2020 Foresight: Pete Buttigieg, the Millennial Candidate

Step aside, Generation X. There’s a new Mayor in town, and his name is Pete Buttigieg (pronounced: boot-edge-edge). Although he is a dark horse candidate, Mayor Pete has the potential to vastly exceed any reasonable expectations that could be placed on a 37 year-old candidate for the White House. Will Buttigieg get an opportunity to prove his worth on the national stage?

Amy KlobucharElizabeth WarrenJulian CastroCory Booker
Bernie SandersTim KaineSherrod BrownBeto O’Rourke
Joe Biden (VP Stacey Abrams) • Pete ButtigiegMike Gravel

A New Generation of Leadership

At 37 years old, Pete Buttigieg is launching a historic campaign for the White House. He would become the youngest President in the history of the United States of America, as well as the first openly gay President. Buttigieg is the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, which would also make him the first incumbent Mayor to ascend to the presidency. Along with Tulsi Gabbard, he is also one of the first presidential candidates to have served in the Middle Eastern wars. Buttigieg was a lieutenant in the Naval Reserves and deployed to Afghanistan for seven months, graduated from Harvard University, and is a Rhodes Scholar. Another fun fact: he is multi-lingual, with the ability to converse in Spanish, Italian, French, Maltese, Arabic, Dari, and Norweigian. At the age of 29, he became Mayor in 2011 and has eight years of experience in that role. In 2017, Mayor Pete ran for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship with the support of Howard Dean. Never one to let adversity stand in his way, Buttigieg announced his 2020 Presidential campaign a short two years later.

Buttigieg’s dark horse candidacy has one big potential source of appeal; more than any other candidate, Mayor Pete symbolizes the future of the Democratic Party. People talk about wanting something “fresh” and “new,” well Buttigieg has these qualities in spades. He embraces the idea that Democrats need to offer progressive solutions to real-world problems, rather than trying to project an aura of moderation and centrism.

“Mayor Pete,” as he is affectionately called, is the son of a Maltese-American immigrant, Joseph Buttigieg II. His father was a literary scholar and professor at the University of Notre Dame. Four days after Mayor Pete announced his exploratory committee to start a Presidential campaign, his father passed away. In talking about this, he shares the story of talking to his father on his deathbed about the campaign — saying to him: “I hope we’ll make you proud.” Buttigieg recalls that his father mouthed the words “you will.”

Admittedly, I had not heard Pete Buttigieg speak until I watched a CNN Town Hall that gave him an opportunity to speak directly with potential voters. It was a pleasant surprise; the natural reaction to hearing about a 37 year-old Mayor running for President is, “wait, why should I take this guy seriously?” At first it sounded more like a self-promoting gimmick than a genuine campaign, like the scores of other fringe candidacies. However, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures — and Mayor Pete is, in his own right, an extraordinary candidate. His talent is the best kept secret in American politics right now, and that needs to change.

Young and In a Hurry

“I have more experience in government than the President, more executive experience than the Vice President, and I have more military experience than anyone to arrive at that desk since George H.W. Bush. I know that it might sound a little cheeky as the young guy in the race, but largely this is about my experience.” — Pete Buttigieg

For a generation of politically active millennials, Mayor Pete embodies what Barack Obama described as “the fierce urgency of now.” He is running on his own wealth of experience as a young elected official, not in spite of it. He is not running towards our nation’s past in hopes of inspiring nostalgia for days long gone, he is running for a brighter future.

When confronting the Trump Administration’s policies, Buttigieg forcefully characterizes the President’s platform as an “attempt to turn back the clock.” He discusses the tectonic social and economic changes brought on by technology, and the disruption that the onslaught of automation will cause to the working class. This sort of futuristic view is a breath of fresh air, no other serious candidate is talking about this issue in-depth. He understands the complexities behind “big data” and how the business models of major technology companies compromises the liberty of American citizens. There is no “learning curve” for Pete Buttigieg to adapt to the modern world, Mayor Pete is a product of the modern world.

Mayor Pete applies a similar forward-thinking position to the issue of climate change. “We don’t have the luxury of treating climate change like someone else’s problem.” His sense of personal investment in the future of the United States, and the future of our planet, lends him legitimacy as someone who will be directly impacted by American policy for years to come. For older candidates and elected officials, these issues are merely theoretical: something that the next generation will have to deal with, which creates a sense of moral obligation that is purely existential. Pete Buttigieg is part of the next generation of American leadership, and he approaches these issues with a sense of personal investment that is fundamentally refreshing.

Yet in the face of this deluge of crises, Mayor Pete maintains a calm, commanding demeanor that goes far beyond his years. In his first interview on Morning Joe, Buttigieg articulately spoke out against the concept that the Democratic Party is drifting towards socialism. The look on Joe Scarborough’s face was priceless when Mayor Pete explained that he thought that the typical “left/right ideological spectrum” was no longer adequate to define American Politics. He gave the panel a masterful explanation of “Overton’s window,” discussing the ways in which right-wing politicians have organized themselves for decades to move the center of political gravity. Watching their panel simultaneously fawn over Buttigieg, while Joe Scarborough’s brain short-circuited from trying to understand a concept that goes beyond the standard American political dichotomy, was an absolute pleasure.

