It was the Vogue profile of Pete Buttigieg that did me in. Early on, when the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, first announced the formation of an exploratory committee and then formally tossed his hat in the ring for the presidential nomination, I dismissed him as a forgettable center-left Democrat in the style of Cory Booker, who was also barely registering in the polls. Certainly Buttigieg would face the same fate, right? His name was too little-known, his policies (whatever they were) too modest to make a splash in such a crowded field. And while the prospect of the first gay president was exciting and felt meaningful to many, Buttigieg was a technocrat at a time when the Democratic Party’s most progressive and energized voters want more than Obama 2.0. And his resume—Harvard! McKinsey!—made me both yawn and roll my eyes. This was Build-a-Bear for middling Democrats, not the transformative candidate that could take the White House and spend four years battling a hostile Senate! But then the Vogue profile happened. (“Pete! Pete! Pete!”)
Suddenly he was everywhere: on the View, on podcasts, and in the pages of major magazines. He was unavoidable, the result of an all-out media blitz that was cynical on its face but absolutely worked: his dramatic and improbable rise in the polls soon followed.
And just like that I was supposed to care about Pete. To take Pete seriously. To feel impressed by his speaking shitty Norwegian or James Joyce references or a completely batshit plan for the Supreme Court. I resented it, and my resentment soon curdled into an extreme dislike. Pete Buttigieg fucking sucks, I found myself thinking. Each new credulous headline—every day he stayed in the top five of national polls—fueled me.
So when my editor and chaos agent Katie McDonough asked me to spend a week reading everything I could about Buttigieg as a way to see if I really hated his whole thing—Pete as a concept—as much as I seemed to, I agreed. After all, I am a person who is both constantly wracked by self-doubt and would also like to think my opinions are based on more than deeply felt yet possibly misguided emotions.
That week, a full seven days ago, I dutifully began my Pete Watch: combing through every major old profile and interview of Buttigieg, reading dozens of news articles as they were published, and watching every appearance of his, from his MSNBC town hall to his segment on Showtime’s Desus & Mero. Hours of my life, all in an attempt to answer the question: Am I the bitch in this relationship?
Let’s just get this out of the way: I have come to realize, much to my dismay and counter to my original impression, that Pete Buttigieg the person is very charming (my previous description of him as the human equivalent of a Shinola watch notwithstanding). I would even go so far to say that I like him as a person (though still not as a candidate). Mea culpa? I don’t know. But let’s talk about it.
The first thing that made me go, Oh fuck, I kind of like Pete, was an interview he did with NowThis, in which he shares that he doesn’t think a hot dog is a sandwich! That he used to be a dog sitter and loves his dogs! That he’s a nail biter, just like me! That his husband Chasten says he is a loud chewer! I watched and observed that his tie was an appropriate width, not too wide and not too skinny. I found myself nodding as he shared his views on religion: “When I go to church, the scripture I hear has to do with protecting the poor, and spending time with the prisoner, healing the sick, and caring for the stranger, which to me is another word for immigrant. It has a very clear set of moral and policy implications, none of which I would associate with the right wing.” As someone raised in a very conservative Southern Baptist church which I fled as soon as I could, it all sounded pretty great.
Buttigieg’s thoughtfulness, ease, and charm—the qualities that form a significant basis of his appeal—were also on full display during this appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres Show in April, where he talked (thoughtfully, naturally) about his criticism of Vice President Mike Pence, and this segment last Thursday on Desus & Mero, an almost de rigueur campaign stop nowadays for 2020 hopefuls, which ended with him swilling an unidentified bottle of liquor from a brown paper bag.
It turns out it’s easy to like Buttigieg, even when he comes off as extremely annoying (see: the didgeridoo and the curated whiskey collection while at Harvard, and the seemingly endless interviews in which he talks about his love for James Joyce). Buttigieg gets teary and emotional when talking about gun violence and school shootings, as he did during a recent campaign stop in Austin. His two dogs, Buddy and Truman, are adorable rescues; his husband Chasten, an extremely friendly teacher, comes off in profiles of the two as the more vibrant, lovingly exasperated foil to Buttigieg’s more measured calm. (“It’s sort of like always being in grad school,” Chasten has said of being married to Mayor Pete, which, ouch but also awww?)
So I liked Pete. The qualities I used to think sounded like nails on a chalkboard were actually pretty charming or endearing. Had I actually misjudged his policies, too? Actually, no. That part of him still really sucks.
If you’re someone who, say, wants the planet to be habitable and for people to not have to crowdfund their cancer treatments, once you get past the likable, telegenic exterior and actually listen to what he says—well, the charm fades when you notice he’s polling in the top five of all the candidates.
Buttigieg positions himself as someone different and uniquely suited to the times, and a break from a failed past. “We’re at this moment where Democrats need to abandon the appeal of the ’90s, and Republicans need to abandon the appeal of the ’50s,” he said in an early interview; more recently, he told an audience in California that Democrats shouldn’t “promise to take us back to the 2000s or the 1990s.” And he argues that he is the candidate best suited to take us where we need to go, despite that future being somewhat hazy and undefined. “We better come up with something completely different. And that’s where I come in,” he said during that same speech in California. “Why not a middle-class millennial mayor with a track record in the industrial midwest? And why not someone who represents a new generation of leaders?”
But for all that he looks to the future, what he seems to revere most is the past—he’s wedded to the idea of the “Great Man President,” the idea that a singular, unique talent can change the course of history. “The next Democratic president, no matter what their disposition, is just going to be operating on very different territory than Obama could, with a lot more potential,” he told Time magazine’s Charlotte Alter, in what she described as “the dreamiest tone I’ve heard from him yet.” Buttigieg continued: “The next presidency could, I’d say, define an era in no smaller way than either FDR or Reagan.”
