Would You Rather Settle for Joe Biden or for Pete Buttigieg?

A Slate discussion.

Joe Biden smiles and pats Pete Buttigieg on the back as they both stand on the debate stage.
Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden at the Democratic debate in June in Miami. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

With two Democratic candidates steering their way into a wide and apparently welcoming right-of-left-of-center lane, Slate has gathered several of its writers for a discussion on the question: If you had no other choice—Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg? Some of these writers very much hope to have another choice. Others would be fine making this one.

Ashley Feinberg: In all honesty, the single best reason I have to pick Biden over Pete is that he is much older and might pick a decent VP, who could then run in his stead should, God forbid, something happen.

Jordan Weissmann: So, let’s unpack this a little. It seems likely that Biden would want to pick a woman of color right now. There were rumors at one point that he was courting Stacey Abrams. And he was very gracious toward Kamala Harris when she announced the end of her candidacy, even though the high point of her whole campaign was the moment she knifed him on the debate stage, which suggests to me he’s at least trying to preserve her as a possibility.

So to me, what you’re saying, Ashley, is that you’d rather have either Kamala Harris or Stacey Abrams as vice president, ready to take over if and when Biden permanently sundowns, than have Pete as president.

Feinberg: Would prefer Stacey Abrams over Kamala, but yes, essentially.

Weissmann: But what if Biden lives?

Feinberg: I also think that Biden would fill out his staff with normal Dems, which is still not great but is better than Pete’s staff of Silicon Valley and McKinsey hires. Otherwise, on the merits, I think they’re more or less the same. Both have a history of institutionalized racism, both seem to believe that Republicans are worth listening to, both are indebted to wealthy donors.

And the differences sort of cancel out, like, even if Pete says he wants to legalize weed whereas Biden does not, Pete also ran an extremely racist police department. Hard to imagine there would be much of a distinction in how they govern, or at least in the results of that governing.

William Saletan: The idea that Buttigieg has a history of institutionalized racism pretty much boils down to the fact that he’s been governing a city. These racial tensions with police departments happen in lots of places. Some cities are doing better than others. He has said he could be and should be doing better. But it’s not like Minneapolis or San Francisco or Wilmington or Newark has been perfect.

Also, Buttigieg has been notably candid about facing South Bend’s shortcomings. Unlike Biden, who tends to get defensive and deny ever having done anything wrong, e.g., on busing.

Tom Scocca: If the winning message has to be that an exhausted nation wants to just get a break from Trump and get back to normal, it seems better to have that banner carried by a genuinely exhausted figure like Biden, rather than a peppy young person seeking to implement the politics of exhaustion on an eight-year plan.

Weissmann: I think that’s a bit unfair to Buttigieg. Biden’s campaign is explicitly about returning to normal. His message is that Trump is an aberration, and that he can bring the country back together. It’s either deluded or cynical—I’m honestly not sure which.

Feinberg: To Will’s point, it’s one thing for Pete to say he could do better, and another for him to continue not to release the South Bend police tapes, for example. (I know he claims legal restraints, but I think that’s bullshit.)

Weissmann: Buttigieg has made it very plain that he thinks our Democratic institutions are broken and need to be fixed. That’s where the talk of adding states, ending the Electoral College, and reforming the Supreme Court came from. I hate that he’s deemphasized that point and transformed into a more generic moderate as the campaign has worn on, but he’s at least demonstrated an awareness of how dire our situation is.

Feinberg: He’s stopped talking about all of that though! Which is another thing that worries me about Pete: His views seem entirely dependent on who he thinks he can garner support from.

Weissmann: Not entirely. But even so: Do you want the president who knows the system is fundamentally in shambles or one who thinks Trump is the problem?

Feinberg: I don’t think it really matters if they show no indication of wanting to actually fix those institutions, or if their solutions are only going to make them worse. Like, adding four moderates to the Supreme Court or whatever is not going to fix the problem.

Ben Mathis-Lilley: Yeah, Jordan, I liked that stuff too, but he’s dropped it in favor of talking exclusively about the “tender moment” in which we all heal together after Trump’s term ends. To me that’s even more unrealistic than Biden’s plan to sock Trump in the kisser and unite the country with working-class Scranton energy.

Weissmann: I don’t think a Supreme Court plan is going to pass—though, to be honest, restructuring it so it’s a boring non-entity in most of American life, which is basically Buttigieg’s goal, strikes me as a much better long-term approach than temporarily trying to pack it with a few liberals.

Mathis-Lilley: That’s not his plan, you idiot.

