Cards on the table: I like Pete Buttigieg. I met and interviewed him at a mayors’ conference in 2017 and found him to be smart, engaging, and open-minded. I didn’t even mind that he failed to respond to my hint that I’d sure like help getting tickets to the upcoming Georgia–Notre Dame football game in his fair city (maybe he didn’t have any; he did, after all, go to Harvard, not Notre Dame). It did not occur to me that he might run for president in the very next cycle, but he was clearly a young pol to watch.
Once he did take the plunge, Mayor Pete’s ability to transcend his slim résumé to become a top-tier candidate was impressive indeed. As an observant liberal mainline Protestant, I couldn’t help but cheer the challenge he posed to the religious right, which could not grasp the idea of a gay, married, churchgoing military veteran who knew scriptures and theology better than its own champions. But Buttigieg also showed some conventional political chops, particularly in Iowa, where his largely amateur grassroots organization basically fought Bernie Sanders to a tie. Even when he faded, he managed not to burn too many bridges with occasionally sharp-elbowed debate performances, and got out of the race at the right time while endorsing the ultimate nominee. His reward, the visible but distinctly second-tier Cabinet post of secretary of Transportation, seemed appropriate to his contributions to Biden’s victory and his status in the party. He had, after all, just turned 39 the day before the new administration took office.
But now he faces the most daunting challenge yet of his brief career on the national political stage: presidential buzz. It emanates regularly from Beltway journalists and their sources like a sort of sonic nerve gas. Today’s entry from Politico reads:
While Buttigieg says he’s not contemplating the race to be Biden’s successor, inside the West Wing, others are imagining it for him. His name is sometimes discussed by aides as a natural Democratic presidential nominee in 2028 — or 2024 if the president opts not to run.
“Nobody in the West Wing shuts that down,” said one person with direct knowledge of the conversations. “It’s very open.”
This sort of thing is deadly for Buttigieg’s potentially very long future in Democratic politics. It is bound to annoy his boss, President Biden, who is tamping down any speculation that he might take a pass on a reelection fight in 2024 and obviously wants to keep talk of a successor on a low boil at best. More pointedly, any Buttigieg buzz will undoubtedly be perceived as hostile and even disrespectful to the interests of heir-apparent Kamala Harris. The biggest political liability Mayor Pete took out of his presidential campaign was a reputation for being the ultimate wine-track candidate, with a particular difficulty (fed by events in South Bend) in attracting any sort of support from Black voters. He may have made some subtle progress in this respect by proposing a well-received “Douglass Plan” for Black empowerment, though it wasn’t enough to help him electorally. But clearly the last thing he needs if he ever does want to serve as president is to become a cat’s paw for those who want to sideline the first Black woman to have a clear shot at the presidency.
Beyond that, presidential buzz puts Buttigieg in a no-win position vis-à-vis doing the job assigned to him in the Biden administration. Politico notes that the kind of barnstorming any secretary of Transportation should be doing to promote the bipartisan infrastructure legislation that is Biden’s biggest accomplishment to date sure looks a lot like proto-campaign activity:
While there is no election directly in sight, Buttigieg’s initial on-the-ground efforts to promote the infrastructure deal had some familiar elements of his past campaigns. There were lots of news interviews, meet-and-greets with local electeds, die-hard fans in “Pete” shirts carrying copies of his book, a protester with a homophobic sign (“Booty Gay Go Away”), and people having trouble pronouncing his name (“Butt-Edge-Edge” instead of “Boot-Edge-Edge,” as the emcee of one event kept pronouncing it).
There were also attempts at that folksy Midwestern humor that were part of his candidacy roughly two years ago. On the benefits of the infrastructure package, he told POLITICO “this is literally as concrete as it gets.” He noted how cold it was at the bill signing but said that the bipartisan package “warmed my heart.”
If everything he does in public or private becomes interpreted as little more than a calculated step toward the presidency, that goal may grow further and further away.
Buttigieg hasn’t even turned 40 yet. If Biden has set a new standard for the lifespan of presidential ambitions, Buttigieg can keep hope alive for close to four more decades. What he doesn’t need is to burn out and become yesterday’s news long before he makes another big move in 2036 or 2040 or 2050. If it turns out he is quietly promoting the buzz as we speak, he deserves the danger he would be courting. Otherwise, for Pete’s sake, cut it out and let him do his job.