Even in an incredibly crowded 2020 field, there’s plenty of ways that Pete Buttigieg, mayor of a mid-sized Midwestern city, stands out: he’s young, gay, and an Afghanistan War veteran. But his first appearances in Iowa after his presidential campaign announcement were noteworthy in a much more simple way: how bluntly and honestly he answered questions.
The South Bend, Indiana mayor kicked off his well-attended events in Ames and Grinnell on Friday with a very short stump speech (possibly too short, actually, for this early in the race for a little-known contender) before diving right into questions. The party activist and college student crowds that turned out in spite of the zero-degree weather had plenty on their mind.
“It’s a big field, there is a chance you might not win,” one man asked early on at an Ames coffee shop. “What impact do you want to have?”
“That was very diplomatic,” Buttigieg joked in his response. “Because there is a chance we might not win, it gives us a kind of pressure, but I think it also gives us some permission, to be a little bolder in our thinking … This is a season for big ideas, this is a season for bold initiatives. And I think the bigger and bolder various candidates are, the more it puts those stakes on a very big field and lets voters choose what makes the most sense.”
And that mindset certainly permeated throughout most of his interactions with Iowa caucus-goers. Buttigieg often took questions presented to him at face value, sometimes seeming to think about the topic for the first time and formulate his opinion on the go.
When questioned by an ISU student on whether America should hold the voters who backed Donald Trump responsible for the harm they caused so many people, Buttigieg took a moment to mull it over.
“That’s a profound question. There has to be some way to connect with people who voted for this president, besides some very condescending approaches like telling them we think they’re voting against their economic interests,” Buttigieg replied. “Or informing them they were complicit in a crime.”
He added that the response needed to include zero tolerance for those who bought into the racism, xenophobia, and “the very dark impulses that were harvested by that campaign.”
“And at the same time, recognize that there were also a lot of people, including people in my community, which went through a lot in the last few decades with trade and the auto industry, who were not under any illusion that this president was a good guy, but walked in and basically voted to burn the house down,” Buttigieg continued.
It may seem silly to deem Buttigieg’s candid responses as noteworthy, but go to enough Iowa Caucus events and you’ll see candidate after candidate who pivots every single question back to a very specific, pre-set talking point.
Sherrod Brown stuck to a very rigid message on his “Dignity of Work” tour that brought every question back to his working-class message. Elizabeth Warren began an answer on who her political mentors were by naming a few, but ended with a quote of, “my mentor was I will never give up this fight on behalf of working families.” Cory Booker somehow navigated a question about how to engage college students in politics to a story about the Muslim ban and a comparison between how he hugs people and how Chris Christie hugs people.
And that’s all fine. Candidates have their messages and jokes and favorite personal stories that they want to find a way to shoehorn in to every speaking event. But there can be times when those answers aren’t always satisfying enough to the caucus-going crowd’s specific inquiries.
One person at Buttigieg’s ISU campus event pressed the mayor on why he had endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary, arguing her economic policies were essentially disqualifying.
“One thing I’m really excited to not do is relive the 2016 primary,” Buttigieg responded, but then dove in anyway to a lengthy discussion about what Bernie Sanders accomplished and how it pushed the policy debate to the left.
“Look at healthcare as an example. What [Clinton] proposed was considerably to the left of what Obama achieved. What Obama achieved made a big difference though. Matter of fact, it saved lives in my extended family,” Buttigieg said. “That being said, the ACA is a fundamentally center-right proposal. If the right position is Wild West free market everything, and the left position is national healthcare, then the compromise is single-payer and Medicare for All. And then moving further right from that, a compromise on that compromise would have been public option.”
Asked later on at that event what he thought about American intervention in Honduras and about imperialism in general, Buttigieg noted that he first got more politically involved after studying similar interventions in El Salvador.
“If the American project is even going to make any sense, then we have to believe that there is an alignment between American interests and American values,” he said.
The Iowans who listened to Buttigieg seemed to notice it, with several students saying he seemed “genuine” and “real” afterward.
For the multitude of candidates who begin the 2020 race as long-shots, they’ll all need some sort of moment to break out nationally. But if and when that happens, that candidate will also need plenty of other skills to capitalize on it. One will be their retail politicking chops and ability to actually connect with choosy Iowans when speaking to them face-to-face.
Buttigieg seems to at least have that part of his 2020 challenge down already.
by Pat Rynard