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Is Pete Buttigieg a Political Genius?

The South Bend mayor is unlike any other Democratic candidate for president, and he's staked out the middle ground among them all.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Pete Buttigieg dared to weigh in on one of the great culture-war lightning rods of the past decade: Chick-fil-A. “I do not approve of their politics, but I kind of approve of their chicken,” the South Bend mayor said, referring to the fast-food chain’s historical support for groups that oppose same-sex marriage. Then, perhaps less seriously, he added, “Maybe if nothing else, I can build that bridge. Maybe I’ll become in a position to broker that peace deal.” These remarks counted as newsworthy not only because Buttigieg is a Democratic presidential candidate; he first gained national attention in 2015 for coming out as gay amid the fight against Indiana’s anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” law (signed by then–Governor Mike Pence).

But Buttigieg has an uncanny sense of public opinion—or he’s done his research. As Slate’s Ruth Graham noted earlier this month, many on the left have “uncanceled” the chain since swearing it off at the height of the controversy in 2012. “[O]ver the years, the furor has faded, and many progressives have slunk back through the restaurant’s doors,” she wrote, adding that progressives “seem increasingly comfortable eating at Chick-fil-A” because the chain is “not as egregious as it used to be, and the product is irresistible.” Buttigieg’s remarks, then, may well represent the center of Democratic opinion on this critical issue: It’s OK to eat Chick-fil-A, but not without a little guilt.

It’s this kind of casual political cunning that has propelled Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of a city of just 100,000, to as high as fifth place in the Democratic primary polls. On the campaign trail and in his recent memoir, Shortest Way Home, Buttigieg studiously avoids taking sides in the political and cultural battles that have defined American politics for the past three decades, instead arguing that he’s the one who can bridge the divide between coastal states and fly-over states, between the party’s left wing and its center, between an anti-LGBT—but delicious—chicken chain and everyone else.

In a Democratic primary still haunted by the ghosts of 2016, Buttigieg stands out in part because he can’t be slotted into the familiar narratives. His unique profile is unlike any other presidential candidate, ever: He’s a married gay man, a devout Episcopalian, a Harvard graduate, a McKinsey alumnus, a Rhodes Scholar, a skilled pianist, and a Navy veteran who took a six-month leave of absence as mayor to serve in Afghanistan. He’s also hard to pin down politically. He wants to abolish the Electoral College and is even open to the idea of packing the Supreme Court. He’s a supporter of Medicare for All, though not for abolishing private insurance. An advocate of “democratic capitalism” and thoroughly earnest, he sometimes seems like a mix between Elizabeth Warren and former Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Except he’s not; he’s sui generis.

This is not to say that Buttigieg’s politics are revolutionary in any way. More often than not, he splits the difference between the party’s extremes. In a recent Vox interview about the ongoing Democratic debate over capitalism and socialism, he said, “You have one generation that grew up associating socialism with communism like they’re the same thing, and therefore also assuming that capitalism and democracy were inseparable. I’ve grown up in a time when you can pretty much tell that there’s tension between capitalism and democracy, and negotiating that tension is probably the biggest challenge for America right now.”

This answer reflects a sort of third way that Buttigieg is attempting to carve out in the Democratic primary—between Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism and Clintonian neoliberalism. At the same time, Buttigieg is trying to turn a quality that should be a liability—his age—as an asset. He’s suggesting that he doesn’t have the baggage of the past; as someone born in the liminal space between Generation X and Millennials, Buttigieg can see the present with clear eyes. It’s not, in some ways, much different than the approach of O’Rourke, to whom he is frequently compared.

Buttigieg has tried to turn his other apparent weakness—that his political experience is limited to less than two terms as South Bend’s mayor—into a strength, too. “Look, you could be a senior senator and have never managed more than a hundred people in your life,” he told voters in New Hampshire last month. “I not only have more years of government experience than the president of the United States, but I have more years of executive experience than the vice president of the United States, and more wartime experience than anybody who arrived in the office since George H.W. Bush.” In his memoir, Buttigieg exhaustively walks the reader through what it’s like to be mayor—the ins and outs of dealing with potholes, sewers, and abandoned houses. At 352 pages, Shortest Way Home is anything but short and one gets the sense that Buttigieg wants to put the criticism that he’s not prepared to lead to bed by listing every single reason why he’s ready for a higher office.  

Like O’Rourke, Buttigieg’s appeal rests on his authenticity. In Shortest Way Home, he casts himself as a regular guy who just happens to be mayor. He writes about what it’s like to attend festivities that often involve heavy drinking as a politician (“retail politics is never fun among the intoxicated”), an angry and bigoted constituent who happens to be a neighbor, and trying to figure out how “a gay mayor—or any mayor” navigates the dating scene. His willingness to peel back the curtain has found him a number of admirers already. “Perhaps his success to date tells us the secret to unifying the country does not rest with fighting Trumpian fire with fire nor in being a celebrity candidate of the left,” wrote Jennifer Rubin, of all people, in The Washington Post. “The secret to unifying the country, to underscoring Trump’s total unfitness to hold office and to breaking through the media noise is to eschew cynicism and artifice. Refusing to sound like a politician running for president or to buy into the media narrative makes him unique in a pack of sameness.”

Of course, Buttigieg is very much running for president; he’s just really good at not sounding like he is. This has been true for years. In December of 2016, he published an essay on Medium, “A Letter from Flyover Country,” arguing that Democrats have lost touch with voters in red and purple states and are overly focused on national politics. “When it comes to my part of the country, we will recover our ability to reach people only when we take them seriously, connecting our plans to their actual, personal lived experience rather than focusing on The Show,” Buttigieg wrote. “We need to invite individual people to assess how their individual lives changed—how their safety, their income, their access to health care, their gun rights, their marriages—have actually been affected, if at all, by what goes on in Washington.”

This remains Buttigieg’s message through today: that a midwestern Democrat attuned to struggling voters in “flyover” country is best positioned to lead the party post-Trump. It is Buttigieg’s luck that he happens to be the only such Democrat in the race right now—but his guile got him here.