This is a light jab, not a roundhouse, but I’m surprised to find Buttigieg antagonizing Sanders and his cultish fans. And not for the first time. Remember, he got into trouble with the left a few days ago by comparing Bernie to Trump inasmuch as each thrived in 2016 on voters who wanted to blow up “the system.” Buttigieg didn’t mean that as an insult, as I understood him. He wasn’t claiming that what drives Sanders voters are the same things that drive Trumpists. His point was that frustration with the status quo in America, economically and politically, is sufficiently intense on both sides to have supported not one but two credible challenges from supposedly unelectable populist insurgents three years ago.
But now here’s the Times with new quotes suggesting that, no, Buttigieg really did mean to characterize Bernie as a fringy figure who, contra to all progressive dogma, probably can’t win a national election. He’s going to make enemies here, and for what? Strategically, it makes no sense to me.
In an interview, Mr. Buttigieg said Mr. Sanders’s left-wing proposals were no longer as provocative as in 2016 — “people were refreshed by the novelty of that boldness” — and expressed skepticism that a self-described democratic socialist in his late 70s could win a general election.
“I have a hard time seeing the coalition ultimately coming together there,” he said.
(Responding to the critique, Faiz Shakir, Mr. Sanders’s campaign manager, trumpeted the senator’s populist record and said his “unifying progressive agenda” made him “the best-positioned candidate to defeat Donald Trump in the general election.”)
I’ve understood Buttigieg’s candidacy from the beginning as a sort of branding exercise. He has a heavy lift getting elected to statewide office in a state as red as Indiana, but if he runs for president and makes a good impression, that might earn him the sort of base loyalty and fundraising dollars he’d need to mount a plausible campaign for governor or senator in a few years. If he makes a really good impression, he might end up with a prestige job in the federal government courtesy of the next Democratic president, and he could use that experience as a credential to run for president again, this time more formidably, in 2028.
But if that’s the strategy, his top goal should be to not make enemies on his own side. Run hard, make a splash in polling, but don’t alienate anyone in the field who might otherwise be willing to give you that prestige job in 2021. And certainly don’t alienate supporters of that person whose dollars you’re counting on to help fund your eventual Indiana statewide run.
And for cripes sake, if you simply must pick a fight with some top contender, don’t do it with the de facto pope of the DSA contingent. Bernie fans aren’t going to shrug off slights to their man on grounds that “politics ain’t beanbag” or whatever. They’re cultists. They’ll respond to the cult leader being impugned the way cult members always do. They will have long memories about this, especially if Buttigieg meaningfully damages Sanders’s chances.
I can only assume that Buttigieg has begun to believe his own BS and thinks he has a real chance at becoming president. He doesn’t. For one thing, despite his movement in the polls, he’s no stronger than Bernie is among black voters and may even end up weaker as oppo on him begins to circulate. For another, although it’s understandable that a politician might believe that anyone can be elected president in a country that just elected Donald Trump, the fact remains that Buttigieg is 37 years old and has never governed anything except a modestly sized city. Trump was a household-name celebrity, widely perceived by voters as one of the most successful businessmen in the world, and — importantly — offered a genuine ideological contrast with the rest of the GOP field. Buttigieg doesn’t. Really the opposite — it’s hard to place him ideologically except “pretty left-wing but not as much as Bernie,” which applies equally to everyone running except possibly Biden.
Buttigieg-mentum is more about personal style than ideology, as this quietly brutal essay in the Times today explains. There’s a certain type of well-educated liberal, common to the media class, that recognizes Buttigieg as a more intelligent, better-read version of themselves. Who could be more fit to govern the free world, right?
In his weeks on the national scene, Buttigieg has built a brand squarely aimed at a certain kind of liberal intellectual — the type whose prose-driven, subjective, humanist view of the world has lately fallen out of style, replaced by data analysis and ideology. His unassuming face now seems to be everywhere. The blitz has felt less like a presidential campaign than a liberal-arts variety show — a best-case scenario for what happened to Max Fischer from “Rushmore.” A few weeks after the musician Ben Folds told a story about playing a duet with the candidate, a Buttigieg adviser tweeted a video of Mayor Pete “tickling the ivories” before a talk at Scripps College. Even his choice of song — Spoon’s “The Way We Get By” — fit the brand, nailing a demographic of upper-middle-class dads who wax nostalgic about their college radio shows and the professors who taught them to love James Joyce. As Notre-Dame burned, Buttigieg offered his sympathies in French…
Imagining yourself in a book club with Pete Buttigieg becomes this election’s having a beer with George W. Bush. If the news media has an “identitarianism” problem, it’s not so much that people bunker down into racial, gender or sexual groups, but that a whole class of journalists and thinkers never seems to be able to wander out past its own pool of references — all so admiring of the same things that some are blinded to the similar backgrounds of almost every other Democratic candidate for president.
That’s a little too brutal, as it’s not just reporters who are driving Buttigieg’s rise in the polls. As it happens, it’s recent college grads and left-wingers — Bernie Sanders’s base — who have gravitated towards him, another reason for the Sanders cult to resent him. Now, per the Times, we have Mayor Pete trying to attract more of them by politely implying that Bernie is old news and unelectable. It’s hard to see how that ends well for him. His hope, I guess, is that he continues to siphon off Bernie votes, Biden falters, and he shocks the world by ending up as the nominee, with angry Berniebros forced to swallow hard and grudgingly turn out for him next fall in the name of defeating Trump. But they may be less forgiving than he expects, especially if he comes to be seen as chief culprit in the derailing of Bernie’s and the revolution’s journey to political glory in 2020. And if he succeeds in blocking Bernie but doesn’t win the nomination himself, instead serving as a stalking horse for some centrist candidate like Biden to swoop in and win it, he’ll be pilloried by the left a bit like Ralph Nader post-2000. His chances of a progressive-fueled statewide candidacy in Indiana might be DOA.
Again, I don’t get it. But here he is a few nights ago trying to clean up his original Trump/Sanders comments.