Pete Buttigieg: a Flash in the Pan?

On April 12, a fresh-faced Pete Buttigieg sits on a plushy white chair across from Ellen DeGeneres.

“You’re surging in the polls! You were doing well, but now it has you number three, in some cases, behind Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, which is incredible. I mean, it’s happening fast right?” Ellen energetically begins the episode.

“Yeah, I mean, like a month ago we were just trying to get people to be able to say my name,” he admits, smiling.

The crowd laughs.

“But the good news for me is that elections are multiple choice so you don’t have to spell it or know how to say it. You just have to be able to pick it up out of a lineup.”

Ellen is right, too. Buttigieg’s profile has exploded recently, precisely because of the personality he displays throughout this Ellen interview.

He’s seen as bringing something new to Washington’s table. He’s young, at 37 years of age, and has been the mayor of South Bend, IN for the last eight years. He’s gay. He’s a veteran, having spent seven months in Afghanistan during a leave of absence from his mayoral position. He’s a Democrat that doesn’t shy away from proclaiming his Christian faith. His resume, on the surface, make him appealing to practically anyone.

His resume also presents some paradoxes. He’s a white male. He grew up as a child of two Notre Dame professors and lead an entirely upper-middle-class childhood. He attended Harvard and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

He worked at McKinsey & Company, a consultancy firm that gave advice to Purdue Pharma, the company that jump started America’s Oxycontin problem, and helped Saudi Arabia’s regime preserve their autocracies. To his credit, Buttigieg did not work on these cases for the company, and claims he wouldn’t have worked with a client he didn’t like in a recent New Yorker interview.

Regardless, a white ex-vet who went to an Ivy League University and has a background with shady businesses? Suddenly Buttigieg doesn’t seem so radically different.

But, Buttigieg also talks a different game than a majority of his opposition.

He doesn’t believe in the system that America has built, or in the people who run it. He’s denounced Trump many times and has boldly claimed that you can’t fight fire with fire. He urges the Democratic party to take a different campaigning viewpoint. Instead of pointing out Trump’s pitfalls, which only further people’s opinions that Democrats “support the system” that so many people think is broken.

Buttigieg brings up “intergenerational justice” repeatedly in interviews. This is a grandiloquent way of talking about the dissonance between Baby Boomers and Millennials over topics such as the environment and the rising economic inequality. He claims there will be a reckoning for issues previous generations have ignored.

Buttigieg is also running on a platform of abolishing the electoral college (or at least redistricting to decrease gerrymandering), establishing single-payer universal health care, expanding the Supreme Court, and providing reparations to communities who have been ignored by the government in the past.

Every candidate talks big. Most have proposed some form of specific, major change.

Buttigieg has chosen to tell his story over talking policies.

His answer to why people should vote for him?


“What alignment of attributes do you want to have?” he asked in a recent NYMag profile.

“This is McKinsey-speak: optimizing candidate attribute matrix for maximal cross-national vote share,” Nathan Robinson says in a recent Current Affairs article.

Attributes? How about  plans, ideas, programs, ways to bring about the serious change he mentions constantly?

Buttigieg refuses to get into specific, policy-based details. There is no plan on how he will accomplish his aforementioned goals. While Buttigieg’s talk is pretty, there’s little time to wait around for someone to figure out the answers.

Normal protocol would be to look at what a candidate has done in their past to see what they will do in the future. That’s an issue with Buttigieg. His biggest accomplishments as mayor have been to clear out South Bend and establishing a phone line that takes community calls and uses the response for data and analysis of future laws. These, while audacious and innovative, are not exactly enough to prove he can lead the country.

Democrats have been criticized for years on their wishy-washy neo-liberal policies that amount to little change. Now is not the time for another shot at a president who may or may not change things.

He said it best himself in the Ellen interview: “It’s not just another election, its a real hinge between different eras in American history. The changes that we’re going through right now– they’re gonna affect the way we live in this country for the next forty years.”

But unless Buttigieg produces viable options after drawing us in with his down-to-Earth charm and ambitions, people will stop listening.