Buttigieg Jumps the Shark

by Neil H. Buchanan

Pete Buttigieg, it turns out, is a bit of a dick.  This was not supposed to be his brand.  He presented himself to the world as a thoughtful, modest uniter with Midwestern quietude and restraint who would move our politics forward -- the avatar of a new generation of people who have had enough of the old ways of doing things.  We wanted to like him.  I certainly wanted to like him.

Apparently, however, Buttigieg decided that this was no longer working.  It seems that his initial success in moving into the second tier of candidates who might break through -- not among the Three Septuagenarians leading the pack, but also clearly in a different category from Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar -- gave him a taste for more.  Unfortunately for him, his boomlet ran its course as he faded out of double digits in national polls and has been muddling along in a land where people assume his future is as a Vice Presidential pick.

How to get out of that rut?  Figure out what will send the pundits hearts aflutter, of course.  Among the many possible ways to do that, he chose to go for full-on sneering aggression during Tuesday night's Democratic not-really-a-debate.  Hit 'em with the zingers.  Be remembered for something other than thoughtfulness.  (As I will note below, he has actually been doing this for awhile, but the debate was his formal launch as an old-style attack candidate.)

At one point, Buttigieg punched down at Beto O'Rourke by sarcastically scoffing: "I don’t need lessons from you on courage."  Yes, apparently you do, Mayor Pete, because O'Rourke was right about your timidity and political calculations about dealing (or not dealing) with gun violence.  Yet Buttigieg decided that sanctimony was more important than actually having anything to say.  As I said, dickish.

Here, I will explain why I think that this is a very bad look on Buttigieg; and more pointedly, I will argue that it means that he is not thinking about how his interventions are going to affect the eventual nominee, whether it is Buttigieg himself or anyone else.  This is what happens when someone gets too greedy for more attention.

Standard disclaimer: Of course I will support Buttigieg in the general election if he is the Democrats' nominee.  It is now more true than ever that even the utterly weird Marianne Williamson, the egomaniacal dabbler Tom Steyer, the in-over-her-head Tulsi Gabbard, and the rest of the also-rans would be better than Trump.

Nothing I write here about Buttigieg means that he will be even a bad president, much less a horror show like the self-impeacher who currently rants on TV and Twitter.  But he is seriously in danger of damaging his own long-term viability and, much more importantly, potentially doing real harm to the Democratic Party.

That is not to say that Buttigieg's new strategy of launching aggressively unfair attacks will definitely not work. Much of the day-after punditry regarding Tuesday's event even seemed to favor him.  But not everyone was impressed.  For example, a columnist in The Washington Post noted that a friend had said this after Tuesday's debate: "Ugh. When did Mayor Pete become that dude who throws you under the bus once you learn only one of you gets the Rotary scholarship?"  If sarcasm looks bad on Amy (Minnesota Nice) Klobuchar -- and it does -- it might wear particularly badly on Buttigieg.

But prognostication is not my game, and I certainly have non-mainstream views about what works in politics.  (I still cannot, for the life of me, fathom what people saw in Ronald Reagan.  He was just such a transparent performer.  But I accept that I have always been in the minority in failing to appreciate his supposed charms.)  For all I know, Mayor Pete has hit the jackpot by figuring out how to be everything that he seemed not to be.  Some pundits will call him "forceful" rather than a jerk.  Maybe it will work, and maybe not.

What rankles as a non-predictive matter is that Buttigieg has decided -- and not just in Tuesday's debate -- simply to mischaracterize what other candidates are doing and saying.  Before his put-down of O'Rourke, Buttigieg (who has taken to calling O'Rourke's gun buyback plan a "shiny object") claimed that O'Rourke had no plan to deal with gun violence.  O'Rourke pointed out correctly that he does in fact have a plan, and it is not only the buyback plan.

Why would Buttigieg wrongly say that O'Rourke has no plan rather than simply engage with it and prove that he is right and O'Rourke is wrong?  Buttigieg has evidently decided that he can score points by dismissing another person's arguments with cheap rhetorical tricks rather than engaging with them on the substance.  Why argue when you can insult?  (We have had enough of that for the last three years, have we not?)

This is most obvious in Buttigieg's months-long crusade against Elizabeth Warren's proposal to adopt a single-payer health care system.  After this week's debate, he went on CNN and snarked: "Last night she was more specific and forthcoming about the number of selfies she’s taken than about how her plan is going to be funded."  He says that she is "vague" and "evasive."  (As an aside, at least here Buttigieg is not punching down.  Still, how one goes after the frontrunner matters.)