In this sense, Mayor Pete may be the candidate who is best positioned to advance the causes that self-branded “Democratic Socialists” support. Pete Buttigieg embraces a form of politics that transcends typical ideological frameworks without skimping on a substantive policy platform, whereas candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren still fall into the standard fair of “capitalism vs. socialism” and candidates like Beto O’Rourke seek transcendency at the expense of policy. Pete Buttigieg, as a High School student in the year 2000, wrote an award-winning essay talking about the impressive political integrity of present-day Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders. That’s right, Mayor Pete was the original Bernie Bro.

Notable Policy Positions

  • Buttigieg’s position on Medicare-for-All is what he describes as a “compromise” between a single-payer system and a privatized system. This proposal is essentially the same as the public option proposal that was scrapped during the drafting of the Affordable Care Act, where a Medicare-style public health insurance option would be available on the Insurance Exchanges. During the ACA debate, Republicans described the public option as a “back door to single-payer.” Buttigieg agrees; he feels that over time, if Medicare-for-All truly is the most cost-effective and efficient delivery system for health care, that the system would naturally transition into single-payer.

Path to Victory

For candidates like Mayor Pete, “victory” doesn’t necessarily mean winning a party’s Presidential nomination. Buttigieg’s candidacy symbolizes something far greater than a single campaign; he represents the dawn of a new era of American leadership. Even if he fails to win the nomination in 2020, Buttigieg is positioning himself to be a leader in the Democratic Party for decades to come. He is positioning himself to serve as both a moral leader and a policy leader as the party transforms to meet the demands of the 21st century.

“I think that we are living through a total realignment of politics in this country, and I think that’s a good thing. But we’ve got to make choices that are anchored in the most important values that we share as a country.” — Pete Buttigieg

However easy it may be to dismiss Buttigieg’s chances outright, he does have a few traits that break in his favor. First of all, he is a one-of-a-kind candidate with a message that is unique and resonates with younger voters. Buttigieg has qualified to be a party of the Democratic Party’s official Presidential debates, which will give him the opportunity to make his case in front of a national audience. In terms of electoral appeal, Buttigieg frequently speaks of his experience winning over voters in a fairly conservative community. He cites the fact that there are a large number of voters in South Bend, Indiana who voted for Barack Obama for President, Mike Pence for Governor, Donald Trump for President, and Pete Buttigieg for Mayor. This is a deliberate attempt to position himself as an answer to the Democratic Party’s declining success in the industrial midwest. Several other candidates, from Bernie Sanders, to Amy Klobuchar, to Joe Biden, all are seeking to make the same case.

In recent weeks, Buttigieg has become more prevalent in the national spotlight with a rapid succession of interviews on cable news shows and an hour-long CNN Town Hall event. As with any dark horse candidate, it starts with building name recognition. People need to know who Buttigieg is before they can decide whether or not they want to support him over candidates that they have already formed opinions on. This blank slate can be both a blessing and a curse; however, his relative anonymity means that competitors will not be focusing on defining his candidacy before he can define himself. For comparison, Amy Klobuchar entered the race with a relatively blank slate but her campaign launch but was immediately met with a barrage of negative press coverage about her abusive treatment of her own staff. He will also need to build out a national network of donors and volunteers, something that candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, and Joe Biden have a significant advantage in establishing.

Make no mistake, he is already exceeding expectations in terms of the amount of press coverage he generates proportional to his standing in early polling. As Buttigieg continues to defy political gravity, the amount of intrigue surrounding his candidacy, fueled by his unique biography and age, will only increase. This will serve as the kindling for a breakout debate performance. Mayor Pete is perfectly capable of going toe-to-toe on a debate stage with any of the other 10,000 candidates running for President. He also has the distinct advantage that nobody will likely be preparing attack lines or direct responses to his campaign. As other candidates begin a free-for-all battle royale, it will create the opportunity for a dark horse to emerge from the pack.

On a national level, if Buttigieg were to win the nomination, his campaign would have to focus on his unique strengths as a candidate by building a strong network of young, grassroots supporters. Juxtaposing himself as “America’s future” while portraying Donald Trump as a relic of America’s past may be an effective way to confront the incumbent President in a head-to-head match-up. He will also need to play up his roots as a child of the industrial midwest while making the case that Trump’s approach, even if he delivers on his promises, will only delay an inevitable upheaval in the economic reality of this country. Many other candidates will be positioning themselves to go after the Obama-Trump voter in the general election, but Mayor Pete has a source of appeal that is completely unique to his own biography. This forward-thinking persona is uniquely credible given Buttigieg’s age, while Trump will seek to discredit Buttigieg primarily based on his age. I can already see the “Boy Wonder Buttigieg” tweets. While it may be conventional to perceive Buttigieg’s age as his greatest weakness, it may in fact be his greatest strength.

Trustee (Area 2) for the Woodland Joint Unified School District. Former Legislative Aide/Policy Analyst. Change is a process, not a conclusion.

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