interesting times

Is Pete Buttigieg a Transformational Candidate?

Mayor Pete Buttigieg at a West Hollywood fundraiser last month. Photo: Allison Zaucha/The Washington Post/Getty Images

One of the reasons I thought Donald Trump would win in 2016 was not just that he was focusing on the core issues roiling the middle classes (immigration and globalization). It was because he had the perfect foil for his persona in Hillary Clinton. Trump was fresh to politics, anti-Establishment, an outsider, populist, alpha male, and nationalist, with a base primed to despise Clinton. Clinton had been in power forever, was pure Establishment, a total insider, globalist, alpha female, predictable, with a base stunned by Trump. It was the kind of contrast Trump longed for, and it was a central element in his success. And these matchups matter. Trump is widely unpopular by himself. He will need a good foil to win in a binary race.

So, leaving policy aside for a second, who would be the best Democratic foil from the anti-Trump perspective? By which I mean, which set of qualities is most likely to contrast with Trump in a way that makes the Democratic contender seem fresh, and the president appear old, clueless, and malevolent? I suspect it is this question that is behind the budding candidacy of one Pete Buttigieg. When you think of him in a debate with Trump, one-on-one, everything gets scrambled. I don’t know what that dynamic would be like exactly, but it feels a lot less predictable than, say, Elizabeth Warren or Beto O’Rourke.

Trump would be the oldest president in history at 74; Buttigieg would be the youngest at 39. Trump landed in politics via his money and celebrity after years in the limelight; Buttigieg is the mayor of a midsize midwestern town, unknown until a few weeks ago. Trump is a pathological, malevolent narcissist from New York, breaking all sorts of norms. Buttigieg is a modest, reasonable pragmatist, and a near parody of normality. Trump thrives on a retro heterosexual persona; Buttigieg appears to be a rather conservative, married homosexual. Trump is a coward and draft dodger; Buttigieg served his country. Trump does not read; Buttigieg does. Trump’s genius is demonic demagoguery. Buttigieg’s gig is careful reasoning. Trump is a pagan; Buttigieg is a Christian. Trump vandalizes government; Buttigieg nurtures it.

To put it simply, Mayor Pete seems almost designed to expose everything that makes the country tired of Trump.

David Brooks rightly notes Buttigieg’s Obama-like combination of somewhat banal leftism with personal rectitude and calm. After the fever of the culture wars of the high-temperature Trump era, this might come across as a welcome balm. Voters tend to go for a contrast with the current president, a correction of sorts. The mood swings like a pendulum from Carter to Reagan, or from Bush to Obama. (I asked Obama once early in his second term what kind of president he thought would succeed him, and he wryly responded: “Someone not aloof or professorial.” He wasn’t wrong.) In style, generation, demeanor, and background, Buttigieg is a near-perfect way to put a drop shadow behind all of Trump’s grandiosity, age, temperament, and privilege.

More importantly, he would mitigate our current polarizing patterns. He’s not sanctimoniously woke, but woke enough to have the “social justice” left potentially buy in (if its members can get over their fear of white cis gay men as oppressors). He’s a left-liberal, but relatively unformed on policy, and has carved out a moderate place in a field careening leftward. Even his most daring ideas — expanding the Supreme Court to 15 — are designed to reduce polarization.

He’s midwestern — the swingy region where the election will likely be decided — and, unlike the vast majority of his fellow elite members, he didn’t stay on the coasts, but returned home to the heartland after he won the glittering prizes, including being named a Rhodes scholar. That says something about him (either that he’s the real thing, or that his ambition really is sky-high). He’s absurdly brainy, but doesn’t give off an air of condescension or exasperation with the less IQ-ed — like Al Gore did. His political record is relatively thin, not apparently strewn with scandal, and so the negative campaigning will have to focus on his Marxist dad. And, yes, they’ll go there. But it’s telling to me that Rush Limbaugh’s first response was positive, before he decided Buttigieg was a commie like his father. There’s something both very new and yet very traditional about the mayor — and that’s appealing to moderate conservatives.

Too gay? They said Barack Obama was too black. Bad name? Sure, but again: Barack Hussein Obama. (My gay hack for pronouncing his name is to think of him as a “booty judge.”) Too young? That’s possible. He’d be approaching 40 at his inauguration, but his affect is younger. There remains something boyish about him, which is something Trump would immediately fasten onto as rendering him a lightweight. But Buttigieg can rebut that in a simple and powerful way: He can say he was man enough to serve his country in uniform, which should be man enough for any president. (The contrast with the aged, spoiled draft-dodger brat could be deadly.)

But it’s also important to say that 39 is not that young for high office. Emmanuel Macron was the same age when he became president of France. Jacinda Ardern became prime minister of New Zealand at the age of 37. Sebastian Kurz became chancellor of Austria at the age of 31. Leo Varadkar became prime minister of Ireland at the age of 38, and came out as gay (like Buttigieg) in his 30s.

Buttigieg is also a local pol, arriving in national politics from the ground up, in contrast to Trump’s top-down intervention. And local politics, as Jim and Deb Fallows have noted, has far less of the tribal and cultural trauma of the national stage. In an age when nothing seems to be able to get done nationally, a serious pragmatist with an actual record of governing has an opening. And he has a good line when confronted with lack of experience: He will have had more experience actually governing than Trump.

