaos, “People are getting beat up every night. Alcoholics, I’m picking them up off the floor. They’re drinking and spilling s*** all in the hallways, all that kind of crap. The drugs are being passed through here. Tunshee. Synthetic marijuana. Spice. Whatever they call it. There was a crack pipe in the dryer. I took it out.” 

When Buttigieg said on the Democratic debate stage on November 20 that he has “experience on the ground, solving problems, working side by side with neighbors on some of the toughest issues that come up in government” and implied that he ran one of “our best-run communities in the heartland,” was he talking about his genius plan to set up modular homes for the homeless, in this case donated by a local university? Mayor Pete put the homes up in a vacant lot across from the fire station and thought: Here I am, solving problems! The units became such hives of criminal activity that neighbors complained and Buttigieg was left to spend $41,000 to clean up the mess by removing the units. It turns out — who knew that McKinsey doesn’t teach this? — that “solving homelessness” requires a lot more thought than “creating homes and inviting drug addicts to move in.” McKinsey works on the principle that everyone wants his business to operate better. Out there in the cold of a depressed city, not everyone is so nice. The Board of Public Works passed a resolution declaring the buildings have zero value.

Summing up the disastrous experiment, an observer from the community college said, “They went into this with the best intentions.” Is there a better eight-word summary of liberalism? From the New Deal to the Great Society to Obamacare: Intentions are what matter. The best intentions are what make you “the ones we have been waiting for,” as Obama used to refer to himself and his flock of true believers. Best intentions make you Saint Pete. Picture a giant consulting firm in which you were graded not on outcomes but on sincerity. The Woke Left draws much media attention these days, but don’t underestimate how much the Best-Intentions Left matters to today’s Democratic party. 

To Democrats, it’s simply bad form to mention that, say, a recent survey in USA Today ranked South Bend the 40th-worst city in America. Buttigieg became mayor in 2013, at which point he said, “We cannot tolerate another summer like last summer” and dramatically announced an anti-violence commission. Oh, a commission? Is that what they teach at McKinsey? Maybe hire some more consultants to chew over the problem? Maybe issue some reports, too. Violent crime spiked to its highest rate in at least 20 years in 2018. Buttigieg’s big crime-fighting commission, the South Bend Group Violence Intervention, became problematic when one counselor pushed his wife to the floor, struck her, and threatened to shoot her. A former South Bend cop told the Washington Free Beacon that Buttigieg had moved away from proactive policing. Buttigieg fired a black police commissioner in 2012; his white replacement faced accusations of racism after he reportedly failed to help a black officer to break up a fight. Buttigieg is now on his third police commissioner, a white man who is under suspicion because a white officer shot and killed a black suspect in June while his body camera was switched off.

Buttigieg’s office tends not to respond to inquiries on such matters. He’d prefer to talk about his pie-in-the-sky plans for healing the supposed sickness of partisanship in Washington. He has an idea for defusing partisan tensions in Supreme Court battles that sounds like a fix but isn’t: ten permanent justices, with five others rotating in, but subject to veto from any of the ten permanents. This is, to be kind, something that probably elicits vigorous nods at a McKinsey PowerPoint presentation. It’s a breathtakingly radical proposal that would never come up for a vote in a Republican-led Senate. It would never come up for a vote in a Democratic-run Senate. It is in fact ridiculous dream-casting that serves merely to create an impression that Buttigieg is sober, concerned, wise, and wonkish. It has as much chance of being enacted as the Knicks stand of winning the NBA championship. 

Yet Buttigieg’s soothing talk is so practiced it works even on avowed enemies, at least on the left. After Michael Harriot, a writer for The Root, decided to pick up on an anodyne and indeed Obama-ish comment Buttigieg made eight years ago (about how black Americans often lack positive role models to light their way) and called Mayor Pete “a lying motherf***er” in an essay that went viral, Buttigieg was able to quell Harriot’s anger by calling him and offering another anodyne remark: “What I said in that comment before I became mayor does not reflect the totality of my understanding then, and certainly now, about the obstacles that students of color face in our system today.” Well, that’s sorted then.

If there’s any substance here beyond “Message: I care,” I don’t see it. Yet columnist Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post called this “a moment of grace.” As with Obama, when Buttigieg issues meaningless empathy-signaling from the heights of Mt. Platitude, a certain kind of Democrat swoons.

Obama, though, was precision-engineered, the perfect Democratic candidate. Both working-class blacks and Harvard types saw themselves in him, just as Bill Clinton managed to be both a southerner and a northerner depending on context: Bubba by way of Yale and Oxford. 

So far, though, Buttigieg looks mono-faceted. What exactly is his plan for connecting with black voters in South Carolina, or Latinos in Nevada? Biden, to these voters, looks earthy and real. They associate him with Obama. The specifics of policy proposals don’t matter that much; it’s more a question of “Who’s got my back? Who makes me feel good?” Maybe Buttigieg thinks he’s going to lay out a 19-section, 43-subsection PowerPoint explanation called “Why you should love me.”

This article appears as “The Li’l Mayor” in the December 22, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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