The conversation rages on within the Democratic Party: Is former vice president Joe Biden, currently beating President Trump handily in a face-to-face match-up, the safest pick to beat Trump? Or is Biden a feeble and past-his-time candidate who is actually a riskier proposition than other contenders? That debate is going to continue, to be settled either by a horrendous stumble by Biden or by the voters’ verdicts in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond.

However, part of the decision-making process for Democrats hinges on: Who, if Biden falters, would fill the role of a center-left candidate who wouldn’t scare off independents and disillusioned Republicans? The better those alternatives are, the more likely voters will think about jumping from the once-thought-most-electable Biden to a really-more-electable choice.

Certainly, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is positioning herself as the adult in the room (“While Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill”), a natural problem-solver. She’s not going to confiscate assault weapons (though she’d like to ban them) nor throw away the Affordable Care Act. She isn’t going to decriminalize illegal border crossings. Sane, sensible, competent. Ultimately, she might prove to be the antidote to the chaotic, infuriating Trump presidency.

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However, if you have been watching the debates, you might have noticed another candidate separating himself from the extreme-left wing of the party. (Beto O’Rourke might have met that description, but the gun ban could render him a high risk in the general election.) It’s not surprising that Pete Buttigieg, a Midwest mayor in a red state, would understand how to persuade Democrats and the majority in his state who voted for Trump.

Consider this moment from the last debate:

The problem, Senator Sanders, with that damn bill that you wrote, and that Senator Warren backs, is that it doesn’t trust the American people. I trust you to choose what makes the most sense for you. Not my way or the highway.
Now look, I think we do have to go far beyond tinkering with the ACA. I propose Medicare for all who want it. We take a version of Medicare, we make it available for the American people, and if we’re right, as progressives, that that public alternative is better, then the American people will figure that out for themselves. I trust the American people to make the right choice for them. Why don’t you?

He never got an answer, and I’m not sure Medicare-for-all proponents have one. If Medicare is so good, all Americans will choose that option.

Then there was his approach on guns. Asked this weekend whether O’Rourke made a mistake with his call for a mandatory buyback on assault weapons, Buttigieg replied: “Yes. Look, right now, we have an amazing moment on our hands. We have agreement among the American people for not just universal background checks, but we have a majority in favor of red flag laws, high-capacity magazines, banning the new sale of assault weapons.” He continued: “This is a golden moment to finally do something, because we have been arguing about this for as long as I have been alive. When even this president and even Mitch McConnell are at least pretending to be open to reforms, we know that we have a moment on our hands.” He made a plea to the party: “Let’s make the most of it and get these things done.”

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Well, that sure sounds like a reasonable person aware that one doesn’t just articulate the most extreme position in the campaign and then snap one’s fingers on the first day in office to make all the dreamy proposals come to life.

Likewise on race, Buttigieg gave a poor review of Biden’s long answer that a solution to racial inequities was to “bring social workers in to homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. ... Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me —make sure you have the record player on at night, the — the — make sure that kids hear words.” He then spelled out the alternative:

I have proposed the Douglass Plan, as ambitious as the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe. But, this time, we have got to invest right here in America.
Criminal-justice reform is important, but that’s not all there is to the black experience in this country. We have got to be lifting up black entrepreneurs, making sure that federal taxpayer spending — and I propose we do this at a 25 percent target — is going to businesses owned by those who have been systematically disadvantaged in the past, investing in HBCUs that are training what could be the new class of black millionaires and a black middle class of professionals in education, law enforcement, medicine.

One could imagine at least a few Republicans buying into that.

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Finally, he’s one of the few Democrats to give a full speech on foreign policy. (Biden was another.) As I wrote at the time, his thoughtful and mature remarks reflected his belief in American leadership in the world.

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In sum, if Biden’s critics are right and he cannot go the distance, Buttigieg is among the best of not-too-far-left contenders. As Buttigieg sharpens his positions, he is sidestepping the quicksand of far-left progressiveness that has sucked in some of the other candidates. He is not afraid to push back on and introduce some reality when Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are getting carried away. Despite his age, Buttigieg’s preternaturally calm demeanor communicates a quiet confidence, self-discipline and a disinclination to demagogue. And boy, would that be a change from the current president.

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