Pete Buttigieg Needs a Big Policy Idea. And I Have a Suggestion.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 29: 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg meets with Reverend Al Sharpton for lunch at famed Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem on April 29, 2019 in New York City. The two were scheduled to speak about African American outreach and the need to confront homophobia among other issues. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg arrives for lunch in New York.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Pete Buttigieg sometimes gets criticized for not talking enough about public policy, which I think is a bit unfair. Early on, the precocious mayor of South Bend made it clear that his first priority as president would be a series of small d-democratic reforms that might also happen to help the big D-Democratic Party—from granting statehood to Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico to potentially overhauling the way Supreme Court appointments are made. The 37-year-old wants to make sure the U.S. doesn’t fall into permanent minority rule under the GOP, which is a big part of why the press started paying attention to him in the first place, especially millennial journalists at outlets like mine and others where we like to dwell on the precariousness of the entire U.S. political system (which is also why it’s a bit odd that some people on the left have caricatured him as a milquetoast moderate suit).

What Buttigieg really hasn’t done is lay out a traditional domestic agenda focused on issues like economics or health care, the way Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren—whose entire campaign apparatus is essentially a mini think tank—have. Instead, he’s focused on telling his personal story, dropping literary references, and talking about national values, an Obama-esque strategy that’s yielded political dividends but probably can’t go on forever. I mean, even Beto O’Rourke, the LiveJournal candidate, just rolled out a 3,000-word climate change plan. At some point, Mayor Pete is going to need a big economic idea. One can’t campaign on a love of Ulysses and court reform alone.

So I’d like to offer a suggestion. Buttigieg should back a job guarantee, but wrap the concept in a big gauzy, swath of patriotism by calling it a national service corps to win over moderates who’d ordinarily recoil at the idea.

The jobs guarantee, you may recall, was the hot lefty policy idea around this time last year— an extremely simple and incredibly radical proposal in which the federal government would promise to directly provide a job to every American citizen who needs work. The notion has been floating around for a while, but after it gained traction in some thinkier corners of the internet, Democratic candidates including Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Sanders all backed some version.

There are a number of, shall we say, unanswered questions about how a job guarantee would actually work. For one, nobody really has any clue what the government would hire all of these unemployed Americans to do; some advocates talk nebulously about “care work,” like looking after the elderly and children, a lot of which should probably be handled by professionals rather than a temporary workforce that waxes and wanes depending on the health of the economy. Others take inspiration from the Depression-era Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps, and imagine massive public works projects, as if this wouldn’t massively tick off America’s construction unions.

Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democratic congressman from Silicon Valley, has offered up a modified job guarantee (he prefers to call it a “job opportunity bill”) that tries to deal with some of these issues. Modeled off a smallish program that ran during the Great Recession, it would pay private employers in the nonprofit, public, and private sectors to hire workers who have either been unemployed for 90 days or whose income leaves them under the poverty line. The jobs would last up to 18 months, with the possibility of a temporary extension, with the goal of getting people into real-world jobs where they could receive some training and a foothold in the labor market. It’s the closest thing to a workable model for something resembling a job guarantee.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Buttigieg? Lately, the candidate has been talking about how he’d like to create a supersized national service program, in order to try and foster a new sense of national unity and purpose. “We really want to talk about the threat to social cohesion that helps characterize this presidency but also just this era,” he told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow earlier this month. “One thing we could do that would change that would be to make it, if not legally obligatory, but certainly a social norm that anybody after they’re 18 spends a year in national service.”

Now, on the one hand, expanding opportunities for national service is typically a little hard to get excited about. It’s an old warhorse proposal politicians like to bring up when they want to get a glowing write-up from someone like David Brooks (who, by the way, seems very taken with Buttigieg). But here’s the thing: It’s also could be pretty wildly ambitious. There are around 8 million 18- and 19-year-old Americans right now. To put that in perspective, Americorps, our current stump of a (non-military) national service program, only has about 75,000 volunteers per year. If Buttigieg really wants to create a national service program that can provide every young adult with a gap year doing good in their community, he’ll have to do the sort of logistical thinking and planning necessary for a job guarantee.

So why not go a little bigger? Why not mash together this hypothetical National Service Corps with a proposal like Khanna’s, by opening it up to the unemployed and underemployed who need job skills? You could even make private sector work an option for older applicants in need of a job or retraining?

Politically, there are several advantages to this approach. For one, calling it a national service program instead of a job guarantee would probably disarm some of the opposition from moderates who are skeptical of socalism-tinged economic schemes. It would also give the government some leeway to scale the program over time, as more community organizations either sprouted up or expanded in order to start taking advantage of new workers.

Now, am I writing all of this mostly because I’m a policy and economics geek who would be personally amused if an ex-McKinsey consultant managed to package a radical policy proposal with roots in the utopian left in a way that appealed to the mushy centrists of the New York Times opinion page? Sure, yes, absolutely. But I also think it’d be an interesting way for a candidate like Buttigieg to fuse his broad theme of restoring American institutions and national unity with a big play for economic justice. Just an idea.