The Morning Jolt


Pete Buttigieg Is Having His Moment

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg greets voters during a campaign stop in Portsmouth, N.H., March 8, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: You can tell South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg has really arrived because he’s starting to get critical profiles after the sudden wave of glowing ones; yet another close election out in Wisconsin; a dog that didn’t bark, and an investigation that didn’t leak; and some words of appreciation for podcast listeners.

Setting the Stopwatch on Pete Buttigieg’s Moment

Whenever a candidate “has a moment” — and South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg is definitely having a moment — there’s inevitably a backlash, mostly driven by primary rivals but sometimes reflecting serious scrutiny that was neglected during the candidate’s sudden rise.

This soup-to-nuts denunciation of Buttigieg in the left-of-center Current Affairs makes for interesting reading from a conservative perspective, for the ways that the criticism of the South Bend mayor aligns with that of the Right and the way it differs. A lot of Nathan Robinson’s critique is that Buttigeig is insufficiently progressive for his tastes, and he goes as far as to accuse Buttigieg of not really caring about people beyond his own ambitions, which feels a little harsh.

But I suspect a lot of people on the right would nod in at least partial agreement to this declaration from Robinson:

I don’t trust the type of people likely to appear on “40 under 40” lists, the valedictorian-to-Harvard-to-Rhodes-Scholarship types who populate the American elite. I don’t trust people who get flattering reams of newspaper profiles and are pitched as the Next Big Thing That You Must Pay Attention To, and I don’t trust wunderkinds who become successful too early. Why? Because I am somewhat cynical about the United States meritocracy. Few people amass these kind of résumés if they are the type to openly challenge authority.

Compare that assessment to mine from last month:

Buttigieg is the insufferably perfect valedictorian class president that your parents kept telling you to emulate. He’s the kid who started thinking about being elected to high office in high school and started making preparations then. His ambition was so transparent that it stood out at Harvard’s Institute for Politics, basically the Hogwarts for bright young people who want to be president someday.

I remember after a meeting with a Republican figure with a sterling resume and likely presidential ambitions, my former colleague Eliana Johnson observed something along the lines of, “Americans don’t elect straight-A students.” There is such a thing as too perfect, or at least an image that appears too perfect and thus artificial and inauthentic.

Barack Obama lost one election in his lifetime, a bid for the House of Representatives against incumbent Democrat Bobby Rush in 2000. During their debate, Rush turned to the audience and asked, “Just what’s he done? I mean, what’s he done?” The voters — many of whom had elected Obama to be their state legislator in 1996 and 1998 — concluded the 38-year-old was not accomplished enough to justify tossing out Rush.

Buttigieg’s got a shining resume — Harvard, Oxford, Naval reserves, McKinsey consulting — but it feels fair to ask what he’s actually done, particularly as mayor.

Robinson notices that Buttigeg’s account of his time as mayor makes it sound like a renaissance — but the city has a poverty rate of 26.7 percent (much higher than the state’s average), an eviction rate of 6.71 percent (three times the national average), increasing responses to reported opioid overdoses, and a persistent homeless problemIn my “Twenty Things” article, I noted that the crime and gun violence statistics hadn’t shown much improvement during Buttigieg’s terms. His reelection and high approval rating indicates that voters in South Bend believe Buttigieg is making the city better — but how much better? And how much credit did the mayor deserve?

Over at the Federalist, David Marcus argues that the sudden burst of interest in Buttigieg represents the Democratic party calling a timeout, as they sort through a long list of candidates and try to balance a corner of the party that loves overtly radical rhetoric from the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the surprisingly large section of the party base that is fine with standard-issue Democratic politics from Joe Biden.

But I see a common thread between the current moment of Buttigieg-mania, and 2018’s Beto-mania. A once-obscure political figure suddenly is the subject of one glossy profile after another, with the general gist of “You’ve never heard of this officeholder, but he’s (or less often, she’s) amazing, and about to shake up politics.” You hear about how the figure is wowing people on the stump, some quote from some audience members selected to represent the “average voter,” declaring that the figure “restores my hope” and “really cares about people like me,” followed by a recitation of their legislative or governing accomplishments. The profile hits all the familiar notes: the humble beginnings, the mischievous hijinks of youth, the happy home life, the vague but positive vision for America’s future. (It’s like this Beto profile, but less exaggerated.)

