Who Does Mayor Pete Want to Be?

The higher he rises, the lower he aims.

Buttigieg, wearing a white shirt, holds his chin pensively while seated on a stage.
Pete Buttigieg in Chicago on Oct. 18. Scott Olson/Getty Images

When South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg started running for president, he was a forward-looking Democrat.

He’d established his bona fides as early as 2017, when he was the only candidate for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee who skipped a Florida retreat for high-dollar donors to participate in the Women’s March. At his presidential campaign launch in South Bend, he spoke at a former Studebaker auto-manufacturing campus that had closed in 1963 and had been renovated, during his mayoral term, into a high-tech “Renaissance District.” Buttigieg talked about having known when he took office, in implicit contrast to Donald Trump, that “nothing like Studebaker would ever come back” to South Bend—that heavy manufacturing jobs won’t return to Middle America just because a president demands it. He told New York magazine that Democrats “need to abandon the appeal of the ’90s”—implying a departure from Clintonian compromises between progressives, corporate interests, and social conservatives—and said that major tech companies need to realize that “business and philanthropy alone isn’t going to make the world a better place.” (Said Buttigeg at his launch: “Organized labor sows freedom, because you’re not free if you can’t organize for a fair day’s pay for a good day’s work.”) In the New York interview, he spoke about the American sea change on gay rights being a reason for optimism and said that he planned to handle the issue of his sexual orientation “the way that President Obama negotiated race,” as a part of his identity that he celebrated, but not a defining fact that would “hem him in.”

Buttigieg had an ambitious agenda as well: At the launch, he proposed eliminating the Electoral College, condemned the Citizens United Supreme Court decision for fueling a corrupt democratic process in which “dollars can drown out the will of the people,” and mocked the Republican Party for failing to present an alternative to the Green New Deal. At a CNN town hall, he mentioned a plan for expanding the Supreme Court and said that economic disruption meant the U.S. “might even need to look at guaranteed income for working people.” He warned that tech companies can abuse personal data, arguing that the U.S. needs a national data privacy law—and that the federal government should be “empowered” to use monopoly law against any tech company that gets “so large that it can use its dominance of one market in order to get an unfair advantage in another.” He proposed a multifaceted Douglass Plan of spending that would be meant to build minority communities, an implicit reference to the Marshall Plan’s success in helping Europe rebuild after WWII, and said that restoring voting rights and ending partisan gerrymandering were two of the most important reasons he was running for president.

At the same CNN event, Buttigieg talked about the importance of cutting health care costs by eliminating “bureaucracy,” noting the everyday annoyance of filling out redundant paperwork at every doctor visit. In his launch speech, he praised Medicare for helping keep his family from going bankrupt when his father needed chemotherapy, and in 2018 he responded to a single-payer advocacy group that had written to him on Twitter that “insurance does not belong in healthcare” by approvingly asserting that he supported “Medicare for All”. At a July debate, he complained that the gotcha question of whether universal coverage would be paid for with taxes was “a distinction without a difference” because “you’re paying the same money in the form of taxes or premiums.” Early-campaign Pete Buttigieg, while not a full welfare-statist like Bernie Sanders or as enthusiastic an advocate of “fighting” as Elizabeth Warren, envisioned a Democratic Party that was no longer defined by caution or deference to status-quo interests. He wasn’t quite pitching leftism, but rather what liberalism would look like in a much better democracy.

Buttigieg’s campaign has gone well—probably better than anyone, including him, had expected. Right now, he is in fourth place in national polling, ahead of senators and governors. He’s in the double digits in some polls of Iowa. He’s raised a lot of money and has more than $23 million cash on hand. Many pundits praised his performance in the most recent presidential debate, in which he pursued direct confrontations with Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke. Since that time, he’s risen another point in the polls. Politico has reported that he has wind in his sails.

But at the same time, without there ever having been one decisive transitional moment in which he changed his strategy, it’s become hard to tell who Pete Buttigieg is and whom his campaign is for.

Look at his attacks on Warren, for example. The first concerned an answer she’d given about whether “Medicare for All” would require raising taxes.

Well, we heard it tonight, a yes or no question that didn’t get a yes or no answer. Look, this is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular. Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this.

