South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has gotten praise for his lucid, articulate remarks on virtually any topic presented to him. That pattern continued as he fanned out on multiple talk shows on Sunday.
Unlike some Democrats who sound dismissive of border security (Beto O’Rourke has said he wants to take down some existing barriers), Buttigieg is careful to stick to an holistic approach. He had this to say on CNN:
I'm not against directing more funds in order to help with the issue at the border. But I think part of the reason why there's such frustration and concern and even resistance among congressional Democrats is that it's not doing anything about the bigger problem.
We have got a president who got elected on a promise to fix immigration, whatever that meant to him. And what we have seen is that all of the issues that were with us then are with us now, and issues at the border, including a humanitarian crisis, created by this president through cruel policies, like family separation, are only getting worse.
Meanwhile, the one thing that would really help the issue of increased migration flows from Central America ― the words of one migrant, who said: “I’m not here to seek the American Dream. I’m here because I’m fleeing the nightmare in Honduras.” We’re actually, under this president, seeing a threat to take funds away from stabilizing those Central American countries. We have got this completely upside down.
And measures that are designed to put out fires in the near term would be a lot more convincing if they were set up in the context of an actual immigration reform, which, by the way, if you’re talking about Americans, people on both parties want to ― in both parties want to do it. If you’re talking about Congress, not so much.
That’s a response that isn’t going to seem off-putting to most Americans ― who, after all, favor border security and a path to citizenship. Lesson for other Democrats: Don’t talk down border security.
On Iran he sounded similarly well-reasoned. He’s not going to disbelieve President Trump’s accusation of Iranian complicity in the attack (which was backed up by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff) on tankers because he knows Iran’s pattern of behavior, but he’s also not going to take Trump’s word for it. “There is certainly a concern that this is consistent with a pattern of malignant behavior by Iran. What I’m also concerned about is that this appears to be part of an escalation where this administration might be leading us on a path to war that could get away from this White House very quickly,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “It is nothing new for Iran to be acting in … destabilizing ways in their region. We see it quite a bit. The question is what are we going to do to make things more stable before the situation becomes uncontrollable?” Lesson for Democrats: You can criticize Trump’s incoherent Iran policy without playing defense lawyer for Tehran.
Even more important, he is not giving a simplistic sound-bite answer on rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action:
MARGARET BRENNAN: You also said you would rejoin that nuclear accord with Iran, but the U.N. watchdog, the IAEA, has already said that Iran is ramping up its production of nuclear fuel. There are bans on arms that are going to expire right on the precipice of the election and shortly after you'd be entering office. So is that really a viable alternative?
PETE BUTTIGIEG: We're going to have to do something new. The point is that we never should have left it in the first place.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So, you want new negotiations and a new deal with Iran?
PETE BUTTIGIEG: Any negotiation is going to have to meet the needs and the realities of the moment. Unfortunately, the moment we’re in is one where the United States’ influence in this region has diminished because of the way that we have withdrawn. So what we’re going to have to do is reengage with our partners, reengage with anybody who has an interest in stability in the region and do whatever we can to once again meet the objective of stopping Iran from developing nuclear capabilities, which is exactly what that deal was doing. Even this administration certified that that was the case.
This is crucial. His job is not to defend the Obama legacy but to see where we go now that we are out of the JCPOA. Thanks to Trump’s incoherent approach, we have the worst of all worlds: We have isolated ourselves from our allies, handed Tehran a prize in Syria and made no progress on curtailing its support for terrorist groups and its monstrous human rights violations ― all while Iran now ramps up nuclear fuel production.
We will need a new policy (which may include rejoining the JCPOA with conditions), and Buttigieg is right that we’ll need our allies’ help this time. Caution to Democrats (especially Joe Biden): You’ll sound smart if you don’t reflexively promise (with no conditions) to rejoin the JCPOA; you’ll impress voters and get to the right of Trump by pointing out that Trump’s Iran policy has been a colossal failure.
Still on the Middle East, Buttigieg also recognized that unlike Trump, it’s not always wise to undo everything your predecessor has done; sometimes you move on. He gave one of the more nuanced and cogent responses when asked about the move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem:
“Axios on HBO:” “So President Trump did the right thing?”
Pete Buttigieg: "I didn't say that."
"Axios on HBO:" "Well you did — you wouldn't undo it."
Pete Buttigieg: “That doesn’t mean he did the right thing. Here’s the problem with what he did ... If you’re going to make a concession like that, if you’re going to give somebody something that they’ve wanted for a long time in the context of a push-pull, even with a strong ally like Israel, right? We have a push-pull relationship. And you don’t do that without getting some kind of concession. Instead, we’ve seen the Israeli government continue to act in ways that are detrimental to peace. And I believe, therefore, also detrimental to U.S. interests.”
Pete Buttigieg: “It’s the same thing with recognition of the Golan. Look, the Israeli claims in the Golan or not something to be ignored. They have a lot to do with legitimate security interests. But when we did that, we were doing something that could have been part of a negotiated package, and instead we just gave it away. Worse, we gave it away probably for the specific purpose of having an impact in Israeli domestic politics, which should be the last reason that we would be conducting U.S. foreign policy. It should be designed around American values, American interests and American international relationships.”
He expressed far more clearly the view we have expressed here.
Finally, he is not a lawyer but he sounded like one ― or one of the smart guys over at Lawfare blog ― in warning on “Meet the Press” that a presidential candidate shouldn’t be promising to prosecute a president. Asked about prosecuting Trump ― Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), said she would ― Buttigieg took a different approach:
Prosecution decisions shouldn’t be made by politicians in that sense. And what I will say is any attorney general that I would appoint is somebody who will faithfully apply the concept that no one is above the law, that everybody ought to be held accountable, whether they’re a former president or whether they’re somebody who’s never been anywhere near the halls of power. That’s the whole point. It’s that justice is blind. And I will appoint an attorney general and, for that matter, justices and judges who uphold that principle.
Lesson for Democrats: Sound more principled and restrained than Trump, showing you intend to depoliticize the Justice Department, not simply change the partisan tilt.