Sorry, just trying to spice things up. The plan is to pad out a moderate middle section but to continue to let GOP and Democratic presidents appoint justices ALSO, which doesn’t change the overall balance.

Scocca: Ben, we are trying to return to civility here.

Weissmann: If you pad out the middle, the boring moderates are the deciding votes. And the more boring the court is, the better.

To me, it’s a question of: Do you want a president who clearly has some sense of what’s going on in this country? Or one who’s still harkening back to, like, Tip O’Neill and Reagan getting soused and cutting taxes together?

Saletan: I watched the whole multihour session in which Buttigieg and South Bend’s police chief faced an angry community audience after the Eric Logan shooting. The guy went in there and took his lumps and answered the questions and admitted what needed to be admitted. Mostly, he listened, and then he talked about constructive options. One thing I like about him is that he’s always looking for creative solutions. He also explained some of the legal obstacles to speaking while the investigation was still underway. I don’t dismiss those obstacles as BS.

Bottom line, I don’t think South Bend is doing worse in this respect than comparable cities. And I’ve never seen a mayor or governor face his constituents in a situation like this one, with that kind of humility and candor.

Mathis-Lilley: I have no doubt in his belief to perform humility and candor for people of color when the situation calls for it; I also have no doubt that he’s been equally compelling to the rooms of health care and finance executives he’s raised so much money from. He was also very persuasive to the left-liberal journalists that he courted when he launched his campaign, and who his campaign now actively insults and goads now that it’s decided they’re not the right constituency to jump off from to win Iowa and New Hampshire. But which one of those performances is the one that best tells us how he would approach the presidency?

Scocca: Will, what would the good Buttigieg presidency look like, do you think?

Saletan: I’m not sure where to start. I agree with you, Tom, that if the message is “an exhausted nation wants to just get a break from Trump and get back to normal,” the right nominee is Biden. I just don’t think that’s the right message. I agree with Buttigieg that the old “normal” failed to keep up with economic changes and led to sufficient unhappiness to elect Trump. So we need a new, better normal.

I’ll boil down a couple of thoughts here, re: Biden vs. Buttigieg. One negative, one positive. The negative one is that over the course of the campaign, I’ve been watching Biden, and my conclusion so far is that I don’t think he’s up to this. I’m increasingly concerned that he could blow the election and lose to Trump. Some of it is mental. I’m sorry, but I believe what I’m seeing are signs of cognitive decline. Which is totally fine for ordinary people, but not for representing the entirety of non-Trump America in the one shot we have to get rid of this president. It’s not just that Biden starts a debate with “I have two points” and then can’t remember point No. 2. It’s also that he lacks emotional discipline. Blowing up at the guy the other day is an example.

I’m an optimist about this election. I believe we can win it by just running the ball soundly. Joe Biden is a fumbler. We can’t give him the ball.

Weissmann: He literally—literally, I’m serious—called a guy fat.

Although, honestly, that kind of thing might help him win over a few Trump voters.

Mathis-Lilley: September Buttigieg said that neoliberalism caused Trump. December Buttigieg said that Democrats need to get back to reducing the budget deficit. If we give this guy the ball, which way is he running?

Saletan: My more positive case for Buttigieg is that over the course of the campaign, I’ve gained confidence that he could do what really needs to be done. And that is to consolidate a very broad coalition of left and center that doesn’t just win one election but controls the political agenda for a longer term and drives the Republican Party out of power in much of the country. And I believe the GOP needs a long time in the wilderness before it accepts the shakeup that will be needed to create a sensible conservative party.

Also can I just say, you guys seem way dialed in on every little shift of the hips from Buttigieg. When you run for office, there are a lot of issues or plans you can talk about. You might talk about these three while you’re trying to maneuver your way onto the debate stage, then switching to these other three when you’re jockeying at the front of the pack. It doesn’t make you dishonest or self-contradictory.

Weissmann: I’m kind of surprised Team Biden here isn’t talking at all about electability. He polls better against Trump than any other Democrat, which suggests his coattails might actually help the party retake the Senate.

Feinberg: I was mostly just thinking in terms of governing, but yes, that’s the other thing.

Biden could actually win.

Mathis-Lilley: Yes, my best case for Biden is that he’s not the running back but the beloved coach who delegates almost all of the real work and gives a nice speech before and after the game. Like late Joe Paterno. Wait, hang on.

Weissmann: Like, if you want to talk about upsides, to me it’s: Biden is more likely to win, or even win big, and might have the stature in the Senate to bring over a guy like Joe Manchin on some key votes. Buttigieg is less likely to go entirely senile by the end of Year 2 and seems to have a stronger sense of what’s wrong with the country, and has a more ambitious agenda on domestic policy.

