Get ready for the Buttigieg boomlet. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg had a stellar showing on CNN’s town hall with him Sunday night, confirming a dispiriting truism about our politics. With eight years as mayor, military service and direct, substantive answers to questions, he is not considered a front-runner, but consider that a former congressman who’s yet to give a meaty policy address or explain his vision (other than togetherness) is about to enter the race and sprint near the top of the pack. Could voters actually listen for an hour, hear Buttigieg and decide, “Hey, maybe celebrity status isn’t a qualification or even a desirable trait in a candidate. Maybe I should go with the guy who has something to say about important issues and has run something”?
Yes, Buttigieg gave a great sound-bite answer about Vice President Pence — wondering whether he “stopped believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump.” However, that wasn’t the best part of his appearance.
Buttigieg was impressive because he spoke directly, without political buzzwords or hyperbole. He actually answered questions and he had a comfort level with policy, even foreign policy(!), that many other candidates don’t.
He was asked about Venezuela. “Well, the situation in Venezuela is highly disturbing. And I think that the Maduro regime has lost its legitimacy,” he explained. “That’s why it’s not just the U.S. but 50 countries that have declined to recognize the legitimacy of that regime.” He continued, “That being said, that doesn’t mean we just carelessly threaten the use of military force, which is what it appeared the national security adviser was doing at one point, kind of hinting that troops might be sent to South America.” He took a swipe at national security adviser John Bolton (“I don’t understand how somebody who was involved in leading us into the Iraq War is allowed that near to the Situation Room to begin with”, but then answered smartly, “I don’t mean to disagree that we need to support democratic outcomes in that country. And so to the extent that sanctions can be targeted and can be focused on trying to bring about new free and fair elections so that there can be self-determination by the Venezuelan people, that puts in a government that I think has that legitimacy, then we should do our part not through force but through the diplomatic tool kit in order to try to bring that outcome about.”
That might be the best answer on Venezuela I’ve heard from any Democratic candidate — maybe the best foreign policy answer, period. He’s not shy about supporting democracy or afraid to denounce Nicolás Maduro, but he rightly says this isn’t a situation that would be improved by use of American troops.
He gave a similarly cogent answer on health care. I’ll quote in it full because it had the benefit of being specific, rational and personal:
First of all, we still have uninsured and underinsured people, millions. And it’s one of the reasons why we can’t be satisfied with where we are. The [Affordable Care Act] made a great difference. It made a big difference for members of my own family. But it hasn’t gotten us all the way there, and it’s vulnerable to being undermined. As a matter of fact, right now, it’s under attack by the current administration.
That’s why I believe we do need to move in the direction of a Medicare-for-all system. Now, I think anyone in politics who lets the words “Medicare-for-all” escape their lips also has a responsibility to explain how we could actually get there, because as you know, from working on this day in and day out, it’s not something you can just flip a switch and do.
In my view, the best way to do that is through what you might call a Medicare-for-all-who-want-it setup. In other words, you take some flavor of Medicare, you make it available on the exchange as a kind of public option, and you invite people to buy into it. So if people like me are right that that’s ultimately going to be more efficient over time and more cost-effective, then you will see that very naturally become a glide path.
But your question mentioned something else, right, which is even within Medicare, there are a lot of issues, delays, concerns about whether the rate setting and reimbursement is done in the right way, and so there's also some technical work we've got to do under the hood.
You know, we as a country pay out of our health-care dollar less on patient care and more on bureaucracy than almost any other country in the developed world. And so it’s very clear that we’ve got to do some unglamorous technical work. Actually, some of the benefits of automation could come in this sense. You think about how many hands have to touch a prior authorization sometimes. And the right answer to that should be zero, but we’re not there yet. So we’ve got to do that, that kind of unfashionable technical work within [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] to make the system more efficient.
We've also just got to broaden access to it until everyone has health care. I just refuse to accept that when citizens of just about every developed nation in the world enjoy this, that we should settle for less.
And it's become very personal for me, too, because we lost my father a few weeks ago. And it was to cancer. It was a brutally difficult time for our family. I make decisions for a living, and I was not prepared for some of the decisions that we faced in consultation with the medical team.
But what I’ll say is, the decisions that we made only had to be about what was medically right for Dad and what was right for our family. We didn’t have to think about whether our family would be financially ruined, because of Medicare. And I want that to be available, that kind of security, that kind of freedom, frankly, to be available to every American.
Maybe that sounds really smart only because we’ve gotten so used to such half-baked, slogan-driven answers. But then again, campaigns are graded on a curve. If he sounds more informed and sensible than others, well then he deserves support. He addressed the “Aren’t you too young?” question a couple of times, but the real answer should be this: He’s a lot smarter than many people in the race and, coming from a red state, has a real understanding and respect for Republicans.
Here’s how he talked about impeachment: “I would like to see this president and the style of politics that he represents sent off through the electoral process, decisively defeated at the ballot box. … Because I just don’t think that’s what America is. I understand how it happened.” He went on: “Believe me, I come from the industrial Midwest. There are a lot of people who voted for him and also voted for me and also voted for Barack Obama. So these things are complicated. But part of how it happened was a lot of people felt that the system was letting them down and, frankly, kind of voted to burn the house down. And that’s, in some ways, what we got. I don’t think that he put forward a real program for how to turn our country into a better direction, though. And so I think that the best way to defeat and end this is through an election.” However, Buttigieg correctly observed that Congress still has a job to do: “Now, having said that, these investigations may return information that Congress just morally can’t ignore, and it may well be the case that they’re left with no choice, just in the name of justice, than to begin impeachment proceedings. And obviously, they’ll have to make that determination probably quite soon.”
Finally, he sounded like someone who knew how to make sober, fact-based decisions:
I first got my understanding about the power of big data when it was my job to crunch millions of lines of data related to grocery prices, but I also began studying the way data gets used. We need a comprehensive data law that will establish the rights we have over the value that is being extracted from data that is collected about us, including the right to be forgotten and certain rights over understanding how our data is used and who is accessing it.
And that’s something that — I know it’s not exactly what you probably had in mind when you were asking about McKinsey, but it’s something that’s on my mind a lot.
As to what Governor [Mitt] Romney was talking about, look, we do need to work to make government more efficient. One of the things we did when I came in, in South Bend as mayor was — kind of a banned phrase around the county city building was “We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way.”
We subjected everything we do to rigorous analysis, because at the city level, I don't get to print money. We legally have to balance the general fund budget. And if I want to do more, we just have to figure out a way to do what we're doing more efficiently or else we'll have to do less of something else. And sometimes that's the right answer, too.
So I think that on-the-ground knowledge of how to get something done that I maybe began to get in the business community, but really put to work in public service at the local level, will be useful at a time when, frankly, in federal budgeting we’re being told we can get something for nothing. And things that are completely unaffordable, like the tax cuts for the wealthiest, are being passed off as though they’re worth just as much as things that if we ever do deficit spending would be a better use of it, like investing in infrastructure and education and the things that we know have a payback and will pay for themselves in the long run.
Buttigieg is still the longest of long shots. However, he deserves to be taken seriously. If we want a celebrity or someone who’s never had an original thought in his life or someone who thinks we can have unicorns and rainbows, well, then shame on us.