The Slatest

Pete Buttigieg May Have Just Found a Way to Get Noticed in the Crowded Democratic Primary

Pete Buttigieg greets a guest as he signs copies of his book in Chicago.
How bold is Pete Buttigieg willing to go? Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Pete Buttigieg is having a hard time getting noticed. One month after launching his presidential campaign, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, remains little more than a hard-to-pronounce afterthought in a field that is getting deeper by the week. According to the most recent polling from Morning Consult, 62 percent of Democrats say they’ve never heard of Buttigieg, while nearly half of those who do know his name say they haven’t heard enough to form an opinion. The top-line numbers are more daunting still: Buttigieg polls at 0 percent—as in zero, nada, nothing—among Democrats, both nationally and in the early nominating states.

This problem is not unique to Buttigieg, as everyone from former Rep. John Delaney to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand can attest. The former launched his presidential campaign 18 months ago and, like Buttigieg, fails to crack the margin of error in most national polls. The latter is a powerful senator from New York and yet sits at just 1 percent in the Morning Consult survey and no longer even merits a mention on RealClearPolitics’ 2020 aggregate page that runs nearly a dozen names deep. Everyone outside of the top tier faces the same immediate problem: How do you stand out in a year when the Democratic field is both so deep and so wide?

Buttigieg’s predicament is particularly illustrative. If elected, the former Rhodes scholar and Navy veteran would become both the nation’s youngest president and its first openly gay one, but he’s hardly the only candidate with such history-making potential. In the past, calling for a radical reimagination of the U.S. economy would surely get you noticed; this year, even the self-styled pragmatists in the race are willing to talk about it. Buttigieg is arguably best known for the fact that most everyone mangles his name, but even on that quality he has plenty of competition among the 2020 field.

Buttigieg, though, may have found the tiniest of openings this week—perhaps by accident.

During an event Tuesday in Philadelphia, an audience member asked him whether, if elected, he would be willing to pack the Supreme Court with liberal justices in response to the high court’s recent shift rightward. “I have not reached a considered position on the question of court-packing,” Buttigieg said over a few nervous-sounding laughs in the crowd. “Although I don’t think we should be laughing at it. Because in some ways it’s no more a shattering of norms than what’s already been done to get the judiciary to where it is today.”

It was an off-the-cuff, noncommittal answer, and yet it generated small but noticeable excitement in some corners of the internet. The 1/20/21 Project, a court-packing campaign with the backing of people like Harvard law professors Laurence Tribe and Mark Tushnet, celebrated the answer, as did NARAL president Ilyse Hogue. Progressive outlets like Common Dreams and Daily Kos likewise reacted positively, and ThinkProgress even went as far as to declare that Buttigieg had proved himself the only Democrat in the race who “seems serious about governing.”

A few tweets and effusive blog posts won’t turn Buttigieg into a national figure, but they do suggest that, even in a field that is proposing bold policies on everything from day care to climate change, there’s still room for a candidate to go big in other, less obvious areas. Buttigieg’s full answer, which didn’t make it into the clip originally shared online, points to a few such directions he might consider:

So, I have not reached a considered position on the question of court-packing—although I don’t think we should be laughing at it. Because in some ways it’s no more a shattering of norms than what’s already been done to get the judiciary to where it is today.

I will say some of things I have decided I am prepared to advocate for are in the spirit of acknowledging bold reforms are needed—not just getting money out of politics, which we gotta do, not just redistricting, which we gotta do, but things that might require constitutional action, which interestingly, the court-packing would not, but things like, questioning whether it really makes sense to have an Electoral College that twice in my lifetime has overruled the American people. Asking whether it makes sense to continue to go on with fellow American citizens in places like D.C. and Puerto Rico denied full political representation. And the reality is you might not be able to end Citizens United without constitutional action.

The reason I think it’s important to bring things up like this—part of this is maybe just a Hoosier streak, that 50 years ago, my home state senator, Birch Bayh, was authoring several constitutional amendments: The 25th amendment, which might come in handy one day, the lowering of the voting age, the Equal Rights Amendment, which sadly did not make it but should have. And we need to set that as the level of intellectual and policy ambition that we have, which does not come naturally to our party lately. So I haven’t reached a considered opinion on that one yet, but I do think very bold, very ambitious ideas deserve a hearing right now. 

That’s a long answer bookended by I-have-no-official-position-on-court-packing caveats, but in between Buttigieg brings up the possibility of abolishing the Electoral College and granting statehood to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. He’s “just asking” whether doing either “makes sense,” but if he’s ever ready to answer those questions in the affirmative, his campaign would instantly become impossible to ignore. Support for deciding the presidency by popular vote, for instance, has been on the rise since 2000, and one major poll from last summer found 81 percent of Democrats prefer that system to the Electoral College. Packing the courts or adding states to the union would be tougher sells, but they both have a sizable group of supporters—something Buttigieg hopes he can say for himself someday.