Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is being hyped as the “Democratic celebrity” of the moment. Buttigieg has been the subject of buzz since 2014, when the Washington Post called him “the most interesting mayor you’ve never heard of.” Now, Buttigieg is running for president, and headlines are appearing in New York and the New York Times like “Could Pete Buttigieg Become the First Millennial President?” and “The First Gay President?” Barack Obama has mentioned Buttigieg as one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party, he appeared at a well-received CNN town hall, FiveThirtyEight is charting his possible paths to the nomination (complete with inscrutable diagrams), and Buttigieg has been rising in the polls (even placing third in an Iowa poll after Biden and Sanders). He is still considered a long-shot. He’s only 37, and no one has ever gone directly from being a mayor to being a president, let alone the mayor of a city half the size of Boise. But of course, we live in strange times, and nobody had ever gone from firing D-list celebrities on a reality show to being president either, so if there’s one thing we should expect, it’s the unexpected.
If you know only one thing about Pete Buttigieg, it’s that he’s The Small-Town Mayor Who Is Making A Splash. If you know half a dozen things about Pete Buttigieg, it’s that he’s also young, gay, a Rhodes Scholar, an Arabic-speaking polyglot, and an Afghanistan veteran. If you know anything more than that about Pete Buttigieg, you probably live in South Bend, Indiana. This is a little strange: These are all facts about him, but they don’t tell us much about what he believes or what he advocates. The nationwide attention to Buttigieg seems more to be due to “the fact that he is a highly-credentialed Rust Belt mayor” rather than “what he has actually said and done.” He’s a gay millennial from Indiana, yes. But should he be President of the United States?
When he is asked about what his actual policies are, Buttigieg has often been evasive. He has mentioned getting rid of the electoral college and expanding the Supreme Court, but his speech is often abstract. In this exchange, for instance, a VICE reporter pressed Buttigieg to better specify his commitments:
VICE: I listened to you talk today. On the one hand, you definitely speak very progressively. But you don’t have a lot of super-specific policy ideas.
BUTTIGIEG: Part of where the left and the center-left have gone wrong is that we’ve been so policy-led that we haven’t been as philosophical. We like to think of ourselves as the intellectual ones. But the truth is that the right has done a better job, in my lifetime, of connecting up its philosophy and its values to its politics. 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.
VICE: Is there time for that? They want the list. They want to know exactly what you’re going to do.
BUTTIGIEG: 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.
This is extremely fishy. First, while there’s a valid argument that “technocratic liberal wonkery” disconnected from values is uninspiring and useless, the left is not usually accused of being too specific on policy. Quite the opposite: The common critique is that behind the mushy values talk there are too few substantive solutions to social problems. Why does Buttigieg think telling people your values and coming up with plans are mutually exclusive? Why does he think having a platform means you believe you’ve got it “all figured out on Day 1”? Why treat policy advocates as “dishonest”? Why mention the extremely low bar of being “more policy-oriented than the current president?” And what use are values statements if you don’t tell people what the values mean for action? I’ve seen plenty of progressive policy agendas that don’t sacrifice values (e.g., Abdul El-Sayed’s plans, the U.K. Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto). A candidate who replies to this question with this answer should set off alarm bells.
But it’s not fair to fully judge a person by a single comment in an interview. Pete Buttigieg has just published a campaign book, Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future, that gives a much fuller insight into the way he thinks about himself, his ideals, and his plans. It has been called the “best political autobiography since Barack Obama,” revealing Buttigieg as a “president in waiting.” Indeed, I recommend that anyone considering supporting Buttigieg read it from from cover to cover. It is very personal, very well-written, and lays out a narrative that makes Buttigieg seem a natural and qualified candidate for the presidency.
It also provides irrefutable evidence that no serious progressive should want Pete Buttigieg anywhere near national public office.