He is a candidate who will say some of the right things (the need to reclaim language from the right, the fact that no one should die because they have shitty health insurance or no health insurance) while possessing a worldview that, if elected, all but ensures that we will get none of them. This becomes clear once you start picking apart how he believes the sausage gets made and his policy ideas—which he has finally begun talking about after months of refusing to do so.
Buttigieg calls himself a progressive, and one that believes in defending his ideas. “If the substance of your ideas is progressive but there’s mistrust about them among conservatives, you have three choices,” he told Time. “One is to just change your ideas and make them more conservative. The second is to sort of be sneaky and try to make it seem like your ideas are more conservative than they are. And the third, the approach that I favor, is to stick to your ideas, but explain why conservatives shouldn’t be afraid of them.”
But unfortunately for Buttigieg, his ideas suck. Let’s take his plan to reform the Supreme Court, which he detailed last week and calls his “top priority.” Buttigieg wants to expand the number of justices on the court to 15, with five Democrats, five Republicans, and five mythical “nonpolitical” (haha!) judges who are picked by the other 10.
Here’s how NBC News described it:
Under the plan, most justices would continue serving life terms. Five would be affiliated with the Republican Party and five with the Democratic Party. Those 10 would then join together to choose five additional justices from U.S. appeals courts, or possibly the district-level trial courts. They’d have to settle on the nonpolitical justices unanimously — or at least with a “strong supermajority.”
The final five would serve one-year, nonrenewable terms. They’d be chosen two years in advance, to prevent nominations based on anticipated court cases, and if the 10 partisan justices couldn’t agree on the final five, the Supreme Court would be deemed to lack a quorum and couldn’t hear cases that term.
Buttigieg has said the goal of his plan is to “depoliticize” the Supreme Court, in order to prevent it from being seen as “an almost nakedly political institution.” But as Jamelle Bouie wrote in the New York Times, “There’s no depoliticizing an institution that deals with political questions and operates in the context of political struggles and conflicts.” Buttigieg’s proposal displays a naive understanding of the nature of power and politics, and a misguided belief that “balance”—in the court, in all things—can somehow bring us closer to justice.
“It’s a problem of power, which means it’s impossible to fight this conflict with Buttigieg-style technocratic reforms,” Bouie concluded. It’s a statement that succinctly captures much of the criticism I have of Buttigieg’s general posture towards politics and governance. Aside from his plan to reform the Supreme Court, there are his thoughts on health care, which takes up a scant two paragraphs on his website’s policy page. Its “key policy” is “‘Medicare for All Who Want It’ as a pathway to Medicare for All”—in other words, a public option while keeping the private insurance market in place. He says he believes that “competition will create the glide path toward Medicare for All”—a wonder-inducing statement that seems to propose that private insurance companies will just happily, incrementally, wither away once individual “consumers” make the right choice. (Buttigieg is very clearly not paying attention to ways the private insurance industry and certain powerful Democrats are currently working to undermine support for Medicare for All—or he’s just chosen to ignore these things in service of the story he’d prefer to tell about how political change happens.) His college affordability plan falls far short of what other candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have put out, merely stating that we need to “confront student loan debt” (this, despite the fact that he and his husband currently have quite a significant amount of such debt) and nods to making public college “debt-free” for low-income families and “tuition-free” for middle-class families.
During his recent MSNBC town hall, the few policy ideas he did share largely place him in what I would consider today to be the middle of the pack for the candidates—a $15 minimum wage, support for abortion rights (his website calls for repealing the Hyde Amendment), the importance of unions and that right to work laws are a “bad idea.” He said, not for the first time, that he believes people in prison should not be allowed to vote, an ideological position that says quite a lot about his general stance on mass incarceration and how he views people who are incarcerated.
Buttigieg says he wants to raise taxes on the wealthy, but unlike Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, is perfectly happy to take their money. Whereas Elizabeth Warren will freely talk about her conversion story from a Republican to an ardent critic of corporate power, Buttigieg will, for example, defend his fellow McKinsey consultants as “a lot of smart, well-intentioned people who sometimes view the world in a very innocent way,” never mind their role advising Purdue Pharma on how to, as the New York Times reported earlier this year, “‘turbocharge’ sales of OxyContin, how to counter efforts by drug enforcement agents to reduce opioid use, and were part of a team that looked at how ‘to counter the emotional messages from mothers with teenagers that overdosed’ on the drug.” What he positions as a sort of forward-thinking pragmatism—in a candidate field that includes the ambitious and necessary ideas of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—actually comes off as unnecessarily conservative and cautious. Buttigieg, the youngest candidate running, instead comes off as a Boomer wrapped up in a millennial’s clothing.
So am I vindicated in my dislike of Buttigieg? Not quite. What I realized during my week of PeteWatch is that his extreme likability is exactly the reason I don’t like him a a presidential candidate. It feels like a trick, and kind of is. Because Buttigieg—a candidate seemingly dreamed up by some Democratic National Committee algorithm, who seems to believe that values trump policy (and oddly that one’s policy ideas say little about one’s values), and who has staked his entire campaign on the idea that people will gravitate to him based on some flattering press—is being proved right.
I now understand his personal appeal, which Jay Caspian Kang neatly summed up as targeting a specific type of college-educated, (largely) white, upper middle-class voter. “Imagining yourself in a book club with Pete Buttigieg becomes this election’s having a beer with George W. Bush,” he wrote. I can imagine myself in a book club with Pete. Maybe you can, too. But do I think he should be running for president? Fuck no. Maybe consider the Senate, Pete? Have you seen the guys currently in those seats? A practical-minded guy like you can see the appeal in that, right?