Pete Buttigieg is an observant Episcopalian (raised, moreover, as a Catholic). So despite the, er, distractions he’s dealing with this week, he surely knows February 26 is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season that tracks Jesus’s 40 days and nights in the wilderness, which culminates in the celebration of Easter on April 12. Believers are supposed to develop a plan for Lent based on introspection and an effort to view life from a long-term perspective (i.e., eternity). As it happens, Buttigieg and some of the friends he’ll meet up with on a debate stage in Charleston on Shrove Tuesday (a.k.a. Mardi Gras) are at a real crossroads in life, as they hang on to their presidential aspirations by their fingernails.
By Easter, 70 percent of the pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention will have already been selected, and, with the exception of Bernie Sanders, there’s presently not a candidate with a clear path to the nomination. Mayor Pete may have an especially hard path. Yes, he finished basically tied for first in Iowa and ran second in New Hampshire, but, as many expected, when he got out of those lily-white climes into more diverse territory in Nevada, he slipped to third. And he’s not competitive at all in the final “early state” of South Carolina, which votes on Saturday. Beyond that lies the vast, expensive landscape of Super Tuesday, where at present, in any of the states voting that day with public polling available, he is in no better than fourth place.
So what might be Buttigieg’s plan for the 40 days ahead? This may typify the public side of his Lenten meditations:
Without any obvious path left to the top of the heap, Mayor Pete is waving his arms at Sanders-fearing Democrats and essentially saying, “Don’t forget about me!” His main hope now is that his rivals for the mantle of Last Democrat Standing before a Sanders nomination will falter and fall, leaving him as a putative party savior in the eyes of those who fear the democratic socialist cannot beat Trump. Perhaps he will crank up a serious attack on Bernie in the South Carolina or subsequent debates, but he needs a lot of luck — if not divine intervention — to remain in the race past Easter with a significant horde of delegates and enough money to keep going.
Once upon a time, it was common to suggest that Buttigieg was actually running for vice-president. That made more sense when the odds of a woman winning the nomination were much better: Warren-Buttigieg or Harris-Buttigieg made some sense (Klobuchar-Buttigieg? Not so much). So the odds are pretty good that, at some point after Easter and before November 3, a suddenly unemployed Pete Buttigieg will need to tell himself he has already exceeded expectations in the presidential race and should update his résumé.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Sanders is the Democratic nominee and wins the general election. If Buttigieg can stop at some sort of hypothetical fail-safe point in going after him, there might be a place for him in a Sanders administration, though he might want to watch his back given the number of Bernie-loving millennials who loathe him so much. Maybe he could get an ambassadorship to one of those countries whose language he speaks.
More interesting are the opportunities that might open up if Buttigieg and other centrist prophets of doom are right and Sanders wins the nomination but promptly loses to the Evil One. If he’s not hauled off to a reeducation camp with the rest of us, Buttigieg could become, at best, the symbol of a redeemed post-Trump Democratic future or, at worst, an alternative to Sanders heir apparent AOC. Indeed, at the ripe old age of 42, Pete could represent a Hoosier (and Christian) challenge to putative 2024 Republican nominee Mike Pence. Given the high likelihood of the mother of all second-term midterm backlashes to a reelected and unleashed Donald Trump, Buttigieg might even have a chance to topple Todd Young in 2022 and join his friend Amy Klobuchar in the Senate.
The thing that’s sometimes hard to keep in mind about Buttigieg is that he’s 40 years younger than Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg. If they’ve set a new standard for acceptably old presidential candidates, then Pete has at least until 2058 to navigate the slippery path to the White House. So he has time to veer off in a dozen directions, learn at least a few more languages, kiss and make up with the progressives he has enraged, and earn some real money. So this Lent he has every reason to take a very long view of his career, before he burns too many bridges in attacks on fellow Democrats that will probably gain him nothing other than the most hellish barbecuing the demons of Twitter can cook up.