We love the sound of glass ceilings cracking. That’s definitely happening now that Pete Buttigieg has gone from being a blip on America’s gaydar to a convincing dark-horse contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Between his age (he’s 37), his current job— he’s the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a niche that’s not exactly famous for being the fast track to the White House—and Chasten Buttigieg, the man he married last year, he’s practically the perfect storm of glass ceilings.
However, Mayor Pete, as he’s known, is also a student of history. He’d probably be the first to tell you that President Buttigieg wouldn’t be America’s first gay POTUS. Depending on which scholars you trust, he’d be either the second or the third.
The one whose sexuality was a more or less open secret in 19th-century Washington, D.C., was James Buchanan. Never married, Buchanan unabashedly kept house for years with a fellow bachelor and former vice president who got nicknamed “Miss Nancy” by Andrew Jackson. Our mediocre 15th president wrote William Rufus King touchingly lovelorn letters when they were apart.
The entertainingly implausible one is Abraham Lincoln, who once wrote a light-hearted poem about a fellow who “married a boy.” The notion that Lincoln’s most intimate friend, a fellow lawyer named Joshua Speed, was secretly the love of his life is hotly disputed by historians. But it’s true that Honest Abe—who had very few emotional attachments, male or female, as intense as this one—did keep imploring Speed to join him in Washington once he was in the White House.
Mayor Pete’s style of political jujitsu must confound the rivals who mistook him for the longest of long shots until recently.
And so suddenly, the gay thing seems like it’s not all that big a deal. He certainly treats it that way himself, because calling attention to glass ceilings isn’t his style. The charm of picturing a First Husband in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is only one aspect of his refreshing novelty. He’s offering a welcome break with tradition in all sorts of other, more substantive ways as well.
The gay thing only matters as a demonstration of Buttigieg’s knack for turning what would have been yesteryear’s drawbacks to his candidacy into 21st-century assets. In an election cycle when “white male” has started tinkling like a leper’s bell in woke Democrats’ ears, his sexuality gives him a Get Out of Jail Free card when it comes to dodging full-time membership in that benighted club. If pressed on white privilege, he can always say, as he did in a recent interview with Vox, “If somebody is saying that I had it easy, I would invite them to join the military and enter Indiana politics in 2010 as a gay person. See how easy they find it.”
This is very much Mayor Pete’s style of political jujitsu, which must confound the rivals who mistook him for the longest of long shots until recently. Snicker at the idea of the mayor of South Bend leapfrogging into the presidency, and he’ll point out that it’s given him seven years of hands-on experience at juggling priorities, reconciling conflicts, and dealing with a slew of problems whose nature can’t be predicted from one day to the next. In other words, he’s actually run a government—a modest one, for sure. That’s still more than Beto O’Rourke can claim.
Question his shortage of foreign-policy credentials, and he’ll remind you that he’s got more military experience, including service overseas, than any president since George H.W. Bush. (He’s a former Navy reservist who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2014.) As a bonus, Buttigieg speaks eight languages—unlike our current president, who barely speaks one. Fret about Mayor Pete’s youthfulness, and he’ll fire back that, as the only millennial in the race, he’s uniquely equipped to anticipate the crises his generation will be dealing with after their elders are gone: “We don’t have the luxury of treating climate change as someone else’s problem.”
On top of that, Buttigieg is ideally situated to cut the Gordian knot that Democratic strategists and bigwig Beltway pundits never tire of wrestling with. Ever since the 2016 election, they’ve been in a tizzy over whether the party should concentrate on winning back the Rust Belt’s white voters or play to its multiculti strengths by wooing blue and purple states’ more diverse and progressive electorate. It’s never crossed their minds that there might be a candidate out there who can do both.
Buttigieg appears to be leaving his fellow Democrats at a complete loss to locate anything about him they can criticize.
