At Friday night’s Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire, Pete Buttigieg attacked Bernie Sanders—who is polling ahead of Buttigieg in the state—for “dividing people with a politics that says, if you don’t go all the way to the edge, it doesn’t count. A politics that says, it’s my way or the highway.” On Sunday, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Buttigieg if he believed “that the Democrats can defeat Donald Trump if they have to defend socialism.” Answered the former Indiana mayor: “I think it will be lot harder.” Elsewhere on Sunday, Buttigieg told a crowd that Sanders’ universal health-coverage plan was too expensive and that the party needs to “do something” about the federal deficit even though the subject is “not fashionable in progressive circles.”
Buttigieg is running second in New Hampshire polls ahead of Tuesday’s primary, but he’s still in fifth place nationally—behind Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Michael Bloomberg—and has almost no nonwhite support. Winning in New Hampshire is important for his near-term narrative momentum, and as Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy noted, his sudden concerns regarding fiscal responsibility, the risks of socialism, and the off-putting steadfastness of Sanders’ principles may have been developed strategically to attract the moderate Republican and independent voters who are allowed to participate in the state’s “open” Democratic primary if they choose.
As leftist journalist Walker Bragman noted, the gambit is the exact type of campaign strategy that Buttigieg denounced, with almost an eerie degree of foresight, during a February 2019 appearance at Scripps College. (He’d announced that he’d formed a presidential exploratory committee a month earlier.) First (at 28:50 in the video above) he described writing an essay about Sanders while in college and praised him for being forthright about his positions:
There was a moment where people just weren’t saying what they believed, especially on the left—they were just so cowed by living in this conservative moment that even Democratic presidents or politicians were saying conservative things, which to me raised the question of why we bothered voting for [Democrats]. So what was so interesting to me about then–obscure congressman Sanders was that he just said what he thought. He attached himself to this label that was really suicidal in most contexts politically, socialist, especially 20 years ago. And just said what he was about. And I wished that more people on both sides of the aisle would just do that. And I really respected that and still do.
You know, I think I have a somewhat different message in 2020 than he does and I’m certainly a very different messenger. But to the extent that he just opened up the conversation and just moved the kind of outer fencepost of what we could talk about between right and left, I think that’s a very healthy thing and it’s good that he’s in this process again.
(CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski also noted on Sunday that Buttigieg praised Sanders in 2017 as a politician who “wore his ideas on his sleeve but also seemed to be capable of working with Republicans.” Said Buttigieg, then: “Conviction politics can actually make you more convincing, not less, with independents and folks on the other side of the aisle because at least they know that you’re motivated by values, even if your values are different.”)
Later the Scripps event’s moderator asked Buttigieg about a poll which had found that 58 percent of Democrats were comfortable saying they supported socialism. Here’s part of his response (it starts at 33:45):
I think [I’m] from a generation that didn’t grow up in this era where you had communism and socialism here [gesturing upward to one side], kind of the same thing in people’s imagination, and then you had democracy and capitalism here [gesturing upward to the other side], also the same thing. So if you were for socialism you were with communism, which meant you were against democracy. And I think that just doesn’t compute for anybody my age or younger. Because we’re living in this moment when socialism could mean Venezuela but it could mean Denmark. It could mean Social Security. And what’s really interesting in the moment we’re living in is the tensions that are arising between capitalism and democracy. And the real question is, when those tensions arise, do you defend capitalism over democracy, or do you defend democracy over capitalism? Those are the questions that I think need to be answered for our generation.
And so in terms of whose approval ratings are where on the idea, look, I think we’ve gotta remember that the conduct of these campaigns changes the answer to some of those questions. The fact that Bernie Sanders got in, in 2016, changes the numbers on socialism among Democrats for 2020. And we’ve got to recognize that there’s more to campaigns than just trying to get over the finish line. The conduct of the campaigns matters. And Republicans were very smart about this. They ran super-uphill campaigns in the ’60s with ideas that seemed preposterously far-out when Goldwater campaigned on them, and then became mainstream by the time Reagan campaigned on them. Or at least the second or third time Reagan campaigned on them, and actually won. And that was how conservatives began to win not just an election but an era. And I think serious progressives should be thinking about how we set the conditions for our values to be in the ascendant over the next 20 or 30 years, not just how we get through 2020.
Up-and-Coming Phenom Buttigieg and Long-Shot Candidate Buttigieg said that Sanders was admirably principled in a way that independents and Republicans respected, and implied that denouncing socialism was destructive to the long-term interests not just of the Democratic Party but of democracy itself. Presidential Contender Buttigieg says that Sanders is obnoxiously inflexible and that socialism is electorally and financially dangerous. The conduct of a campaign really can change the answer to some questions, huh?