South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s greatest strength, aside from his intellect, is his preternatural calm — an almost Zen-like serenity. When asked to take a swing at President Trump, as he was by Donny Deutsch recently, he insists it’s not about himself or about Trump personally. “The election needs to be about voters,” he insists. Asked if he isn’t a better human being than Trump, he humbly brushes aside the notion he is some kind of “excellent specimen.” He’ll nevertheless acknowledge, “Moral leadership matters. Character really matters.”
In a race in which Buttigieg readily concedes the Democratic candidates agree on about 80 percent of policy, he says the difference will be about “vision” and message. His seems to be to call Americans to their better angels as he models Renaissance-man thinking and Christian grace.
Will this approach work in a primary in which Democrats are seeking a pugilist to level Trump?
Well, the guy is no wimp. Buttigieg brushes aside demands to wave the bloody shirt, but nevertheless is more than willing to skewer the president:
Look, my emotions about this president are not what’s going to matter most. I’m not interested in expressing my anger about him as much as I am in defeating and ending his presidency. If we want to have a debate with him, or a fight over any number of things from the difference between how I approach service and the way he did. The fact that I was packing my bags for Afghanistan when he was filming season seven of “Celebrity Apprentice,” we could have that fight. And if somebody who wants to raise the question of which one of us has a more traditional attitude on marriage, we can have that fight.
Democratic voters might want someone to get their blood pumping, but Buttigieg is on to something. He’s right that Trump feeds off insults (ask Sen. Marco Rubio) and enjoys nothing more than bringing opponents down to his level. So how, then, do Buttigieg and his rivals show toughness without losing control of themselves and their narrative?
They might start by watching former vice president Joe Biden, who gets his dander up when talking about the people Trump’s policies have hurt, the damage done to our reputation abroad and the degradation of our democracy. By all means, express anger on behalf of fellow Americans.
Next, Buttigieg should be keenly aware that voters are trying to imagine the Democratic contenders on the stage next to Trump. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) did herself a world of good showing how she can dismantle a dissembling witness.
Buttigieg’s strongest suit in this regard may be in his passion for detail and data. “I’m going to tell President Trump his policies are killing the people who voted for him.” He can then blast Trump on farm bankruptcies, continuing deaths from opioid abuse, numbers of people who’ve lost coverage since he was president and the enormous damage done to the country from extreme weather conditions. Being the best debunker of Trump’s ludicrous lies and misinformation, showing him to be clueless and ignorant, is a powerful selling point.
And, finally, Buttigieg — who has McKinsey experience, leads local government and served in the military — can go after Trump’s narcissistic claim that he “alone” can fix things. Trump is a weight around our necks (for example, blocking progress on climate change), when together we can work for solutions to save the planet. Trump doesn’t know the first thing about preparing for an AI economy or how to keep our technological lead; get him out of the way, and the people who know how can get to work.
On this point, Buttigieg’s career is defined by achieving solutions through a team effort (working with police and local leaders in city government, helping businesses turn around their operations, relying on buddies in combat). Trump not only lacks the answers; he cannot lead, inspire and unify the country (or even his own party). In short, Buttigieg has a handy retort to Trump’s boast: Only Trump thinks he alone can fix things.
In sum, Buttigieg can show the resilience and strength voters are looking for if he shows righteous anger on behalf of fellow citizens, wields his facts to jab at the most ignorant president in my lifetime, and makes the case he can lead a team (an administration, a party, a nation) to find solutions — replacing the guy who’s throwing sand in the gears, creating dissension and generally making things harder for the average American.