No plan has been laid out to explain how a multitrillion-dollar hole in this “Medicare for All” plan that Sen. Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in.

Minutes afterward, he targeted her assertion that she could cut costs by eliminating the bureaucracy inherent to private insurance. “I don’t understand why you believe the only way to deliver affordable coverage to everybody is to obliterate private plans, kicking 150 million Americans off of their insurance in four short years,” he said.

Later in the debate, Buttigieg took on Warren’s idea for an annual tax on fortunes larger than $50 million:

Let me tell you, though, how this looks from the industrial Midwest where I live. Washington politicians, congressmen, and senators, saying all the right things, offering the most elegant policy prescriptions, and nothing changes. I didn’t even realize it was unusual to have empty factories that I would see out the windows of my dad’s Chevy Cavalier when he drove me to school. I didn’t know that wasn’t every city until I went away to college. Now I drive my own Chevy. It’s a Chevy Cruze. It used to be built right in Lordstown, which is now one more symbol of the broken promises that this president has made to workers.

It’s not clear what the wealth tax (a new idea, at least in American politics) has to do with the past free trade agreements that contributed to factory closures. (For better or worse, Warren has proposed trade policies that are relatively protectionist.) It’s also contradictory to criticize Warren’s M4A plan for not being detailed enough and then to wave off details about the wealth tax with the notion that elegant policy plans are for dorks. But if there’s one message there, it’s that structural ambition is an indulgence of out-of-touch elites—a message Buttigieg emphasized by, seemingly, attacking Trump for not bringing domestic car manufacturing back to the Midwest.

This performative moderation also comes through in a new Cosmopolitan interview in which Buttigieg praises ex-Justice Anthony Kennedy as an example of the kind of judge who can “think for themselves” and who might join the court under an expansion plan in which five justices would be seated only upon the common agreement of the others. He’s said that the justices he would appoint personally under that plan would be more liberal than Kennedy—but a Supreme Court to which Democrats appoint liberals and Republicans appoint conservatives, with throwback Kennedys in the middle, is the same arrangement that produced a number of the outcomes Buttigieg once claimed to deplore. Kennedy himself cast crucial swing votes in Citizens United, in the 2018 Janus decision that dealt a major blow to labor organizing, and the 2013 Shelby County decision that killed a key section of the Voting Rights Act.

Speaking of which: The New York Times reports that Buttigieg, after being told by “financial bundlers” (fundraisers) that his Supreme Court and Electoral College plans were “not popular,” has stopped mentioning them in his stump speeches. He has made fundraising events with wealthy donors a priority, holding private gatherings in Los Angeles, Manhattan, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and Silicon Valley, and out-raising even Joe Biden. He’s hired two staffers at Mark Zuckerberg’s recommendation and attacked Warren’s call for breaking up Facebook as premature. Since the debate, he’s continued to criticize Warren for failing to provide details on how she’d pay for universal coverage. (The description of the Douglass Plan on Buttigieg’s website doesn’t say how it will be paid for. After introducing the plan in July, he mentioned it at the next two debates but didn’t bring it up at the most recent one.) His national policy director is a former executive from Goldman Sachs and Google who, according to the campaign, specializes in getting the “public, private, and social sectors” to “work together” on policy problems. When Buttigieg campaigned for DNC chair in 2017, his slogan was “New Leadership. Fresh Start,” and he emphasized that the party needed to “not treat the presidency like it’s the only office that matters”; in July, he hired a former CEO of the DNC to work for his presidential campaign.

One might speculate that, having failed to win the big-ideas lane that Warren is dominating, the onetime McKinsey consultant has turned to another sector: people who like Joe Biden’s philosophy but believe that Biden is too old. But unlike Biden, Buttigieg’s polling with black voters is abysmal, which is unlikely to be helped by an internal campaign focus group report, obtained by the McClatchy news service, that blames those poor numbers on his sexual orientation, which is purportedly a “barrier” that makes “African-American voters,” particularly men, “deeply uncomfortable.” If anything, the primary goal of Buttigieg’s campaign seems to be reassuring socially liberal management-class high earners that tweaking around the margins of the status quo is the best that the Democratic Party can do. Maybe he can lead the next donor retreat.

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