Win or lose, Pete Buttigieg has made history in the White House race

Walter Shapiro
Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA

Three former mayors will stand behind dueling lecterns in Las Vegas during Wednesday night’s Democratic debate.

Had three-term Vermont senator Bernie Sanders remained the socialist mayor of tiny Burlington (population: 42,899), he almost certainly wouldn’t be running for president. Debate newcomer Mike Bloomberg is, of course, the former three-term mayor of New York. And the political resume of Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg – currently the delegate leader in the Democratic race – is built around two terms as mayor of South Bend (population: 101,860), which is about one-80th of Bloomberg’s former domain.

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It has been more that 11 months since Buttigieg burst into the presidential conversation last March with a boffo performance in a CNN televised town hall. By mid-April, when Buttigieg formally declared his candidacy (“I recognize the audacity of doing this as a midwestern millennial mayor”), he was already the second most frequently discussed Democratic contender on cable TV news.

While other high-altitude candidates such as Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris followed an Icarus-like trajectory, Buttigieg kept flying above the tree line. And without a national donor base like Sanders or the ability to transfer unused money from a 2018 Senate account like Elizabeth Warren, Buttigieg managed to raise an impressive $75m in 2019.

Butigieg has been in the upper ranks of the Democratic contenders for so long that we forget how unprecedented his ascent has been.

Barack Obama had been in the US Senate for three years and had electrified the 2004 Democratic convention before he beat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. When Howard Dean dominated the polls in late 2003 as an antiwar candidate, he had already served 11 years as Vermont’s governor. And long shot Gary Hart (who finished second in Iowa and won the New Hampshire primary in 1984) was in his second Senate term, after having managed George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign.

In contrast, all Buttigieg could offer is a failed statewide race for Indiana state treasurer (not exactly a traditional launching pad to greatness) and a half-noticed 2017 bid for Democratic party chair, withdrawing with scant support before the votes were cast.

It is easy to be dismissive about Buttigieg’s flyweight prior record, especially since three candidates on the Las Vegas debate stage (Sanders, Bloomberg and Joe Biden) are more than twice his age of 38. If Buttigieg ends up bathed in confetti at the Democratic convention in Milwaukee – which remains a plausible outcome – he would have less big-time political experience than any Democratic nominee since Alton Parker in 1904, who was a New York state judge.

Buttigieg’s missteps seem small compared to Bloomberg’s zealous advocacy of stop-and-frisk

I will confess to starting as a Buttigieg skeptic. When a Wall Street friend announced at a small dinner party late last spring that he would be raising money for Buttigieg, my initial reaction was: “Don’t be absurd.” But after two 30-minute interviews with Buttigieg (plus an on-the-record bus trip across Iowa in September with about a dozen other reporters), I have gained an appreciation for his intellect and his thoughtful approach to contemplating the White House.

Sure, I wish that Buttigieg were maybe a decade older – and he had spent that time mastering Washington. But to rewrite a line of Donald Rumsfeld’s: “You go into the primaries with the candidates you have, not the candidates you might want.”

Many of the critiques of Buttigieg seem over-wrought. His choice as a Rhodes scholar to join the management consulting firm McKinsey always struck me as more about continuing to collect gold stars than any hidden belief in rapacious capitalism. Buttigieg’s 2012 decision to fire South Bend’s first black police chief appears to have been badly mishandled. But heading into the South Carolina primary, with its majority African American Democratic electorate, Buttigieg’s missteps seem small compared to Bloomberg’s zealous advocacy of stop-and-frisk until late in his final term as mayor.

In the days ahead, Buttigieg will face a series of tests that approximate the pressures of the presidency.

Can he come across as a compelling presence in two debates within six days (the other is in Charleston, South Carolina, next Tuesday)? Did he build a political organization from scratch that can stand the rigors of the 3 March Super Tuesday primaries in 14 states? And will he continue to keep a cool head as the campaign inevitably grows ugly?

Buttigieg’s first major test came when Rush Limbaugh – that Trumpian embodiment of America’s greatness – made a typically homophobic remark on his radio show that “America’s still not ready to elect a gay guy kissing his husband on the debate stage president”. The response from Buttigieg – the nation’s first openly gay major presidential candidate – was pitch perfect: “I love my husband. I’m faithful to my husband … And I’m not going to take lectures on family values from the likes of Rush Limbaugh.”

Whatever happens from here (and only the foolhardy would dare to predict), Buttigieg has made history with his campaign. And maybe the greatest accomplishment of this former South Bend mayor has been the seeming ease with which he has done it.