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Who Is Pete Buttigieg?

Generational talent, or ambitious shape-shifter?
January 14, 2020
Who Is Pete Buttigieg?
(Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Who is Mayor Pete? Besides, that is, a surprising Democratic front runner in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Beyond a doubt, Pete Buttigieg has a gift for persuasive self-presentation. But that’s the rub. His rare talent as a communicator obscures the remarkable leap of faith Buttigieg demands from the electorate: That the hitherto unknown 37-year-old former mayor of a small Midwestern city has the protean qualities required to rescue America from the abyss.

Central to this conceit is Buttigieg’s vaulting self-description. These fractious times, he tells us, require a leader “who can stand on the rubble of what has been busted in our society and in our politics, pick up the pieces, implement bold solutions, get something done about those issues, and find a way to do it it’s actually going to unify the American people. The good news I’m offering you is that can happen—that will happen—when I’m your president.”

Yet Buttigieg’s political identity is somewhat opaque—even, perhaps, to himself. He is seeking the presidency too swiftly to have one.

Like many change candidates before him, Pete Buttigieg’s real message is himself. In place of deep national experience, he offers a carefully-curated version of Pete Buttigieg—itself subject to revision—accompanied by a largely blank slate on which voters can project their own hopes.

The Buttigieg for President reflects much the same prosaic reality which persuaded Julian Castro and Beto O’Rourke – both of whom faced a steep uphill climb to win higher office in Texas – to run for president instead. Buttigieg’s stunning leap of ambition proceeds from an insurmountable electoral barrier: a gay Democrat in conservative Indiana cannot win a statewide race. Buttigieg is going big because he has nowhere else to go.

That’s not his public rationale, of course. But his explicit justifications for his great leap forward diminishes the credibility of a man who is genuinely gifted: too often, they resurrect a decade-old penchant for resumé inflation informed, in his initial races, by a borderline grandiosity suggestive of untempered youth.

Start with his three-year tenure at the consulting firm, McKinsey. This experience was the primary—if not sole—basis for his 2010 campaign to become treasurer of Indiana at the age of 27 and, after losing that race by 24%, his successful effort to become mayor of South Bend the following year. There are young men in a hurry : Pete Buttigieg , it seems, hurried to present himself as someone he had yet to become.

Rather than characterize Mayor Pete’s lavish self-descriptions, it seems fairer to quote them. Amy Wang of the Washington Post has done just that. Here is Buttigieg’s account of his time at McKinsey when running for state treasurer:

I did math for a living around economics: the economics of energy, and the economics of stabilizing very tough places around the world in order to make sure there’s less violence there. But I got to thinking, “If I’m any good at stabilizing economies, maybe I ought to try to help stabilize the economy right here in Indiana.” And so the premise of my campaign is the State Treasurer’s office could be doing more to help our economic life.

Then there’s this:

I am the only candidate with experience working on billion-dollar decisions, helping to turn around major companies around the country and around the world. I am the only candidate who has, not only a great degree in economics, but on-the-ground experience doing economic development in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the world: Baghdad, Kabul, Jalalabad.

Consistently, Wang notes, Buttigieg tried “to give the impression those three years had been spent trekking the globe to stabilize economies.” This pattern of credential-polishing repeated itself when, a month after losing the treasurer’s race, Buttigieg resolved to run for mayor of South Bend.

During this race, Buttigieg claimed that he had “worked in business as an advisor to senior decision-makers, helping to turn their companies around and create jobs.” He amplified this assertion in a forum for mayoral candidates:

Well, the main reason that I’m running—I know this sounds a little funny coming from the youngest candidate . . . but the main reason is my experience. I think I’m the only candidate who has an economics degree. I’m pretty sure I’m the only candidate who’s been part of billion-dollar decisions made by Fortune 500 companies. I’m the only candidate who has done economic development for a living.

His responsibilities, Buttigieg claimed, required “dealing with large budgets all the time, often multibillion-dollar budgets in the private sector… where we often had to make tough decisions…” As Wang catalogued, these assertions were not occasional, but constant, the principal basis for his first electoral success.

But that was then. By 2019, Buttigieg was running for president; McKinsey’s institutional reputation had been severely tarnished; and progressives were questioning the nature of his service and the identity of his clients.

And so Mayor Pete explained: “This was my first job out of school. It’s not like I was a CEO. I was making a lot of spreadsheets and PowerPoints.”

And this: “I released a summary of my work at McKinsey even though it was my first job out of school where I had little decision-making authority.”

Or this regarding whether his work at Blue Cross Blue Shield had led to job losses: “I don’t know what the conclusions were or what it led to. So it’s tough for me to say.”

Overall, Wang reports, once under attack as a presidential aspirant Buttigieg “painted a picture of himself as a low-level employee locked in a room with a computer, who was not only removed from decision-making power but often didn’t talk to his clients’ employees or know the outcomes of his projects.”