Even Joe Biden, who is not exactly covering himself with glory in the way that he deals with Warren and Medicare-for-all, does not claim (as far as I know) that she is being vague.  He has made his own content-free attacks on her plan, calling it "ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous"; but if it indeed were ridiculous, it would first have to be -- in particular, it would have to be non-vague enough to be attackable.

But again, this is Buttigieg's move.  He simply says something false in place of saying something informed.  My new Verdict column today, in fact, is addressed entirely to Buttigieg's charge of evasiveness, and the title of the column telegraphs my conclusion: "Warren Is Not Being ‘Evasive’ About Taxes and Health Care, But Buttigieg Is."

The point is that "evasive" is not a synonym for "an answer that I dislike."  Buttigieg joins with others (including the disappointing Klobuchar) in insisting that Warren answer the question that he wants answered: Will her health care plan involve higher taxes on middle-class people?  Warren is not willing to be baited into writing a Republican attack ad against herself, so she answers the question that Buttigieg and others must know deep down that they should ask, which is whether people's total costs for health care will go up or down under her plan.  The answer for the middle class is down.

But Buttigieg (and, to be clear once again, far too many other people who truly cannot be this obtuse) does not like that answer, so he calls her answer evasive.  She opts out of the gotcha trap by not answering a loaded yes-or-no question, and he cannot stand it.  She is not evading the demand to defend her plan, she is simply not playing the game that Buttigieg wants her to play.

As I pointed out in my Verdict column, this difference in fact highlights the real evasiveness, with Buttigieg insisting on distracting everyone by talking only about taxes and ignoring other costs in our system.  In the column, I imagined someone finally asking Buttigieg why he thinks it is acceptable to waste all the money that we do with our current health care system, and he responds: "Hey, did you notice that fewer of the dollars that people will be spending under my plan will be called ‘taxes’?"

And it actually gets worse.  Shortly before Tuesday's debate, Buttigieg's campaign decided to attack Warren's plan for eliminating private insurance, which is controversial but is a sensible part of a single-payer plan.  (Again, it seems strange that Buttigieg finds Warren to be both vague yet somehow to have said things that are specific enough for him to attack.)

I actually agree that the better political move at this point would be for Warren to agree to create the so-called public option (which Buttigieg supports) as an interim step.  But how did Buttigieg attack Warren's plan?  By running an ad that says that Warren should not be "infringing on people’s freedom" by taking away their apparently God-given right to buy private insurance.

That is a pretty slimy way to attack a plan that is designed so that people would receive health care without needing to pad the profits of private insurers.  Indeed, Buttigieg's attack has strong echoes of the infamous "broccoli hypothetical" that right-wingers harped on in attacking the Affordable Care Act: "If the government can force you to buy insurance, it could also force you to eat broccoli!!!"

And if the government can build a plan to do what insurance companies can do, then it is taking away your right to choose which middleman you must pay to see a doctor!  Does Buttigieg also think that people should have the right to buy health insurance from a company that will cancel coverage for a preexisting condition?  Or one that discriminates against women, or racial minorities -- or the LGBTQ community?

Buttigieg is playing with the rhetoric of the right, which ultimately undermines the case for anything that liberals or progressives would want to enact.  After all, if the government does something that prevents people from doing something, that amounts to "infringing on freedom" in some trivial sense of that phrase.  (I am not free to work for less than minimum wage or to burn trash in my backyard.  Why is the government infringing on my freedom?)

Again, Buttigieg is very willing to use rightwing tropes in order to claw his way past people.  In his attacks on O'Rourke, for example, he refers to O'Rourke's gun buyback plan as "confiscation."  Sheesh.  Really?  Where will Buttigieg go with that rhetoric if the public actually starts to support buyback programs?  "Oh, I was just kidding when I used the NRA's phrasing to attack this popular idea.  Confiscation is cool."

This is all very disappointing, because Buttigieg was not supposed to be that guy.  I am more liberal than he is, but it is possible to disagree on the substance without being both unfair and damaging to one's own side.  He could, for example, have said something like this in the debate on Tuesday night:
"Senator Warren is right that what matters is health care costs, whether we call them taxes or anything else.  We do all need to understand that this is something the Republicans will -- quite unfairly -- use to attack her if she is the nominee, and sadly it might work.  That's why I think we should go with my plan instead, because I think we run the risk of scaring voters unnecessarily.  But let's stop with this 'Will taxes go up or down?' nonsense right now.  It is beneath us, and rather than acting like Republicans, we should be united in calling them on their dishonesty when they do it."
Instead, as The Post's Paul Waldman put it, Buttigieg and others "accused [Warren] of being evasive about the cost of Medicare-for-all, and they all did it in a way that could have been scripted by Grover Norquist and the rest of the Republican Party’s anti-tax activists."  What a putz.