‘Cracking Down on the Candidates’

From left: Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg onstage before the Democratic presidential candidates debate in Westerville, Ohio, October 15, 2019. (Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters)

This is an excerpt from the transcript of Episode 171 of The Editors.

Rich: David, the aforementioned Pete Buttigieg. I’m entirely conventional on this. I think he had quite a good night. I don’t think he’s really had a bad debate. He’s incredibly well-spoken. His worst moment was when there was the controversial police-involved shooting that created controversy back home. He was asked about why he hadn’t fired the police chief or why he hadn’t hired more black officers, and it was basically, “I couldn’t get it done.” Then someone, I think it was Julian Castro, had totally stumped him on some rejoinder on this, and you could see the blank look on Buttigieg’s face. Fortunately for him, someone else interrupted at that very moment, so it didn’t become a thing.

But he’s positioned a little bit with the traditional message when you’re running against an incumbent, which is “I’m going to be the uniter,” which pretty much every presidential candidate says at a certain level, and he’s being more forthright that he dissents from the Warren/Sanders position on a couple of these core issues, including Medicare for All. But what did you think?

David: Well, he distinguished himself the way he always does, just as you said. He’s always well-spoken, except for that one moment, and then he was attacking these guys from the right. As a conservative, I’m sitting there looking at his attack from the right and liking what I’m seeing.

It’s funny, I’m reminded of . . . Saturday Night Live is starting to portray these guys, and the guy who portrays Pete Buttigieg walks into the room when they were parodying the LGBT town hall, and he says, “I don’t know why I’m not winning,” something along the lines of “I don’t know why I’m not winning. I make more sense than everybody.” With Buttigieg, he’s got this air that’s “I’m just sitting here making sense. Come with me. I’m the one who makes the most sense. Come with me.” He exudes that vibe. And it’s part of the reason, frankly, why he’s risen from nowhere, just absolute nowhere, and he’s filling a particular lane, or trying to fill a particular lane, that’s existed frequently in the Democratic party, which is the young, hopeful politician.

I think that this is a guy that, even the fact that we’re talking about him second in this podcast is a tribute to what he’s been able to accomplish. The thing that I just have doubts about is, how high can he go? So far, it doesn’t seem that he even registers with black voters at all, which you’ve got to do that. You’ve got to be able to do that in the Democratic primary to have hope. But I still think he’s got some upside. He outperforms his national polling pretty substantially in Iowa. I think he’s got some room to move. If Warren falters, or if Warren keeps faltering or having unsatisfactory answers in response to some of these debate questions and questions from her rivals, which are often not coming from the media, I think he’s got some upside.

Again, I’m looking at the guy who spent most of the debate attacking his rivals from the right, and so I liked to see that. I thought he poked some holes in their positions that were some pretty obvious, glaring holes, again, from my perspective. Not sure how Democratic primary voters saw that. I still think that he’s got some upside, but I would like to see him have also some appeal to black voters and see that in some polling somewhere before you’re going to say that he’s a real contender.

Rich: Charlie, it seems to me now he’s just taking the tack that he should’ve been taking all along, which is a competitor in the so-called Biden lane, the more moderate lane of the party, but his campaign has been obsessed with vacuuming up coastal money, which you don’t get by being a relative moderate. And some of these ideas are crazy, packing the courts and what not, but it seems like he’s one of the people who realize that if Biden is going to sink, that he could benefit.

Charlie: I think there are three reasons that people seek power or office. One is–

Rich: This is going to be great. I know it’s going to be a great answer. It just seems like an amazing non sequitur.

Charlie: Let me finish. The first is that they have a burning desire to change things and that they are full of policies and change ideas. The second is that they consider themselves to be highly competent and believe they can serve their country in some way, and that’s not always a technocratic instinct. If you look at British parliamentary history, William Pitt, for example, that can work out well. Then there are people who are psychotic, who just want power. Mussolini was a good example of it. The latter two groups don’t always know quite what they want to do; they just think that they could do it well.

I think Pete Buttigieg is in the middle category. I think he looked at this field; he didn’t consider it was particularly impressive. I think he thinks he’s a person of intelligence and talent, which he is. I think he sees himself as representing a different generation. He’s a young man. He’s gay married. He is running against a lot of people in their 70s. He’s from a different part of the country. His profile is different.

