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Pete Buttigieg Wooing Moderates in Hope of a Biden Collapse

Mayor Pete on the stump. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. And so it makes sense that in the course of a Democratic presidential nominating contest in which a vast army of observers wait with bated breath for the long-delayed but perhaps inevitable collapse of support for Joe Biden, at least one of his lower-tier rivals is auditioning to become his successor in the affections of self-consciously “moderate” voters.

Sahil Kapur has noticed Pete Buttigieg’s look-me-over pitch to this large element of the Democratic electorate in Iowa:

Pete Buttigieg is pitching himself as an alternative to moderate Democrats who might not be sold on Joe Biden.

On a recent bus tour of Iowa, Buttigieg framed his argument, emphasizing the need to “re-center our politics” and recapture the notion of freedom and faith from conservatives who he says use those terms to “club people over the head.”

Mayor Pete is not, to be clear, a member of some formal ideological faction of the Democratic Party, like Bill Clinton was a member of the aggressively centrist Democratic Leadership Council. He’s more like Barack Obama, who eschewed ideological labels but deployed messaging (and, as president, policies) that appealed to voters and opinion leaders wary of the kind of anti-corporate “populism” that has consistently animated the labor-left elements of the party. Buttigieg’s status as the first viable openly gay (and married) presidential candidate serves to broaden his appeal in nonideological ways, just like Obama’s African-American identity. But Kapur offers examples of the South Bend mayor’s centrist messaging:

His “re-centering” message is designed to counter Republican caricatures of Democrats — he told Iowans that “freedom” isn’t just about businesses having fewer regulations, it’s about being free of crippling health care costs; and he says big government should get out of the way of women making reproductive choices.

More conspicuously, Mayor Pete touts his record as a military veteran with service in Afghanistan (an increasingly rare credential for politicians of either party), and he is both religiously observant and more than willing to blast the Christian right for its arrogant claims to speak for the Almighty while peddling its entirely secular conservative agenda. These are thematics that voters don’t hear from the economics-focused Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. And while Buttigieg tries to be a bit subtle about it, the 37-year-old candidate emulates the Bill Clinton of 1992 by offering a generational critique of older pols as caught up in ancient ideological conflicts that don’t lead to solutions. This shot at Elizabeth Warren is characteristic:

“She and I are after the same goals,” he said of Warren. “But her pitch has a lot more to do with fighting — she’s more interested in the fighting part of it. I’m more interested in outcomes.”

Buttigieg’s policy stances also echo past centrist preoccupations, including a Clintonesque push for national service and, more famously, a “Medicare If You Want It” health-care proposal that is a lot like the original Obamacare plan in offering a choice between public and private insurance. His national-security agenda is more conventionally liberal-internationalist than that of most of his rivals, and his team of national-security advisers is led by Doug Wilson, an Obama Pentagon official and a former political director at the DLC (where I was one of his colleagues, for the record). When Buttigieg criticized Biden for representing a failed ideology of neoliberalism, lefty critics hooted derisively, calling Buttigieg the authentic neoliberal candidate. He hasn’t really triangulated against this sort of criticism from Team Democratic Socialist, but he might in the near future.

Obviously enough, this turn-to-the-center gambit by Buttigieg won’t work unless Biden finally begins to fade. And he has another problem, too: Democratic moderates have dominated the party in the past via a strong African-American voting base. That was true of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore (in his less progressive phase), Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. It was even true to some extent of John Kerry in 2004, who did surprisingly well among black primary voters while appealing to electability-focused voters worried about Howard Dean’s alleged radicalism.

The black-moderate alliance is fundamental to Biden’s continuing strength, of course. And unfortunately for Mayor Pete, and despite stout efforts (e.g., his Douglass Plan for racial justice), you could currently fit his black support base comfortably within one of those Iowa diners he has visited recently.

There are various explanations for Buttigieg’s exceptionally honkified following: his cerebral, multilingual “wine track” rhetoric, which tends to appeal to more affluent and college-educated white voters; his sexual orientation, with which we are told many African-Americans (particularly those who belong to Evangelical churches) are still uncomfortable; and above all, his history of conflict with black activists in South Bend unhappy with how he has handled police-brutality complaints — most recently after a fatal police shooting of an apparently innocent black man in June. Indeed, this may be the only aspect of his mayoral tenure in South Bend that has gained widespread national attention.

Mayor Pete’s problems with black voters aren’t particularly important to the categorical imperative he shares with others candidates to make a very good showing in lily-white Iowa. He is pouring his considerable resources (his second- and third-quarter fundraising hauls have been extremely impressive; his total contributions are at $51 million for the year) into the first-in-the-nation caucus state, where the RealClearPolitics polling average has him virtually tied with Bernie Sanders for third place. Aside from positioning him to exploit any Biden weakness (which the impeachment drive’s focus on a Ukraine scandal in which Uncle Joe’s last name is going to be mentioned a lot may exacerbate) — and Biden’s already struggling in Iowa — a strong Iowa showing could fatally undermine the viability of other possible pretenders to the mantle of Biden Alternative for Moderates, such as Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Cory Booker. In the recent gold-standard Selzer Iowa Poll for the Des Moines Register, CNN, and Mediacom, Buttigieg held 9 percent as compared to Harris’s 6 percent and Klobuchar’s and Booker’s 3 percent.

If Buttigieg does have something of an Iowa breakthrough — and particularly if the two major African-American candidates immediately fade — then he can hope minority voters give him a second look. It wouldn’t hurt his midwestern white-working-class appeal to get off the “wine track,” either. But understandably, he’s putting first things first, and surviving Iowa is job one.

Pete Buttigieg Wooing Moderates in Hope of a Biden Collapse