Saletan: This latest thing about Democrats and deficits—Buttigieg actually said a bunch of things that are complicated and are different faces of the same complex reality. One was that Democratic presidents have actually taken fiscal responsibility seriously, unlike Republican presidents. But nobody focused on that. Instead they focused on his vague line about Democrats not expressing sufficient interest in balancing budgets. He probably wishes he had put that line differently. But he’s not wrong that Dems have a problem with this (e.g., promising benefits without having realistic plans to pay for them), and he definitely wasn’t defending Republicans.

Mathis-Lilley: You’re giving a lifelong student of D.C. politics a lot of credit for not knowing what his statements signify, Will!

Feinberg: He’s been saying more or less the same thing for a very long time!

Weissmann: I mean, Pete’s deficit talk hurt me on a spiritual level.

Feinberg: It seems to be his one genuine belief, which doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

Weissmann: But, also, Biden spent YEARS trying to pass deficit reduction in the Senate. It was one of his few hobbyhorses. I don’t think he’s any better on it and, arguably, may be worse.

Saletan: [Raises hand gingerly to defend the idea that running up the national debt is bad.]

Weissmann: [Slaps Will’s hand down.]

Anyway, I think if you cock your head and squint, you can sort of see Buttigieg’s deficit talk in a positive light. Part of his strategy is making fairly ambitious plans sound harmless. “Medicare for all who want it” was a really good way to frame an extremely ambitious expansion of government health insurance that makes it sound like NBD.

His boring court reform plan … is still a Supreme Court reform plan.

Likewise, I think he realizes that paying lip service to moderation is going to put certain people at ease, whether or not he’s serious about it.

Saletan: That’s one of my favorite things about Buttigieg: He often finds a more broadly palatable way to express the same thing other candidates are framing in a more alarming (to moderates) way.

Weissmann: And if you think there’s any value whatsoever in having a decent communicator in the White House, then that seems like a serious point in Pete’s favor.

On the other hand, some people just seem to find Biden to be a reassuring presence, and maybe the man will be the message.

I don’t know, I just really have a hard time voting for the guy I’m not sure can make it past the first midterms.

Mathis-Lilley: Are any of us concerned about the fact that we’re basically debating the position of operative/strategist in chief here? Is it a problem that the biggest government he’s led is the fourth-largest city in Indiana?

Weissmann: Yes.

Saletan: Yes, to me that’s the most serious concern about … oh, hell, I’ll give in and call him by his first name since everybody else is … Pete.

Mathis-Lilley: Mr. Peter.

Saletan: I’ve been watching him all year, and I find him extremely impressive. Not for being “smart,” which seems to be the prevailing impression, but for being wise and well-balanced and open-minded and constructive and lots of other things. But in an ideal world, I’d wait for him to be a governor or senator or something else first.

And maybe if he were in a different state, that would have happened by now. But in Indiana, statewide office isn’t as easy as elsewhere.

I’d really like to see him win more than circa 10,000 votes before betting this election on him.

Scocca: Luckily for him, the entire premise here is a forced choice in a world that is emphatically not ideal.

Feinberg: Open-mindedness isn’t all that useful to me when it means going to people like Mark Zuckerberg for aide appointments. Or rather, his mind seems open to the wrong people.

Weissmann: I mean, wasn’t Zuck basically recommending tech staff?

Feinberg: Any sort of relationship like that with the head of Facebook is extremely troubling!

Weissmann: For staff, my guess is that both of them would draw overwhelmingly from Obama World, Center for American Progress, etc. But with Biden, there’s a stronger chance the staff ends up totally in command.

Scocca: If we assume the next president will be operating within a frozen and dysfunctional political system, hasn’t the Trump administration accidentally demonstrated that a senescent figurehead of a president creates room for staff to pursue aggressive policy change? Imagine what a Biden staffer could accomplish if they cared as much about decarbonization as Stephen Miller cares about white nationalism.

Feinberg: That’s another thing: Biden’s White House econ team was led by this guy, who is actually good and was better than Obama’s main guys!

Weissmann: Jared Bernstein is absolutely great. And if someone from Team Biden announced tomorrow that they were going to put him in charge of the Council of Economic Advisers, I’d be a lot more positive about Joe. But right now, he’s not with the campaign.

Feinberg: Sure, but I just mean he has a history of placing good people.

