I don’t know if Pete Buttigieg (pronounced budda’-edge-edge) can win the Democratic nomination for president. I don’t even know if I will support him if he’s still in the running when the primary happens in North Carolina next March. I do know that everybody should be listening to what he’s saying right now.
Mayor Pete, as he’s called, is probably the most thoughtful candidate on the campaign right now. He’s garnering attention, much of it negative, from a lot corners and his numbers are rising in polls in early primary states. He’s still a long way from leading Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris, but he’s moving faster than any of them.
His rise would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. First, he’s a gay man who’s married. Second, his political resume consists of serving as mayor of a relatively small city in a very red state. To put it in perspective, his rise would be comparable to the mayor of High Point becoming a major presidential candidate. Third, he’s only 37 years old.
In the age of Trump, though, all the rules are gone and, like Trump, Buttigieg is making his own. The rest of the candidates in the field are running fairly traditional campaigns. Bernie Sanders is running his 2016 campaign all over again. Kamala Harris could be the most interesting candidate in the race, but she sounds more like a series of talking points pandering to the various elements of the Democratic base. Elizabeth Warren may be the smartest candidate in the field but she comes across as a policy wonk more than the type of star needed to catch fire in modern politics. Beto O’Rourke could be more interesting but there’s a feeling that everything is canned, not spontaneous.
Buttigieg, in contrast, is having serious, unscripted conversations on virtually every medium available. He’s laying out broad visions and insights instead of specific policy prescriptions, which is really what a president should do. If he’s like any recent presidential candidate, it’s probably John McCain in 2000. He’s running an insurgent campaign built on accessibility and what McCain dubbed “straight talk,” probably not the name Buttigieg will adopt given his sexual orientation.
Democrats should listen to him because he understands the fundamental flaws in our system that have led to massive inequality and he can explain them in accessible language. He blames our adoption of supply-side economics without discarding capitalism. He understands that capitalism has been an overwhelming force for good but needs the restraints of government to ensure wealth does not get too concentrated as it has now. He offers a blistering critique to counter those who think government can do nothing right and a reasoned response to those who think it’s a panacea.
Buttigieg also understands the resentment of a white working class that’s watched its fortunes dwindle in recent years. He’s more tolerant of the intolerant than many liberals because in South Bend, Indiana, he’s surrounded by them. While many may be motivated by racism, just as many are just disgusted with a system and government that’s left them behind. If we’re going to fix this country, we need to address the problems that are leading to a declining life expectancy, drug dependency and an overall despair.
I don’t believe a 37-year-old gay man who’s entire political career consists of serving as mayor of a city of 100,000 can win the nomination for President of the United States. I also didn’t think a reality star and con man could, either. That said, I do believe he can lead a wing of the Democratic Party that’s less enamored with the false promises of socialism than the Bernie wing of the party seems to be. Democrats desperately need to find a broad, defining message for what they believe and move away from being little more than a coalition of interest groups, many of which thrive on grievance. Even if you can’t support him, listen to Mayor Pete.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >