With a smile on his boyish face, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg surgically cut Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) down to size on CNN on Monday evening. Asked about Sanders’s assertion that violent felons should get to vote while still in prison, Buttigieg responded, “Enfranchisement upon release is important, but part of the punishment … is you lose certain rights.” He added: “You lose your freedom. And I don’t think during that time it makes sense to have that exception.” Well, that sure makes sense.

Buttigieg also has rebuffed Sanders’s embrace of socialism, pointing out that it’s a label that only detracts from the universe of voters a Democratic nominee might win over:

I think the word “socialism” has largely lost its meaning in American politics because it has been used by the right to describe pretty much anything they disagree with. To the extent there’s a conversation around democratic socialism — even that seems to be a little squishy in terms of what it actually means.
I think of myself as progressive. But I also believe in capitalism, but it has to be democratic capitalism.
Part of the problem here is that 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.
You don’t have to look that hard to find examples of capitalism without democracy — Russia leaps to mind. And when you have capitalism without democracy, you get crony capitalism and eventually oligarchy. So a healthy capitalist system, working within the rule of law, is the stuff of American growth and can be the stuff of equitable growth. But we don’t have that right now.

In that answer, Buttigieg aligned himself with the mainstream view that capitalism is a successful economic system, but he also explained the tension between capitalism and democratic values (including equal access to essential services such as health care and equal weight in the political process) — all while making the point that Sanders’s label is a significant unforced error.

Buttigieg is wowing crowds with his intellectual sophistication and depth while a natural competitor, Beto O’Rourke, hasn’t taken off. Although O’Rourke is nine years older, it’s Buttigieg who comes across as more mature and thoughtful.

Rather than O’Rourke, whom Buttigieg has passed in most polls, the Midwest mayor seems intent on finding bigger fish to fry. His target is the only unabashed socialist in the race. In many ways, Buttigieg is ideally suited to take on Sanders for the hearts, minds and political survival of the Democratic Party.

The New York Times reports, “Mr. Buttigieg is more willing to confront other candidates, and his party more broadly, in ways that could resonate with moderate Democrats and perhaps some of the independents who can vote in either primary here.” But he does so without animus and while preserving his progressive bona fides:

Speaking to high school students in the backyard of a Nashua-area state representative the day after Mr. O’Rourke was in town, Mr. Buttigieg lamented that his party was not sufficiently worried about deficits and suggested that [President] Trump and Mr. Sanders were two sides of the same coin. ...
In an interview, Mr. Buttigieg said Mr. Sanders’s left-wing proposals were no longer as provocative as in 2016 — “people were refreshed by the novelty of that boldness” — and expressed skepticism that a self-described democratic socialist in his late 70s could win a general election.
“I have a hard time seeing the coalition ultimately coming together there,” he said.

Buttigieg is plainly a progressive — favoring steps on the way to Medicare-for-all, determined to take on climate change, willing to support abolishing the death penalty — but he’s safely within the mainstream of his party. His tenure as mayor in a pro-Trump state has taught him a thing or two about how to talk to voters less progressive than he is while still advancing those progressive aims. And his considerable rhetorical talent allows him to methodically make the case against Sanders without sounding too aggressive or negative. In contrast to the prickly, thin-skinned Sanders, Buttigieg comes across as calm, contained and cheery.

By taking on Sanders in measured tones, Buttigieg offers himself up to the party as the leader of the current and future generations of progressives — one not foolish enough to get served up as a target for Trump. Aiming at a candidate just ahead of him in the polls (Sanders), he has been steadily narrowing the gap between the two and widening the gap between himself and those behind him.

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As an added bonus, Buttigieg shows how adept he is at poking holes in the rhetoric of an angry populist not actually grounded in reality (and hence unable to govern). That practice will serve him well if he’s the one to take on the angry, right-wing populist in the White House.

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