The most striking thing about this yawning gulf is its situational reinvention of reality amidst a presidential campaign: Buttigieg’s abrupt and comprehensive deflation of his self-professed qualifications as a business mind—credentials which, eight years prior, had enabled him to become mayor. By most accounts, he was a good one: because he is legitimately talented, by and large his performance lived up to the promise of his puffery. But in a showdown with Donald Trump, the attack ads write themselves.

A more durable pillar of Buttigieg’s presidential self-presentation is seven months of military service, spent while mayor, as a Naval intelligence officer in Afghanistan. In itself, this is admirable: he gained valuable insights at real physical risk to himself, and the political benefits accruing today should not diminish the value of service which has become vanishingly rare among elected officials.

But there are political benefits, including his aggressive conversion of a relatively short stretch as a junior officer into a presidential proving ground. As the New York Times observed: “Not since 2004, when John Kerry, a Vietnam War hero, won the Democratic nomination and the field included the retired Army General Wesley K. Clark, has a major presidential candidate made military experience central to their candidacy.”

But Buttigieg is neither a combat hero nor a celebrated general. As the Times warns, “Buttigieg’s self-promotion as an on-the-ground military officer risks alienating veterans with more extensive records.” Nonetheless, Buttigieg wields his service like a Swiss Army knife.

He deploys it against Trump: “I don’t have to throw myself a military parade to see what a convoy looks like, because I was driving one around Afghanistan—right about the time this president was taping Season 7 of The Celebrity Apprentice.”

He turns it on his rivals: When Amy Klobuchar called his invocation of the First Amendment a “talking point,” he retorted, “Let me tell you about my relationship to the First Amendment. It is part of the Constitution that I raised my right hand and swore to defend with my life. That is my experience. And it may not be the same as yours, but it counts, senator. It counts.”

He uses it to emphasize his own patriotism, evoking “values that were encoded in the flag that was on my shoulder when I was deployed overseas.”

He raises it to buttress his support for gun control: “Any weapons resembling the sorts of things I trained on in the military have no business being sold…”

He cites it to evidence his maturity: “One thing that you gain, I think, from being deployed in a war zone is you get a different level of perspective on what counts about incoming that you got to worry about. There are worse forms of incoming then a tweet full of typos.”

All this is excessive, perhaps, but well within the standard bounds of rhetorical self-aggrandizement. Even gifted politicians are, after all, politicians. But at times Buttigieg presses the point beyond the ambits of his relatively modest experience as a reserve officer.

To wit: “A presidential candidate who has served has a personal understanding of what we’re dealing with. I’m not here to say that my qualifications are a prerequisite, but I will say that they make me extremely aware of the consequences of decisions made in the White House Situation Room.”

Or this: “I would offer that somebody who was on the ground as an intelligence officer, understanding what’s at stake in these issues, is bringing the exact kind of bearing that we are going to need.”

Or this, about the strategic wisdom of killing Qassim Soleimani: “As a military officer on the ground in Afghanistan, I was trained to ask these questions before a decision is made.”

No doubt that, by temperament and relevant experience, Buttigieg is better prepared to deal with a geopolitical crisis than Donald Trump. But in the ruthless crucible of presidential politics there is a risk in claiming too much about his military service—especially when, as with McKinsey, one has claimed too much before. It is all too easy to imagine the Trump campaign’s corrosive characterization of Buttigieg as a boastful and callow stripling playing soldier.

Buttigieg’s most indubitable credential for the presidency is his eight years as mayor of South Bend, a struggling Midwestern city of just over 100,000 people. By most reckonings, he left his community materially better than he found it. He launched an ambitious renewal program to revitalize the city: unemployment dropped by more than half (an improvement which outstripped the national numbers) and a decades-long decline in population was arrested.

“In many ways,” Buttigieg has said, “South Bend is our message.” Favorably comparing his experience with that of a United States senator, he told Pod Save America: “You could be a senior member of the Senate and have never in your life managed more than 100 people, never having had that experience of alternating between policy development and incident command in a matter of minutes. Or having the final frontline responsibility for bringing people together in tense and difficult moments.”

Fair enough. But the problem with making such statements while one remains in office is that they tempt the fickle gods of politics. The most piercing critique of Buttigieg’s tenure is that he repeatedly muffed his own test as crisis manager with respect to South Bend’s black community.

Governing a diverse and declining city can be a harrowing job. One is tethered to so many unforgiving problems and constituencies that the standard of performance is perilously close to strict liability—anything that goes wrong, no matter the cause, boomerangs on the mayor. And so it became with Buttigieg and the racial toxins of South Bend.

