You’re in the company of the vast majority of Americans if you do not know who Pete Buttigieg is. He is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and he announced on Wednesday that he is forming a presidential exploratory committee. The Post reports, “The millennial profile is only one of the attributes Buttigieg brings to the race: He is a former Rhodes scholar and Afghanistan veteran, a native Midwesterner who is gay. (He and his husband, Chasten Glezman, were married last summer.)” So yes, we have another first in the 2020 field - the first openly gay man with a spouse. (That his sexual orientation drew so little notice speaks well of a country that has gotten past fighting over gay marriage.)
Well, what’s he doing in the race? And does he have a legitimate chance to win?
Let’s take the viability one first. We’d say it’s impossible for a mayor of a small-sized city with no national profile to win the presidential nomination, but President Donald Trump showed that nothing is impossible in presidential politics. Let’s just say Buttigieg is at an extreme disadvantage. And let’s be clear: Having served in the military and having held public office in which he has been accountable to voters, Buttigieg is already more qualified than Trump was in 2016.
As for what he’s doing running for president rather than, say, governor or senator, we can only guess at the motive for bypassing intermediate steps (e.g., impatience, ambition, genuine concern for the country). If the idea is to position himself for vice president, however, he’s probably in the wrong race. If the Democrats want a white male for the number two spot wouldn’t they, as one canny Democratic insider put it, choose someone such as Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, or even the mayor of a big city (e.g., Los Angeles’s Eric Garcetti)?
What Buttigieg could do in the race is the more intriguing question. He’s got a favorable reputation among Democrats, who will tell you he is “super-duper smart” and impressive for someone his age. He “thinks deeply and listens carefully,” said one Democratic campaign veteran. That could describe lots of candidates, however, so let’s drill down to see what might be special about Buttigieg.
For one thing, he is focused on generational change, and looks very young. That’s not a good thing for potential candidates such as former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who are both even older than Trump. Each time Buttigieg makes the case that Trump is old and out of it, and that the next generation should take over, he’s also explaining why Biden and Sanders may be less-than-ideal candidates. The conclusion many voters could reach is that they want someone younger than the senior citizens - but older than Mayor Pete.
Buttigieg also has the potential to serve as a reality check on those Democrats who are as unconcerned about the debt as the president. He would do a service to both the Democratic Party and the country to explain that that debt will be borne by his generation, diminishing their opportunities and contributing to the worry they will be less well-off than their parents. (Indeed, the entire theme of saddling future generations with the results of climate change, inattention to infrastructure and unsatisfactory public school is a good one to push.)
In addition, Buttigieg is likely to be the only candidate in the Democratic field (maybe from either party) to have served in the military. (That, in and of itself, should be reason for pause; with a volunteer military, the number of presidents with military service will continue to fall, underscoring the divide between military and civilian life.) That may provide some perspective on issues ranging from military funding to long wars to fidelity to U.S. allies.
We don’t know whether Buttigieg will win any delegates or even make it to the Iowa caucuses. While he is in the race, however, he might make some significant contributions to the task of picking the best, most viable standard bearer of his party.