Democratic Nomination Uncertainty and the Buttigieg Problem

by Neil H. Buchanan

In what I consider to be good news, two political scientists published a piece yesterday in The Washington Post showing that the supposed "war" within the Democratic Party is a figment of pundits' imaginations. As the author/pollsters summarize their findings: "[W]e find a surprising amount of agreement among Democrats on major policy issues. Contradicting the conventional wisdom, clearly defined ideological 'lanes' don’t seem to exist in the minds of most voters."

Why is that good news?  Because for someone like me, who is constantly amazed by how many commentators talk about the Democratic Party as if it were still the unfocused group of infighters that we grew up with, it is nice to see evidence that the Democrats truly are unified on policy issues -- and, by the way, taking positions on all of those issues that are very, very popular.

The polls show that voters do not identify themselves in specific camps within the party; and much more to the point, their voting preferences do not show them buying into the hype from an ideologue like, say, The Post's Jennifer Rubin -- whom I respect but who is Suspect #1 in the poorly hidden pundits' conspiracy to make the Democratic primaries an ideological war between centrist and center-left candidates.  (Sorry, the U.S. still does not have any leftist Democrat leaders in terms of policy, and that includes not-actually-Democrats like Bernie Sanders.)

Indeed, the polls show that voters who identify centrists as their first choice choose non-centrists as their second and third choices, and vice versa. Here is a great nugget: "More specifically, in surveys from Oct. 17 to Nov. 13, 35 percent of Biden supporters list Sanders as their No. 2 choice, and 29 percent list Warren. Only 9 percent list Buttigieg. Meanwhile, Sanders supporters are nearly evenly divided in their second-choice candidate: 36 percent say Warren, while 32 percent say Biden."

So it is difficult if not impossible to see actual Democratic voters saying: "I'm a centrist and I hate those lefties who are going to ruin us by making us seem like socialists, so I'm going with Buttigieg if Biden fades, or maybe Klobuchar."  These pollsters appropriately caveat their findings, but this is interesting work that is contrary to the conventional wisdom, to say the least.

Because these are scary times, however, I am unable to take good news as good news.  Where is the bad news?  Mostly, it is embodied in the squeaky-clean supposed "dream candidate" known as Pete Buttigieg.

Before I go there, however, let me quote the end of the Post piece, because the authors make an important point:
"Of course, we should expect candidates to focus on where they disagree with their opponents, just as they did in the most recent debate. Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), for example, criticized Warren’s wealth tax as 'cumbersome' and hard to implement. It’s hard to say 'vote for me' if you’re the same as everyone else. 
"But voters don’t seem to follow these disagreements in detail, much less consider them 'profound divides.' In their minds, the candidates’ policy positions — let alone an alleged war for the soul of the Democratic Party — may well be taking a back seat to other priorities such as nominating someone who can beat [Donald] Trump."
In short, as I (and certainly others) have been pointing out for quite some time, the Democrats are surprisingly unified, the voters are all in on beating Trump, and the differences among the candidates can largely be attributed to intramural posturing (in the good sense of that word) that will soon seem utterly immaterial.

But still.  Still, I guess that -- although I am in a strange netherworld of writing frequently on political issues without viewing myself as a pundit -- I actually wish that Democratic voters would pay attention to the candidates' important policy differences that pundits emphasize.  Yes, I am glad to see evidence suggesting that party unity will win the day and that Democrats will win next year -- if the Republicans (and/or the Russians) do not succeed in changing the rules, and bearing in mind as always that Trump probably will not accept defeat.  But no, I am not happy that voters do not notice the difference in substance between Warren and Buttigieg or Biden.

And that also goes for Booker.  Although this "cumbersome" comment was simply a decent debating moment, he does have a history of closeness with Wall Street, and he recently invoked the nonsensical argument against wealth taxes -- saying that they will supposedly destroy incentives for capitalists to innovate -- that Wall Streeters take on faith.  This puts him in the same category as his fellow Senator Amy Klobuchar, who responds to progressive policy proposals by snorting that we need to be "realistic."

Why does this all matter?  Because even though -- or especially because -- the voters do not care about (or perhaps even notice) the differences among the candidates in terms of their underlying assumptions and instincts, the party's elite certainly does know who is a threat to the status quo.  Those leaders can rely on primary voters' equanimity about the candidates while working behind the scenes to make sure that only the most bland and unthreatening candidates have a chance.

All of which brings us back to Buttigieg.  After one of the Democrats' non-debates earlier this Fall, I wrote a column that began with a rather blunt (even by my standards) declaratory sentence: "Pete Buttigieg, it turns out, is a bit of a dick."  I was, it turns out, onto something.  My column (along with a related Verdict column) was a response to his attacks on Warren's health care plan but also to his willingness to invoke other Republican talking points by, for example, characterizing then-candidate Beto O'Rourke's gun-buyback plan as "confiscation."

Those who wanted to believe the best in Buttigieg quickly concluded that he must have been advised to become more aggressive, which would mean that his more dickish posture was a campaign tactic rather than evidence of underlying personality defects.  This, of course, raises the second-order question of what a person's underlying personality must be like if he is willing to pretend to be a jerk at someone else's expense for his own gain, but I will leave that aside here.

It is not just that Buttigieg was apparently willing to transform himself at the behest of consultants.  In fact, he simply is a candidate -- indeed, he is a person -- who seems to be driven by the kind of thinking that consultants peddle to "electable" candidates all the time.

I recently came across a long-ish but fascinating piece in Current Affairs from March of this year, in which Nathan J. Robinson offered a scathing critique of Buttigieg.  I was previously unfamiliar with Robinson, but he helpfully provided facts about himself to allow readers to take into account his lefty priors.  (Unlike me, Robinson is clearly a huge Bernie fan.)  He also flagged his own weakest (or weakest-seeming) arguments and explained why what might seem snarky and trivial could actually be trenchant and important.  But again, any reader could decide otherwise.

