South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has attained the position of the most appealing underdog in the Democratic presidential primary race. He broke through the media chatter, something only a handful of candidates have done. The explanation rests in his determination to avoid copying his fellow Democrats’ shortcomings and to disregard just about everything the media says.
Buttigieg is not a self-absorbed Gen Xer, a Hamlet-like figure who emerges from a funk to tell us — really nothing of interest.
Buttigieg is not a familiar face who’s been in the public eye wearing out his welcome for years.
Buttigieg is not a raving socialist promising to burn down the system.
Buttigieg is not burying voters in a blizzard of policy papers.
Buttigieg is not running as an insider, ready to spin the dials and flip switches to make the creaky system work somewhat better.
Buttigieg is not running as just one thing (e.g., The Young Candidate, The Gay Candidate).
Buttigieg is not averse to talking about religion.
Buttigieg is not particularly interested in talking about President Trump.
Buttigieg is not trying to define himself as “moderate” or “socialist.” He is Mayor Pete. Himself.
Buttigieg also chose to reject the media narratives that the voters are obsessed with celebrity or that name recognition equates with support; that Trump’s election showed knowing something about the world and the job of president is irrelevant; that voters don’t care about character; and that voters are unwilling to list to a rational arguments.
Buttigieg is very intelligent and fluent in multiple languages. He served in the military. He is devoted to his one and only spouse. He is entirely capable of discussing most any public policy issue, including foreign policy. He is earnest and radiates kindness. He doesn’t assume his audience is uniformed or foolish. And most of all, though he is being himself, he manages not to make his race about himself. His quintessential line in response to whether, like Beto O’Rourke, he was “born” to run sums it up. “I was born to make myself useful,” he told Chris Wallace. That makes him the most un-Trumpian candidate out there.
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. 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.
“Authenticity” gets one only so far, of course. Once voters discover he’s really who he says he is, they have to like what they see. Buttigieg has tapped into something Democrats want badly — a decent and smart person. They want to believe character still counts. And that has nothing to do with whether you check the box on a meaningless catchphrase (the Green New Deal) or whether you can pander to one faction of the Democratic Party. At the very moment Democrats would like a quality person to reaffirm their faith in rational government, Buttigieg comes along. No wonder he’s making headway.