I think some of the details of his run have been left to be worked out in the future, and the future has now arrived. What he’s looking at as a candidate in this particular primary is Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren splitting one part of the vote, Joe Biden, and a bunch of also-rans, and he has realized, “I will try and move into the Joe Biden lane,” as you say, partly because it’s possible that Biden will flail out and at that point someone is going to have to have a hold on that portion of the electorate, but partly because he is instinctively, it seems, a little more moderate and from a place, South Bend, Ind., that is different, or at least surrounded by places that are different, than, say, Nancy Pelosi’s district or Elizabeth Warren’s state.

He’s clearly signaling himself to be the moderate now. It’s not a matter of hinting. He has criticized Beto O’Rourke strongly on guns. He criticized Beto O’Rourke strongly on religious liberty. Pete Buttigieg does not have religious-liberty views with which I would agree, but he said clearly that we don’t want to get into punishing churches. And he has become a more vocal critic of the so-called Medicare for All consensus that has emerged.

There is a degree to which this behavior is cynical. There’s also a degree to which this is how politics works. You want people within the political realm who represent the different views that are held by the general public. Kevin Williamson wrote an excellent essay recently pointing out that so many of the opinion columns in the New York Times treat politicians who dissent from the Democratic party’s center of gravity as being somehow illegitimate, but those people are representing half the country. George Will made a similar quip about Fox News. They came up with an innovative business idea of appealing to half the country.

Pete Buttigieg is somebody who has throughout his life, it seems, if you read his columns from when he was in college, not been a firebrand progressive, been a generally left-of-center figure, who is convinced, not without reason, of his own competence. I think he speaks nine languages. This makes sense for him. He’s now looking at the field, and he’s moving into the open space. He’s articulating some concerns that Democratic voters have, not just about the field as it stands, but about some of the ideas that they’re espousing that could lead to the reelection of Donald Trump.

Rich: David French, letter grades on debate performance and campaign so far for Mayor Pete?

David: Debate performance, A-. Campaign so far, you’ve got to give him a similar grade when you come from mayor of South Bend to be in the conversation to contend in Iowa and perhaps beyond, so I’m going to give him an A- on his campaign.

Rich: Charlie Cooke?

Charlie: Yeah, I agree. I’m giving him an A- on his debate performance, and an A on his campaign. Now, of course, that doesn’t mean he’s going to be the nominee. Maybe he’ll hit a ceiling. he doesn’t seem to make inroads among African-American voters, which is, of course, Joe Biden’s anchor.

Siri: I’m sorry, I’m afraid I can’t–

Charlie: That’s my phone interrupting me, wants to be the fourth participant on the podcast. But he—

Rich: Hey, Siri, what do you think of Pete Buttigieg? Wait, now my phone is going. Whoops. Okay.

Charlie: As Rich says, this is a guy who came from nothing, and that has to count for something.

Siri: Just a sec.

Rich: Sorry, that’s me.

Siri: Sorry, I missed that.

Rich: That’s me. I shouldn’t have done it. I shouldn’t have asked Siri.

Charlie: We should get someone on the podcast called Alexa and see what happens.

Rich: Sorry, Siri. Forget I said anything.

I’m with you guys. I say A- on the debate, B+ on the campaign, but easily can bump that up to an A-. It’s been my theory for a while that someone besides the top three is going to break out and break through. You’d have to, at this juncture, say Buttigieg is the most likely. He’s at 14 percent in the latest poll in New Hampshire, which is at spitting distance of the top candidates, who are basically, in effect, in a three-way tie for first. Wouldn’t shock me if he wins Iowa. I think he profiles as a John Edwards type in 2004, or a Gary Hart type the first time he ran, someone who surprises way on the upside, who probably doesn’t have the juice to get the nomination, but could be a vice-presidential pick, could be a very serious candidate next time around if Trump wins this time.

I think, obviously, the African-American thing is a challenge. I oppose straight-line projections on that because winning could change how African Americans view a candidate. For instance, Elizabeth Warren now is showing a little life among African Americans, when there was zero. I think just Buttigieg has more of a problem than anyone else in this regard because he’s this bright young guy who’s like a shiny penny, and he’s gay married, so I think he’s going to have a lot of problems, say, with African-American voters in South Carolina.

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