Weissmann: Right, but he also has a history of helping to make consumer bankruptcy laws a bit more brutal on the poor.

Saletan: Do y’all really think Pete Buttigieg is a tool of evil corporate contributors?

Mathis-Lilley: The fact that Buttigieg’s national policy director is a former executive at Goldman Sachs and Google does not give me confidence that he shares my beliefs on the structural problems those companies create, nor does his pursuit of donations from lobbyists and corporate executives give me confidence that, as president, he would treat their interests in the way I believe is necessary in order to get good things done. Is THAT so unreasonable?

Feinberg: But to answer your question, Will: Yes, I really do believe with all my heart that he is a tool of evil corporate contributors.

Saletan: A lot of this anti-Buttigieg argument seems to be based on “he’s connected to so-and-so who’s connected to so-and-so.” As opposed to anything he’s done or said.

Mathis-Lilley: I would argue that soliciting donations from certain donors is a thing he does.

Weissmann: I mean, Will, it matters what waters you swim in.

Feinberg: The things he’s said fluctuate constantly, and he hasn’t done a whole bunch, so his appointments and donors make a big chunk of that.

Weissmann: But on the other hand, if we’re talking donors—

Do we not recall how Biden started his campaign?

Mathis-Lilley: I do, I do!

Feinberg: Honestly, no I don’t.

Weissmann: Comcast!

Saletan: What statements or proposals by Buttigieg about tech monopolies substantiate the idea that he’d go easier on any of them than, say, Biden would?

Mathis-Lilley: I think that’s a fair question, Will, and helps me clarify my thinking—my answer (to get back to the theme here) is that I think Biden has malleable policy beliefs and can be pushed in “good” directions, whereas my fear with His Mayoralty Buttigieg is that he is deeply marinated in the belief that the only people worth listening to are upper-middle-to-upper-class overachievers who have worked at a hedge fund or consulting firm.

Some of those people are my best friends! But I don’t think they need to be the only ones running the country.

Saletan: Where does this idea that Buttigieg would listen only to upper-middle-class overachievers come from? Sure, that’s what he is. And people who donate a lot of money tend to be achievers. But I don’t see anything in his record or his proposals to suggest that he would focus on those people to any greater extent than the other candidates would.

Mathis-Lilley: Well, his record is nonexistent. And his proposals are all over the place. That’s the problem!

Weissmann: What strikes me about this conversation is that both of the major candidates pitching themselves as comforting moderates are actually gambles.

With Biden, we’re gambling on his health and lucidity. With Pete, we’re gambling on who he’ll actually staff the government with and what he’ll actually prioritize, since he has zero track record in national office from which we can judge.

Saletan: I agree with Jordan: They’re gambles. If I were to rank the Top 4 gambles in order of risk of blowing the election, I’d put Sanders at the bottom (riskiest), Pete at the top (risky, but unlike the others, because of unknowns more than knowns), and honestly I’m not sure how to weigh the different kinds of risk posed by Warren and Biden.

Weissmann: You think Sanders is riskier than Warren?

Saletan: Yes. And I think he’d be a bad president.

Mathis-Lilley: What do voters in Arizona like more: socialism or being “lectured” by a damn woman?

Scocca: Let’s stick with our original forced choice here, or this will extend through Super Tuesday

Feinberg: In all honesty, I think all of this is probably moot because Trump is going to win again.

Saletan: On the forced choice: Isn’t what Tom said above, about the Trump model, what’s really going on here? I.e., in fact, y’all would rather have Bernie or Warren or somebody else more clearly on the left, and the honest case for Biden from that POV is that he could win the office and sit there while you staff the admin with folks who will do some of what you want?

Feinberg: Precisely.

Mathis-Lilley: Yep. I believe that Biden doesn’t really care but that Pete thinks he knows better.

Weissmann: I mean, that’s definitely not what will happen on foreign policy.

Saletan: Did I mention that Buttigieg gave a really good speech on foreign policy?

Mathis-Lilley: Always with the speeches, that guy.

Saletan: C’mon, man. No joke.

Scocca: The conclusion seems to be that more people here see Biden as a vessel for their hopes than Buttigieg, but that’s inversely correlated with how high those hopes may be.

Saletan: Yes, well said.

Scocca: Joe Biden: Turn Your Despair Into Resignation.

Saletan: I’m putting that in my yard.

Mathis-Lilley: As I did with the people defending Hillary, I find that I like Will’s case for Buttigieg much more than I like Buttigieg’s case and will be writing in Saletan.

Scocca: Thank you all for your contributions. That concludes this debate.