Let's talk about that brutal Biden attack ad on Buttigieg

Three months before New Hampshire or maybe even three weeks before, I think this ad would have landed. Three days before, with Biden struggling to avoid fifth place? Hmmmm.


On the other hand, it’s been viewed more than four million times on Twitter alone as I write this on Monday morning.

Given the latest polling, it’s more of an Amy Klobuchar attack ad, no? Watch, then read on.


There were hot takes aplenty on social media after it was released on Saturday, with some contrarians claiming it would backfire because it treated small-town governance as a joke. Why, it’s practically a reprise of “deplorables,” mocking average Americans for caring about local quality-of-life issues. Others claimed it would backfire by treating a genuine liability for Buttigieg, his record with black public employees in South Bend, as an afterthought tacked onto an otherwise jokey spot. If you want to hurt Pete, you don’t toss that into a stew of goofs on his lack of experience. You cook it up and serve it as a main course. (Rest assured, one or more of his opponents will before South Carolina goes to vote.)

But all of that amounts to overthinking the ad. The most basic concern about Buttigieg is that he’s not ready for primetime, a silver-tongued not-yet-40 lightweight who hasn’t spent a day in his life executing policy beyond the borders of a small midwestern city. It’s not that local quality-of-life concerns are unimportant, it’s that we don’t normally view them as relevant experience for commanding the U.S. military or negotiating a trillion-dollar infrastructure package. Yes, yes, I know — that didn’t stop Trump, who had even less governing experience than Buttigieg. But Trump isn’t a useful comparison because he was a celebrity before he got into politics and the rules are different for celebrities. Not just any celebrity either; he’s a man who spent decades cultivating an image as a mega-successful business genius, a Bloombergian figure without the $50 billion to back it up, a mogul so savvy that an entire TV series was developed around his supposed managerial acumen. That was “proof” enough of his competence.

On top of that, Trump and Buttigieg were running as two different types of candidates. Trump was a populist outsider, a man sent to Washington to wreck the system and rebuild it as something better. No experience needed for that in populist minds; if anything, government experience would only make him less qualified for the task. Whereas Buttigieg is an elitist technocrat, a McKinsey boy, who dutifully yammers about small-town life and the “heartland” as needed but who’s asking Democrats to send him to Washington because he’s so darned smart and precocious that he’ll manage the system better than his more experienced rivals can. (Which is also Bloomberg’s pitch. In a way, Bloomberg is a weird hybrid of Trump and Buttigieg.)

So yeah, this ad is effective because it gets to the gut anxiety about Buttigieg: Who the hell is this guy and why should we make him the most powerful person in the world? Mayor Pete’s doing his best to counter with the expected pretend outrage about the affront to middle America:

“I know some are asking, what business does the South Bend mayor have seeking the highest office in the land,” Buttigieg started, addressing Biden without mentioning him by name. “You don’t have an office in Washington, you don’t have decades of experience in the establishment, the city you are the mayor of isn’t even the biggest city in the country.”

“It is more like Manchester, New Hampshire,” he said, to applause…

“To which I say, that is very much the point, because Americans in small, rural towns and industrial communities and yes, in our biggest cities, are tired of being reduced to a punchline by Washington politicians, and ready for someone to take the voice to the American capital. And that is how we are going to defeat Donald Trump,” Buttigieg said.

Good point. Now that I’ve heard it, I think New Hampshire should probably give Wayne Messam a second look. The city Messam governs is bigger than the one Buttigieg used to govern, after all.

I’m not going to spend time on the latest polls there since Ed has a post about them coming up but I do wonder if the viral sensation caused by Biden’s ad this weekend contributed to the “Klomentum” that’s materializing right now. The spot may not have steered any centrist Dems in NH towards Joe but it could have steered them away from Buttigieg, leaving Klobuchar the obvious beneficiary after she took it to Mayor Pete at Friday night’s debate. “If Klobuchar really did ‘mini-Christie’ Buttigieg in the NH debate,” said elections expert Dave Wasserman, “it might go down as one of the best things to happen to Bernie Sanders’s bid for the nomination.” Indeed. A two-way or even three-way fight for the moderate lane in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina is a recipe for Bernie to run the table, especially if Warren collapses tomorrow night.

Here’s Buttigieg responding smartly to Biden’s desperate-sounding attack on him on the trail in New Hampshire this weekend, exclaiming, “This guy’s not a Barack Obama!” Neither are you, scoffs Buttigieg in reply, emphasizing that this is 2020, not 2008. In the span of about two sentences he frames Biden as a candidate of the past (which he is, per his campaign theme of restoring America to its pre-Trump status quo) while implicitly reminding everyone that O has been quiet about his former VP at a moment when Obama’s endorsement might be the only thing that can save him.