Is Pete Buttigieg Too Early or Too Late?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I’m no good at counting, so I asked Carol Bagan, the house manager at the city auditorium in Concord, New Hampshire, how many people had just heard South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg give a speech. “Six hundred and fifty to 700 souls,” she said. “At least 650.”

“How do you know they all have souls?” I asked.

“Some may not,” she replied.

I had been wondering about one in particular. Buttigieg spoke in Concord Tuesday evening just a couple of hours after the Iowa Democratic Party had declared him the victor, sort of, in the Iowa caucuses Monday night. With about two-thirds of the vote officially counted, Buttigieg was neck-and-neck with Senator Bernie Sanders, each holding around one-quarter of the total vote. More important, he was significantly ahead of former vice president Joe Biden, whose poor showing likely facilitated Buttigieg’s rise.

In Concord, Buttigieg lacked the stage command he had exhibited the last time I saw him, when he had impressed a crowd of thousands at the big Iowa “Liberty & Justice” dinner in November. He seemed tired, which human candidates are after flying overnight from Iowa after expending seemingly every last measure of political devotion on a good showing in the caucuses.

The fatigue worked against the preternatural talent and intellect that has landed a small-town mayor in the top tier of national politics while also making him seem, at times, like a cleverly packaged and very cool new tech product aimed at the affluent professional class.

His battery running down, Buttigieg, still ridiculously boyish at 38, looked like he might indeed have something like a soul beneath the sleek, shatter-resistant case. In response to a question submitted from an audience member, who asked him how he took care of himself, Buttigieg spoke of his evolution from a loveless grunt spending all his hours at City Hall to a person with emotional, as well as intellectual, capital. To manage the grind of the campaign, he said, “The most important thing of all is I have this amazing, amazing husband, Chasten.”

Such moments are a good reminder that Buttigieg, who lost a race for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in 2017, and somehow concluded from his defeat that he should run for president, is a very, very bold man. It’s easy to lose sight of that when counting the stations of the meritocracy — Harvard, Rhodes Scholar, McKinsey — that he traveled so dutifully before entering politics.

Buttigieg is accustomed to climbing professional ladders. His run for president, however, is not so much a continuation of that practice as a sharp break from it. He’s too young. He’s too inexperienced. He’s reaching for the wrong rung. That’s not how it’s done.

Buttigieg addresses that litany head-on in his stump speech, pointing out that Democrats have often chosen their presidents from the ranks of the young and bold. He’s got a point. And one such role model seems to loom especially large. More than anyone else running, Buttigieg emulates the rhetoric of another Democrat who didn’t wait for a timely opportunity, but seized it: Barack Obama.

“They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose,” Obama said after winning the Iowa caucuses in 2008. “But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do.”

It’s a message that Buttigieg delivers repeatedly in language — “crisis of belonging” and such — that often seems to fly in the slipstream behind Obama’s soaring speeches. Polls suggest it’s still a message that many Democrats yearn to hear.

Yet a lot of young Democrats are not buying it. Black voters have not warmed to Buttigieg, making his path after New Hampshire uncertain. And Elizabeth Warren and Sanders are saying that we’re far past the point where good intentions and good rhetoric can get the job done.

With the nation much more sharply divided than in 2008, and Donald Trump fashioning the executive branch into a hatchet to swing at domestic enemies, it’s possible that Buttigieg’s effort to position himself in a sweet spot between “revolution” and “status quo” just isn’t enough — that instead of being too early to the game, Buttigieg is too late.

Buttigieg is a rare talent, and he has run a remarkable presidential campaign, which, in many ways, is the nearest simulation to being president. But this is a dangerous moment in history, and it may require even greater daring. If there is something else inside that impressive package, or a glint of sharper steel deep inside Buttigieg’s political soul, it’s time to reveal it.

Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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