And maybe in the back of your mind, you’re thinking . . . wait, if this guy is so terrific, why have I never heard of him until now? I follow the news. I’m reasonably well-informed. If he was the driving force behind such big and consequential accomplishments, why have I not noticed them or heard other people talking about them? The accounts of the audiences left in rapturous awe ought to raise some red flags for us, too. Sure, the figure seems charismatic and likable enough, but the allegedly ordinary voters who show up to the rallies are already predisposed to like him — otherwise, they wouldn’t show up to the rally!

Almost everybody’s resume looks good — it represents putting your best foot forward. Very few figures who run for office begin by announcing, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, had a lot of proposals that never worked out, I’ve had my share of ethical lapses, and I have no idea how I would hold up under the pressure of the presidency.”

Sure, there are under-covered, little-noticed mayors, House members, and even governors and senators who are accomplishing things under the radar of the national media. But when it comes to Democrats, there are some painfully familiar templates: the “here’s the Democrat who’s leading his party to a comeback in the South” and the variation, “Texas Democrats are ready for a comeback.” And when it comes to presidential politics, maybe the easiest way to pick out the candidate who will get the early buzz is to ask which one reminds the national press corps the most of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama — young, charismatic, handsome, talking about better days ahead and unleashing all of America’s untapped potential. We can argue about whether it’s still accurate, but for a long time, the line “Republicans fall in line, Democrats want to fall in love” was a reasonable assessment of each party’s presidential-primary process.

Buttigieg is that guy right now. But history has examples of young Democrats who ultimately stumbled for one reason or another  — John Edwards, Howard Dean, Jerry Brown, Gary Hart, the 1988 edition of Al Gore.

Meanwhile, Out in Wisconsin . . . 

American politics is one nail-biter close election after another. Last night in Wisconsin, voters turned out for local offices and a state supreme-court election. And the right-leaning candidate is ahead, for now:

Appeals Judge Brian Hagedorn held a narrow lead early Wednesday in the race for Wisconsin Supreme Court, according to unofficial tallies that were so close both sides were bracing for a recount.

In an early morning tweet and statement to supporters, Hagedorn claimed victory.

“The people of Wisconsin have spoken and our margin of victory is insurmountable,” the statement read.

Hagedorn led fellow Appeals Judge Lisa Neubauer 50.2% to 49.8% with nearly all of Tuesday’s votes unofficially counted — at a margin that allows a recount.

Every time there’s a close election, people cringe at the thought of another long debate about “hanging chads.”

Man, The Mueller Report Is Locked Up Tighter Than the Jets’ New Uniforms

Remember when people believed the Mueller investigation leaked a lot? The New York Post editorial board, a smart and non-paranoid bunch, contemplated that possibility back in November 2017. One reporter counted up 25 leaks of information related to the investigation, although it’s not clear they came from Mueller’s team or the individuals they were interviewing, other lawyers, or some other sources. At least one, a copy of a subpoena, came from former Trump campaign advisor Sam Nunberg.

Muller and his team turned in their report on March 22. Today is April 3, and beyond Attorney General William Barr’s summary, we’ve heard . . .  nothing!

So maybe the Mueller team wasn’t such a big bunch of leakers after all?

ADDENDUM: Thanks to all of the kind folks leaving good reviews for the Three Martini Lunch podcast on iTunes and the kind soul who did the same for The Jim and Mickey Show, our slightly-less-regularly-scheduled pop-culture-themed podcast. We’re heading into pop culture’s actually exciting season, late spring and early summer: Avengers: Endgame is coming, the final season ofGame of Thrones is coming, Brad Thor’s got a new novel out in JuneStranger Things comes back to Netflix on July 4, and for better or worse, it feels like Disney’s got about one big live-action remake a month . . .

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