He has some obvious vulnerabilities. The Democrats have to rally the black vote to counteract Trump’s rural strength. Mayor Pete hasn’t proved he can do that, even though his city is over 26 percent African-American. He’s also a little too similar to Macron: a technocratic elitist, globalist, careerist. He also has almost too perfect a résumé. And at 38, it’s all a little too polished and too familiar a trajectory. But when oppo researchers go after him, we could find out more — and his husband, Chasten, is certainly colorful on Twitter. My favorite tweet: “Ever since I saw that @GoogleTrends gif of @PeteButtigieg surging in 2020 searches I’ve had Miley’s ‘The Climb’ stuck in my head. #ICanAlmostSeeIt.” If Pete isn’t gay enough, Chasten has it down.

Another flaw is one that all the current Democrats have, which is that they, simply, are on the wrong side of the immigration argument, the core issue shaping Western politics. Macron, Ardern, and Kurz won in part because they recognized the need to control legal and undocumented immigration before they did anything else. Macron tightened asylum laws, expedited deportation of the ineligible, and criminalized unauthorized entry into France. Ardern’s leftist Labour Party campaigned on halving legal immigration, and went into coalition with the populist right. Kurz was on the populist right from the start.

Buttigieg’s immigration policies are very vague — he favors a “path to citizenship.” My own view is that the only Democrat who will beat Trump next year will campaign for control of immigration, legal and undocumented, in a sane and humane way. The issue will be dominant again — because of a huge wave of migrants, many of them rural Guatemalans, who are overwhelming the border, trying to enter the U.S. at a current pace of 100,000 a month. Their ability to claim asylum under current law permits them to show up at the border, get admitted and processed by the Border Patrol, and then released into the interior, to reside here until a court date, which could come up years later. The backlog in the underfunded immigration courts is vast, with more than a million still in line for a hearing. Many of the migrants won’t show up for the court date; those who do can still resist deportation indefinitely.

What this means is that the U.S. now has an effectively open border with Mexico, and, according to the American Bar Association, the immigration system is “irredeemably dysfunctional and on the brink of collapse.” Repeating the Democratic mantra that there is no border crisis will not work for much longer. This year will see more undocumented immigrants than in any year under Obama. And the high rate of success among those trying to enter to the country now encourages more migrants to make the journey, especially given the forces of disorder and climate change that are forcing people to flee. The lesson from Europe in 2015 is that a migrant surge fuels itself, as word gets back home. And then white nationalism takes off.

We could, in other words, be in the mother of all immigration scares as the first primaries take place. We could have a million more migrants to grapple with. Currently, no Democrat has any response to this. The only candidate with an actual immigration policy, Julián Castro, favors a much more lenient system and an end to criminalizing illegal border crossing. He wants the immigration surge to become a flood, all but guaranteeing Trump’s reelection. If Buttigieg counters with a campaign for a path to citizenship for most here, but also in favor of mandatory e-verify (a completely humane way to enforce immigration law in the interior of the country via employment), he’d break out of the pack. Just actively treating the fears about immigration as legitimate — and seeking to assuage them — would mark him as a different kind of Democrat.

I’m also struck by his clear religious faith and the winsomeness with which he expresses it — not something you see too often in a millennial Democrat. The collapse of Evangelical Christianity into a political cult has left a yawning chasm for actual Gospel-based faith in America. Buttigieg speaks to that quietly but defiantly. Like Obama, he has a living faith and it points in a progressive direction:

“When I think about where most of Scripture points me, it is toward defending the poor, and the immigrant, and the stranger, and the prisoner, and the outcast, and those who are left behind by the way society works. And what we have now is this exaltation of wealth and power, almost for its own sake, that in my reading of Scripture couldn’t be more contrary to the message of Christianity. So I think it’s really important to carry a message (to the public), knitting together a lot of groups that have already been on this path for some time, but giving them more visibility in the public sphere.”

Two more things: I met Buttigieg in the Real Time green room. Impressive, calm, open — but no Obama. Maybe that aura and an elusive sense of authority will grow, as his confidence does. And, of course, Buttigieg’s emergence has a personal salience for me. He is, quite simply, what many of us in my generation of gays fought for and rarely believed could happen: He is proud to be gay but not defined by it, happily married, a veteran, wickedly smart, and completely integrated. When I read some LGBTQ activists push back on him for not being gay or “intersectional” enough, it depresses me beyond measure. His candidacy is as historic as Obama’s. His potential presidency even more so. That so many see him as a credible, formidable candidate is a reminder that in America, we can still unite in a more humane consensus. Trump has eclipsed that possibility in a welter of poison. Buttigieg quite simply rescues it again.

Yet Another Brexit Twist

The news on Brexit is a big deal. Earlier this week, Theresa May admitted defeat in getting her withdrawal agreement through Parliament via her own coalition. She tried three times to get the Tory Brexiteers and the Northern Irish Protestant Party (DUP) onboard; but they refused to go along each time, effectively stalling for a no-deal Brexit (which was the default if no one budged).