What is most important about Robinson's take-down of Buttigieg is that it is based on the mayor's record, including a close reading of the book that Buttigieg wrote for this campaign, Shortest Way Home.  No matter what one thinks about Robinson's not-hidden views, he assembles a killer case against Buttigieg -- again, almost entirely based on Buttigieg's own words and past, not on Robinson saying, "But he's moderate and I'm not!"

Robinson quotes from a puff piece in New York in which Buttigieg makes the case for himself:
"You have a handful of candidates from the middle of the country, but very few of them are young. You have a handful of young candidates, but very few of them are executives. We have a handful of executives but none of them are veterans, and so it’s a question of: What alignment of attributes do you want to have?"
Using phrases like "alignment of attributes," it turns out, is how Buttigieg approaches the world.  How did that happen?

He showed up as a Freshman at Harvard determined to win a Rhodes Scholarship.  As Robinson points out, and as those of us who have spent any time around the Rhodes juggernaut know all too well, Rhodes Scholarships are a game that some people are willing to play.  Yes, they get above-average grades, but they also make a lot of additional strategic moves that plenty of super-smart college kids have not been clued into (and might not be willing to make).  It is not an accident that Harvard is almost always relatively awash in Rhodes winners, even relative to Yale and Princeton, because Harvard has an entire machinery in place to get Buttigieg types on the Rhodes fast-track.  (I was part of that machinery when I was a "resident tutor" there.  It's an impressive bit of engineering, in its way.)

I am, of course, not saying that every Rhodes winner is a tool.  I am, however, saying that there is a rebuttable presumption of being a tool.  So when Buttigieg transformed himself from nice-guy Midwestern mayor to attack dog, this should have surprised no one.  He was aligning his attributes as he felt they needed to be aligned.

Most pointedly, however, Robinson notes that after finishing his fore-ordained stint at Oxford, Buttigieg basically had the widest range of possible career paths that any 24-year-old could imagine.  And what did he choose?  Consulting!  Not just any old consultancy, but McKinsey, the number one management consulting firm in the world.

To call that company amoral, as Robinson does, is kind: "McKinsey is in the news almost every week for some new horrendous deed, from advising Purdue Pharma on how to 'turbocharge' OxyContin sales to counseling dictators worldwide on how to build more efficient autocracies. A former McKinsey consultant recently wrote a long exposé of the firm’s crimes for Current Affairs."  Yet "Pete Buttigieg does not recall his time at McKinsey with a sense of moral ambivalence. Today he says it might have been his most 'intellectually informing experience,' and by that he doesn’t mean that he saw the dark underbelly of American business. No, he was 'learning about the nature of data.'"

Indeed, in his campaign biography, Buttigieg does not merely show himself to be untroubled by social injustice.  As he does on the campaign trail against Warren, he uses the language of right-wing extremists to attack those who are more liberal than he is, dismissing as mere "social justice warriors" the Harvard students who were protesting for a living wage for Harvard's janitors.  Again, this is not an offhanded comment in a media scrum; this is Buttigieg's central campaign document, and he sounds like Tucker Carlson.

But the most worrisome aspect of Buttigieg's approach is his insistence in early interviews that he did not have to show up as a presidential candidate with well formed policy ideas:
"Right now I think we need to articulate the values, lay out our philosophical commitments and then develop policies off of that. And I’m working very hard not to put the cart before the horse. I think it can actually be a little bit dishonest to think you have it all figured out on day 1. I think anybody in this race is going to be a lot more specific or policy-oriented than the current president. But I don’t think we ought to have that all locked in on day 1."
You see, it would be "dishonest" to have things thought out in advance.  Democrats, per Buttigieg, should just lay out their values and not be too specific.  (Remember, this is a faculty brat whose parents happened to land jobs in a red state, which he is now using to pretend to have Midwestern credibility; and he has done nothing in his life that shows any tendency toward concern for economic inequality when he could do anything about it.)  But Elizabeth Warren is "evasive," according to Mayor Pete, because she refused to take the bait and label medical costs "taxes."

Forgive me for thinking that this is not the profile of someone who can "articulate the values [and] lay out our philosophical commitments and then develop policies off of that."  He seems not to have much in the way of values or philosophical commitments at all, other than that he can be a chameleon and learn whatever language is needed to convince people that he is a good guy.  (As the dude who is running as the candidate of generational change, however, he sure is unpopular among people of his generation and younger.)

There is much more, of course, but I will leave it there for now.  If Biden fails, Buttigieg is the obvious fallback position for the Wall Street and other anti-liberal types who kept Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in line.  Buttigieg apparently has no core commitments, but he loves "learning about the nature of data" and thinks that McKinsey was "a place to learn."  Yet he dismissed the OxyContin problem by saying that he "hadn’t followed the story."  Learning!

This is the point where I say for the umpteenth time that Buttigieg and all of the rest are a zillion times better than Trump, and I will certainly figure out a way to hold my nose and support him if he is the nominee.  But whereas Joe Biden is the result of decades of encrusted compromises made during a career without much of a point, Buttigieg's point is to attack others for not being him.

I can see why the power brokers are excited to know that the primary voters view Buttigieg as an interchangeable candidate with the others, because he can be marketed as a feel-good progressive story -- he has been marketing himself that way for his whole life -- even as he nestles comfortably into their pockets.

He would be a better president than Trump, but like Biden, all of his instincts will tell him to fight against anything that makes a Democratic leader uncomfortable.  Buttigieg's alignment of attributes is not the path toward a better future.