Buttigieg doesn’t have to worry about looking good to urban sophisticates. Even aside from the gay thing, he’s a Harvard grad and a Rhodes scholar whose eight languages are sure to come in handy when he’s campaigning in our polyglot big cities. But he’s also a proud Hoosier and devout Episcopalian who learned how to make himself politically appealing in one of the reddest red states in the Midwest. We’d bet anything he’s never uttered the loathsome words “flyover country” in his life, and for all we know, he gets up and leaves restaurants anytime somebody else does.
Buttigieg has talked eloquently about the loss of “the sense of belonging”—“we’re very fragile without it”—that turns people affected by “disorientation and loss of community and identity” into MAGA supporters. But he’s also brusque and funny about the coastal elites’ condescension to his heartland constituents. In a recent chat with Pod Save America’s Dan Pfeiffer, he cut right to the chase: "You know, a liberal lawyer from Los Angeles walks up to a guy in Indiana who’s a working-class guy and says, ‘You’re voting against your economic interests.' You know what that guy’s gonna say back? ‘So are you, fuck off.’”
Besides his jujitsu skills, he’s a guy who really knows his way around the ideological salad bar. One of his deftest moves is to reframe supposedly contradictory mindsets, starting with the socialism/capitalism divide that Republicans are counting on to retain its scare-mongering clout no matter who the 2020 Democratic nominee is, as bogus dichotomies. Because he makes a persuasive case for himself as the kind of politician whose bottom line is deciding what’s practical and sensible, as opposed to relying on hackneyed “isms” to make the decision for him, he’s the only candidate in the race who can sound acceptably progressive and reassuringly moderate at once.
That’s the hat trick that must drive his Democratic opponents nuts. “Sometimes pragmatism points you in a comparatively radical direction,” Buttigieg told New Yorker writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells in February. See what he did there? ID’ing himself as a pragmatist took the curse off being open to trying radical solutions—or “comparatively” radical ones, anyhow.
He knows how to co-opt a slogan in the guise of improving it. His version of “Medicare for All” is “Medicare for all who want it,” placating leftists with the promise of the public option that Obamacare omits while reassuring everybody else that the private health-insurance companies a lot of them like won’t be junk-heaped overnight. When Bill Clinton used to play this brand of pool— “triangulation” was what Clintonites called it—it wasn’t hard to spot the waffling opportunism in the mix. But plucky, earnest, dedicated Mayor Pete never sounds like he’s waffling at all.
If his boomlet keeps up, the prospect of facing Buttigieg on a debate stage must drive wonky Elizabeth Warren and cranky Bernie Sanders, among others, to despair combined with icy rage. According to Ebony magazine, he’s even getting traction with candidate-shopping African American voters, a constituency Warren and Sanders have both had their troubles wooing. Meanwhile, the howl of “What am I, chopped liver?” from El Paso must be downright anguished. Making Sanders, Joe Biden, or even Warren look like yesterday’s news is a perception all three of them probably have the chops to fend off, but making Beto O’Rourke seem old hat pretty much destroys his reason for being.
Other campaigns’ opposition research is sure to turn up a few negatives down the road, because it always does. But right now, Buttigieg appears to be leaving his fellow Democrats at a complete loss to locate anything about him they can criticize. One of Hillary Clinton’s apparatchiks did slam him last weekend after Mayor Pete knocked her 2016 campaign’s ineptitude, but in today’s Democratic party, being attacked by a loyal Hillary defender is hardly what you’d call a withering rebuke. It’s more like a gift from the gods.
Let’s recall that all this has happened before Buttigieg, who’s still at the “exploratory committee” stage, has even made it official he’s running. Boomlets like the media love-fest he’s currently enjoying fizzle out a whole lot more often than they grow into having serious staying power. Even so, being the unexpected presence in the race whose boomlet nobody saw coming just might count for a lot with Democratic activists and moderates alike in the next few months.
That’s because almost the only thing missing from the crowded 2020 race so far has been a potentially game-changing surprise. If you’ll forgive us for resorting to a comparison that’s already a cliché, practically nobody in early 2007 saw Barack Obama coming, either. Except for Obama whenever looked at himself in the mirror.