After a seven-hour Cabinet meeting, it became clear that May was not going to preside over a damaging crash out of the EU, but without Tory support, she had no choice but to seek support from the Labour Party. She and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are now in talks on what options to present to Parliament in order to get a majority for something. And then, by a tiny one-vote margin, the Commons voted against crashing out of the EU without a deal on WTO trading rules, cementing the new status quo.

So May blinked. In the end, she simply wasn’t prepared to risk economic meltdown, especially if she would be blamed for it. Some deal will therefore have to happen, and an extension of Article 50, postponing Brexit, will almost certainly be sought from the EU and almost certainly granted. What comes next is hard to tell, but it will at least require some kind of customs union with the EU, which will prevent Britain from independently negotiating trade deals with other countries. That means that more than half the Tory party, and especially its base, is livid. The risk now is to the cohesion of the Conservatives. Their rules forbid them from removing May as party leader for months; but they are in a virtual insurrection as I write this.

But there is also a risk to Labour. A big swathe of its voters — largely white and working class and in the North — voted to leave the EU. But a bigger, urban, cosmopolitan majority voted to remain. If Corbyn helps May achieve a soft Brexit, sharing the political costs, he’ll get serious blowback from his own “Remain” ranks. But if he acquiesces to a second referendum, as his party policy officially demands, he could lose his “Leave” working class support. That’s why he’s been so cagey thus far in the debate. Now, he’ll have to face the same grim challenge as May: how to get through the next few months without his party falling apart.

Maybe May and Corbyn will avoid a second referendum — or what they’re calling a “confirmatory vote” — and get a Brexit deal close to May’s through the Commons. But it’s just as likely that the only way to do this is by subjecting it to a new plebiscite. What would be the choices? Simple, really: the May-Corbyn Brexit deal, as passed by Parliament; a crash-out no deal; or a full-on “Remain” option, taking everyone back to square one. One way to run the referendum would be by alternative vote, i.e., by each voter ranking the three options 1, 2 and 3. Whichever option gets the fewest votes on the first count will then disappear and all the second choices reapportioned. What you get with this formula is the result least objectionable to the most people. As long as a no-deal option is on the ballot, the right cannot really complain; ditto “Remain” for the left.

But the blowback could be enormous. Before the 2016 referendum, everyone said on both sides that this was it. If Brexit won, there would be no way back. To renege on that promise — and on a referendum with the biggest turnout in British history — would directly play into the populist argument that the elites always foil what the people really want. White nationalism would be given a huge boost. The Tories could split between a moderate, centrist faction and a hard-right Brexit insurgency. Labour could hemorrhage white working-class votes to the far right. This was always the risk of a compromise. Which is to say: The Brexit story is by no means over; nor is anti-immigration populism. It may, in fact, be about to surge.

Can the center hold? That’s what we are about to find out. It will tell us a lot about the future of the West.

Don’t Be So Certain

A long, long time ago, I can still remember how the Mueller investigation came to be. It was an attempt, after James Comey’s departure from the FBI, to determine what lay beneath all the obvious shenanigans of the Russian government in the 2016 elections, all of which was to benefit the Trump campaign. We knew very, very little but suspected a lot. I was a skeptic of the idea that Russia was responsible for Clinton’s defeat, and still am, but thought Mueller was a fantastic choice to get to the bottom of it. I even offered the outrageous opinion that we should all just wait until the report came out, and then read it all carefully, and decide what to do.

That rather quaint idea is one I’ll stick to. But it’s a lonely task. The spectacle of the last two years of breathless impeachment porn on CNN and MSNBC has not been an edifying one. Of course, they should aggressively pursue this story, but if it was once possible to distinguish Rachel Maddow’s conspiracy mongering from Glenn Beck’s, it no longer is. But equally, the recent rush of the Russia-skeptics to claim total vindication before we have read the report is surreal. I’m glad Glenn Greenwald and Michael Tracey exist; their skepticism has been a valuable counter to hysteria. But their total certainty, in the absence of the actual evidence, that there is and never was anything to this story is no more admirable than that of the new Cold Warriors.

We only know one thing: that Mueller felt unable to prove a conspiracy to corrupt the elections beyond a reasonable doubt, and didn’t indict anyone in the higher reaches of the Trump administration and family. In fact, he hasn’t indicted any Americans on conspiracy charges. But that really is all we know. Attorney General Bill Barr’s stated belief that there was also no obstruction of justice remains simply that: a matter of his belief. When you consider the broad record of Barr’s judicial philosophy, you realize that he probably would have written this even if obstruction screamed from the pages of the document. He doesn’t really believe that a president can obstruct justice in firing an FBI director, for example, because the president is the FBI director’s boss. The rest of us may beg to differ.

The truth is: We can wait. The public hasn’t leapt to any conclusions; polling shows little shift from before Barr’s spin. There is plenty of time to hold the president accountable. So chill. We’ll know soon enough. And I have a feeling we are still in the middle of this story rather than the end of it.

See you next Friday.

Is Pete Buttigieg a Transformational Candidate?