Shortly after he became mayor, Buttigieg learned that federal prosecutors were investigating the city’s first black police chief, Darryl Boykins, for surreptitiously and illegally taping white officers who supposedly trafficked in bigoted comments about Boykins himself. Amidst considerable distress among a black community strongly supportive of Boykins, Buttigieg replaced him with a white chief—a fraught personnel decision given the racial antagonisms within the force which led to Boykins’ downfall.

This augured Buttigieg’s conspicuous, ongoing failure to diversify the police force writ large. On his watch, the force became even whiter: When Buttigieg took office, its racial composition was 10 percent African-American; on the eve of his departure, this had declined to 6 percent. “I couldn’t get it done,” he acknowledges.

This shortfall exacerbated the incident most deleterious to Buttigieg among the city’s African-Americans: the fatal police shooting of Eric Logan.

According to the shooter—a white cop named Ryan O’Neill—Logan was menacing him with a knife, requiring that he shoot in self-defense. But O’Neill had a reputation for making racist remarks , and at the time of the shooting both his body and dashboard cameras were off—raising the specter of yet another unjustified killing of a black man and of a police department too lax to follow its own preventive practices.

Buttigieg worked tirelessly to meet with the family and community leaders, attended open meetings, and promised an exhaustive inquiry. But given his own diminished standing respecting racial issues within the force, he failed to dampen the outrage and suspicion among South Bend’s blacks.

How much of this racial chasm is Buttigieg’s fault? Hardly all of it, to be sure. But it suggests that he may yet lack the wisdom and emotional vocabulary to optimally navigate racial issues: In manner and sensibility he still seems over-defined by his rarified background as a Harvard graduate, a Rhodes scholar, and a member of the largely white American meritocracy. This deficit in a man otherwise gifted with keen political antennae leads some to see him as more precocious than empathic.

At the least, Buttigieg’s tenure in South Bend underscores a certain racial opacity which transcends his muddled dealings with law enforcement. Despite his successes at urban renewal, black poverty and unemployment rates in South Bend remain high. To critics, he seemed unprepared for the resentment of those displaced or left behind. Notes the New Yorker, Buttigieg “recently acknowledged that, as mayor, he was ‘slow to realize’ that, in part because of white flight, the public schools in his county were effectively segregated.” Urban mayors far dimmer than Buttigieg would find that a hard fact to miss.

All of which suggests another aspect of Buttigieg’s prematurity as a presidential candidate: He is still working out his own sense of race in America while simultaneously seeking the support of a constituency which doesn’t know him—or distrusts what it knows. Again, the New Yorker: “Buttigieg’s efforts to win over black voters were starting to seem like a kid fumbling with a Rubik’s Cube: he was going to do everything he could to solve the problem, and it probably wasn’t going to work.”

This is no small quandary. Buttigieg is seeking the presidential nomination of a party which requires overwhelming black support in order to win—and thereby govern a racially polarized country which badly needs a president equipped from the get-go to address the damnably difficult and vexingly variegated challenges that racism creates.

This sense of a young man still in a state of becoming raises the ultimate question of what he truly believes. FEC reports show that he has spent three times more on polling than any other candidate. Perhaps he’s just data-intensive. Or perhaps—unlike Biden, Sanders, or Warren—he’s finding himself as he goes.

Certainly, Buttigieg’s campaign has changed focus. He began as a quasi-progressive who would decriminalize the border, reform the Supreme Court, abolish the Electoral College, and enact Medicare-for-All. Months later he soft-pedals these institutional reforms, favors a limited public option, and disowns decriminalization.

Tactically, this makes sense: his best hope is to supplant Joe Biden in the moderate lane. But it arouses suspicions that he is a practitioner of political expediency whose positions are more calculated than felt.

As his policies have evolved, so has his persona. At the outset, Buttigieg claimed to be leading the “Happy Warrior Movement”; more recently, he has attacked Warren, Sanders, and Biden with the surgical skills of a born political assassin. In part, this adaptation reflects the competitive acceleration of the race itself. But the change from cheery unifier to negative campaigner is more unsettling in a candidate whose own beliefs still seem unsettled.

The unavoidable sense one has of Pete Buttigieg as presidential candidate is haste—and waste. Buttigieg is a superior talent who could yet become a superior leader. But not yet, not now—and not in a race where the moral imperative is to beat Donald Trump.

Were the world fair, Buttigieg would become governor of Indiana, honing his skills while accumulating achievements and sharpening his understanding of diverse constituencies. Then, in his mid-40s, he could re-emerge as a presidential contender with a deeper record to run on.

Instead, he has been twice tempted too soon: First, by our own contemporary infatuation with the new, in which the presidency is held so lightly we elect tyros who promise to govern by magic; and second, by the melancholy fact that, for the gay mayor of South Bend, the most promising next campaign was for president of the United States.

This year, at least, there is simply no way. Buttigieg’s greatest hope is that one of his opponents will win and that—in a spirit of generosity informed by canny self-interest—make him a cabinet secretary. One suspects that he would do well.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.