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Pete Buttigieg makes an impressive start but it’s time to get more granular

2020 Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a town hall meeting on April 16, 2019, in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
2020 Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a town hall meeting on April 16, 2019, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. The Associated Press

During a recent rally here in Iowa, Pete Buttigieg described his strategy for beating President Donald Trump with an unusual analogy. “He’s kind of like a Chinese finger trap,” observed the South Bend, Indiana, mayor. “The harder you go in, the harder it gets stuck.”

As the audience chuckled, the 37-year-old presidential candidate explained: “You’ve got to get out of playing his game.”

More important than trying to match Trump move for move, he suggested, is figuring out how Trump won over voters who had previously voted Democratic. And acknowledging that racism and xenophobia helped carry Trump to victory, Buttigieg said it’s important to understand what makes people susceptible to messages like those.

Without elaborating, he said, “We’ve got to talk more, not about him, but about you.”

This seems to be Buttigieg’s way of approaching many questions, by looking at the long view, the bigger picture, the one everyone is most likely to agree on, then putting audiences in the driver’s seat. He’s well capable of such analyses. They also help avoid specifics.

If you’d never heard of Buttigieg a month ago, you’re not alone. If you haven’t by now, you just might be. A little over a month after the March 10 CNN town hall that brought him 65,000 donors, the first millennial to seek the presidency is still riding high. He placed third in an Emerson Poll of Iowa Democrats — after Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Within four hours of announcing his candidacy April 14, he raised $1 million. And he draws huge crowds; an estimated 1,100 turned out at Franklin Middle School.

“We’ve cleared the bar. What do you think?” he asked his cheering audience.

Buttigieg is self-confident, smart, youthful, polished and just the right amount of cocky for the task. “He’s so many things we need right now,” said the chairman of the Polk County Democrats, Sean Bagniewski, who introduced him: A Harvard grad and Rhodes scholar who served with the Navy Reserves in Afghanistan. A former Obama campaign worker who also worked for management consulting company McKinsey & Co.

He’s also gay, which drew shouts about Sodom and Gomorrah from a couple of hecklers who showed up on the Franklin Junior High school grounds. But unlike back in the 1990s when something like that helped topple Des Moines school board member Jonathan Wilson’s re-election, Buttigieg is openly married to his partner.

The question is, how can he be all things to all people? Buttigieg can be short on specifics, as he acknowledged in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow the same day, saying, “As Democrats, we sometimes have a tendency to lead with the policy minutiae.” He said it’s important to “win the values argument too.”

Buttigieg doesn’t support “Medicare for All,” as some progressive candidates do. He calls that a goal but first proposes letting people buy a version of Medicare through the insurance exchange.

On the Green New Deal to address climate change, embraced by some on the left, he calls it a good goal, but would start with a carbon tax with rebates, funding for research and development, and focusing on energy efficiency.

Asked about conducting research on gun violence, he criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for no longer collecting such data, but pivoted to what makes the National Rifle Association so successful: its ability to mobilize people. “That’s what you all are doing,” he said.

He talks of reclaiming and recasting terms Republicans use. When the GOP uses “security” to mean border walls, he says Democrats should use it to mean safety from floods and white nationalism. The GOP’s “freedom” from taxes and regulations becomes Democrats’ freedoms of collective bargaining rights and reproductive choice. He uses “democracy” to mean elections decided by the popular vote and overturning the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United.

It’s hard not to notice the lack of people of color in his audience. He has been criticized in columns in The South Bend Tribune for having fewer black and Latino leaders than his predecessor, in a city where over 40 percent identify as African American or Hispanic.

“In its first five years, the Pete Buttigieg administration has been a force for inequality,” wrote Ricky Klee in a 2017 op-ed, saying the highest-paid minority city officials and administrators dropped from 18 to 12 percent in his administration, and only one of 10 city department heads is Hispanic or African American. Klee wrote that Buttigieg hasn’t appointed an African American or Hispanic to many city boards.

Nathan J. Robinson is even more critical in an essay in Current Affairs, contending (at times unfairly) that Buttigieg’s autobiography, “Shortest Way Home,” shows he’s not progressive. Robinson also notes low African American earnings and high unemployment in South Bend and accuses Buttigieg of failing to address that, and homelessness.

Bagniewski credited Buttigieg with creating thousands of jobs in his city, however.

One thing Buttigieg does effectively is speak to Midwesterners about this region as a force for progressive values. “There’s no better place to launch a progressive revival in the U.S. than in the American heartland,” he said. As mayor in a conservative Midwestern state, he has seen young people grow up to think the only way to succeed is to get out. “But some have found purpose and meaning right where we started out.”

He’s even-keeled and non-threatening — a well-educated, white, young, urban professional who isn’t angry and doesn’t embrace anything the right might call socialist. Even some national Republicans can see voting for him. But is that what it takes this election cycle, when many voters are fighting mad or checked out?

He’s made an impressive start but will need to get more granular on policies. And he’ll have to satisfy a diverse nation of voters and nonvoters that he would fight for everyone, and that he, of everyone in this diverse, crowded field, is the one to unseat Trump.

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