Pundits arguing that South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg simply cannot be president because his only civilian public service has been at the local level, or that he is heavy on values and persona but lighter on policy, seem not to have learned anything from 2016. President Trump won the Republican primary by stringing together media moments, dominating the airwaves and intensifying his audience’s emotions (anger, resentment, etc.). Buttigieg is testing the proposition that Democrats desperate to take back the White House may admire Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s policy parade but what they long for is someone who can beat Trump and reflect their longing to reassert their values (respect for intellect, empathy, tolerance).
Buttigieg, in appearing on Fox News Sunday night, helped his cause tremendously. Projecting the same calm, incisiveness and wit that have impressed other audiences, he won enthusiastic applause and a standing ovation. He created some viral moments that will echo around the mainstream media for days:
Buttigieg accomplished several things.
First, he showed how to defend progressive positions and dismantle the right-wing frame for discussing them. On abortion, he had this answer to recent abortion bans:
The ability to defend Democrats’ values and views effectively, to avoid being cornered by right-wing talking points impresses — and delights — Democratic voters.
Second, going on Fox News, in contrast to Warren (D-Mass.) and others (who had perfectly acceptable moral reasons for shunning the propaganda machine,) reinforced the notion that his political instincts are superior to hers and other competitors. Instead of refusing to appear to denounce hate, Buttigieg used the airtime on Fox to denounce its hateful hosts:
Third, by going on Fox News and winning plaudits, he implicitly made the argument for his own electability. Hey, he can win those people over. Part of his argument is that a religious mayor from the heartland knows the secret sauce for breaking through to working- and middle-class voters in the Midwest. His appearance on Fox News will convince some Democrats that he can.
Fourth, Buttigieg recognized that, in a field of 23 Democratic candidates, holding the media’s attention for a sustained time is nearly impossible for those challenging front-runner Joe Biden. The former vice president as front-runner will get nearly daily coverage (in part, because Trump insists on attacking him). Other candidates may break through for a few days or weeks but the media then moves on. Buttigieg’s answer: Use earned media to create viral moments. These cement in the public’s mind the image of a feisty, witty, super-smart candidate with a Zen-like ability to turn Trump’s anger back against him, making the president look small and childish.
Finally, Buttigieg debunks the notion that Democratic viewers want an angry candidate. They are angry at and about Trump. They pine for someone who can slice and dice him in a way Hillary Clinton never could.
Buttigieg, to be certain, has real challenges. Most importantly, he needs to find support among African American voters who are a critical part of the Democratic primary electorate. He’ll need to show he has some policy plans to avoid looking like a lightweight when he goes up against Warren, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and others who’ve presented (whether you like them or not) bold policy ideas. That said, he showed Sunday night just how formidable are his communication skills and political antenna.
Others can help you construct policy proposals, but that “it” factor (which Harris certainly has) is either there or it’s not. And, yes, Buttigieg has it.