Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks speaks during a FOX News Channel town hall, Sunday, May 19, 2019, in Claremont, N.H. (Jessica Hill)
Opinion writer

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) snapped me to attention twice within the first 12 minutes of his hour-long Fox News town hall in New Hampshire on Sunday. The two moments crystallize why I believe the candidates for the Democratic nomination for president should go on the network that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) not unreasonably dubbed “a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists.”

The first moment came a little more than three minutes into the program in response to the second audience question that was asked. “In a party that rightly values diversity of candidates,” the college student asked, “how will your policies stand out and win the nomination?” Buttigieg’s answer was notable for what he said and to whom he said it.

As you said, it's a point of pride for the Democratic Party that we care about diversity, that we want to make sure that our leadership reflects the country that we serve.

I've sought to do that in my administration as mayor. I’m doing that with the campaign team that I'm surrounding myself with. But as you said in your question, it's also not just a question of the makeup of your team but what your policies are going to be. And we need to make sure this is an inclusive set of policies that's going to serve everybody well.

For example, we know, just by the numbers, that if you’re a person of color in this country, in many ways you might as well be living in a different country. You look at the rate at which black women are likely to die from maternal complications — it’s about three times what it is for white women. That didn’t just happen, and it’s not going to get fixed without policies that specifically pay attention to how those racial inequities got there — in health, but also in areas like housing, like employment and, of course, the criminal justice system that frankly does not treat everybody the same.

African Americans have been talking about the high rates of black women dying during childbirth for years, especially after tennis great Serena Williams wrote last year about how she almost died giving birth. What Buttigieg did in his answer was give the issue the national platform it deserves and hasn’t consistently received. Generally speaking, many Democrats and progressives know about or are aware of this problem. That Buttigieg effortlessly went in on this topic before an overwhelmingly white audience sitting in a high school gym in New Hampshire and before an overwhelmingly white and conservative audience watching Fox News made the mayor’s answer all that more remarkable, because those people also need to know and care about what is happening to their fellow Americans.

A little after the eight-minute mark came a question from a young woman about abortion that was direct: “What policies would you put in place to protect every woman’s, regardless of her Zip code, right to have an abortion?” Buttigieg was equally direct. “I believe that the right of a woman to make her own decisions about her reproductive health and about her body is a national right. I believe it is an American freedom. And I believe that should be enjoyed by women in every state,” he said to applause.

Moderator Chris Wallace followed up by asking Buttigieg about the efforts in states to either restrict access to abortions or, in the case of New York, expand access. “Do you believe at any point in pregnancy,” Wallace asked, “whether it’s at six weeks or eight weeks or 24 weeks or whatever, that there should be any limit on a woman’s right to have an abortion?” The back-and-forth between Buttigieg and Wallace was instructive, especially the mayor’s initial response.

Buttigieg: I think the dialogue has gotten so caught up on where you draw the line that we’ve gotten away from the fundamental question of who gets to draw the line, and I trust women to draw the line when it’s their own health.

Wallace: So just to be clear, you’re saying that you would be okay with a woman, well into the third trimester, deciding to abort her pregnancy.

Buttigieg: Look, these hypotheticals are usually set up in order to provoke a strong emotional—

Wallace: It’s not hypothetical, there are 6,000 women a year who get abortions in the third trimester.

Buttigieg: That’s right, representing less than 1 percent of cases. So let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a woman in that situation. If it’s that late in your pregnancy, then it’s almost by definition, you’ve been expecting to carry it to term. We’re talking about women who have perhaps chosen a name. Women who have purchased a crib, families that then get the most devastating medical news of their lifetime, something about the health or the life of the mother that forces them to make an impossible, unthinkable choice. And the bottom line is, as horrible as that choice is, that woman, that family may seek spiritual guidance, they may seek medical guidance, but that decision is not going to be made any better, medically or morally, because the government is dictating how that decision should be made.

Again, Buttigieg didn’t flinch in saying any of this. That he was willing to tussle with Wallace over this showed a level of policy and moral comfort in his position that Fox News needed to hear and see. What it also needed to hear was someone take Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham to task for their nightly forays into white nationalism and xenophobia. Buttigieg told the hosts off in their own house as another sat politely by.

The viewing audience also got to see and hear the reactions of the people at the town hall. The surprising applause for “Medicare for all” at the town hall with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) last month in Pennsylvania is still ringing in my ears. Several times, Buttigieg garnered applause for what he had to say on a host of issues. He even received a standing ovation at the end, which elicited a “wow” from the otherwise unflappable Wallace. Most notable were the two women who could be seen over Buttigieg’s left shoulder applauding, nodding in agreement and trading comments the entire time. Not only did I wonder who they were, but I also wondered how their reactions were playing with audience watching at home.

cWho knows if the folks in these town halls are Republicans or conservatives. That’s beside the point. The folks watching Fox News at home overwhelmingly are. Who knows if an audience applauding and nodding at what a Democrat is saying will break through the ozone layer of Earth 2 that blocks out truth, reason and logic starting at 8 p.m. But that doesn’t mean that the other Democratic candidates shouldn’t try. With 1.1 million viewers for Buttigieg, some of them should reconsider.

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