by Alex Knepper
It is almost impossible to overstate how addicted are Democrats to ‘Kennedyesque’ pretty-boy charisma. Since 2000 alone, from John Edwards to Barack Obama to Beto O’Rourke, drastically underqualified presidential candidates have been showered with praise and hype by primary voters for embodying the essence of what Democrats idealize in the presidency: exuberant youthful optimism. Democrats don’t always have options like that from which to choose — see: the 2000 race, the 2016 race — but when they do, they sure do love to give those candidates a close, hard look.
Enter Pete Buttigieg. I think it is fair to say — I’m gay, so I’m allowed to say this, right? — that if he were not gay, nobody would care about his candidacy. Take away the novelty of his sexual orientation, and he’s a completely ordinary small-city mayor with no outstanding achievements to his name. There is no particular reason for him to be running; no clear rationale for his candidacy. Yes, the leading frontrunners are all age 70 or older — but Buttigieg is really young — his husband is my age! — and it’s not as if the field lacks for younger, minority torch-bearers: Sen. Cory Booker, age 50, is an obvious choice; Sen. Kamala Harris is 55; even Sen. Amy Klobuchar is only 59. All of them have been accountable for vastly more consequential decisions than Mayor Buttigieg — not ‘Mayor Pete’, a branding slogan that implies an intimacy with voters which he does not in fact possess — who has never even won 10,000 votes at a time.
But those poor senators don’t have that pretty-boy, ‘Kennedyesque’ charisma that makes middle-aged white Democrats swoon like a 15-year-old girl at a Harry Styles concert.
Buttigieg just ran to be head of the DNC two years ago, collecting endorsements from party seniors like Howard Dean. Is somebody going to ask him whether he wouldn’t rather be doing that right now? Isn’t that what he intended to do? Or is it that he simply wants to be in charge of something important? The fact that he is so restless in his current position as small-city mayor that he’s running for random high offices — DNC chair and the presidency don’t have much to do with each other, functionally — suggests to me that he isn’t in this for the people, but for himself.
His overeager DNC chair run puts his post-graduation actions in perspective, too, and points to a problem I had with Mitt Romney in 2012. It seems Buttigieg has never done anything in his life that doesn’t appear calculated to manufacture the ‘perfect’ resume. It’s that same kind of selfish mentality that leads an elite grad like him to head to the McKinsey consulting group as his first real job, rather than a non-profit, an NGO, a small start-up, or some other outlet that could actually use the talents of an elite grad. Cory Booker went to live in the projects. Obama went to be a community organizer. Buttigieg went to cash in at McKinsey. And it’s not like this is just a small part of his resume — he was in school until just ten years ago, so he has spent over a quarter of his working years at McKinsey. He was only in Afghanistan for eight months, despite his preaching to Beto O’Rourke that he “didn’t need lessons in courage from him”, and those eight months were all taken out of his mayorship, which he has already been cutting short with his runs for the presidency and the DNC chairmanship.
What has he actually done in his mayorship? The answer is…not much, although he did manage to bungle relations with South Bend’s black community from the very start, firing a black police chief who legally recorded conversations between white officers because he had heard them use racist language and wanted to collect proof. Buttigieg replaced the black police chief with a white police chief. Some black residents wanted him impeached over the matter at the time. Moreover, black poverty and unemployment have actually increased under Buttigieg, despite the macro-level numbers looking good — which would seem to point to him as an enabler of gentrification, not someone who really wants to see the lingering problems of racism addressed in his lifetime.
You’ve got to have a really special kind of Kennedyesque charisma to become a leading presidential contender with that on your razor-thin record.
But nothing makes me want to go full Amy Klobuchar on Buttigieg and just throw a stapler at him than that moment during the October debate in which he condescended to Elizabeth Warren for her support for Medicare for All by saying that he “doesn’t think the American people are wrong when they say they want a choice” — first, shilling for the insurance companies as providers of substantive ‘choices’; second, implicitly trying to frighten people into thinking they will be forced with no recourse into inferior and unwanted healthcare; third, insinuating that Warren was somehow against the American people.
That was a whole lot to swallow considering that Buttigieg began the race as a strong supporter of Medicare for All and has now shape-shifted into the biggest collector of billionaire and insurance company money in the race.
But maybe that shouldn’t be a such a surprise, since, given the opportunity to name a model Supreme Court justice, Buttigieg selected Anthony Kennedy — a down-the-line Republican who happened to be pro-gay.
As a gay trailblazer, by the way, he happened to wait until he was already well into his mayorship before coming out as gay — the presidency is the first public office he’ll have run for while being completely ‘out.’ Suffice it to say, as a gay man I am less than impressed by someone who remained in the closet while attending elite colleges, working for McKinsey, and signing up for the U.S. military. If he were an ‘out’ presence at the time, I’d applaud him. But he wasn’t. His ambition told him that it would get in the way of a comfortable rise to national prominence.
Buttigieg has an extremely inflated sense of his importance, and is desperate to be put in charge of something, anything. He has shape-shifted from inspiring progressive upstart to boy prince of corporate Democrats who think it’s “extreme” to suggest that health insurance companies don’t have “choices for the American people” at the forefront of their minds; who want to hear someone verbally state that it’s not enough to beat Donald Trump — but then recommend all the same-old, same-old policies and attitudes that got us into this mess in the first place; who want to slap a young, gay face on old, failing policies. Buttigieg’s rhetoric embodies that youthful optimism that Democrats go gaga for — but his thin record and opportunistic actions say something else.