His dig at Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — “We will fight when we must fight, but I will never allow us to get so wrapped up in the fighting that we start to think fighting is the point” — applies some jujitsu to her own vision of big, fundamental change. His retort: She wants to fight half of America, and we’ll get nowhere with more division and polarization. What Warren says is a small-beans vision, Buttigieg calls the best means to attain the most good. He effectively is forcing Warren into the caucus corner marked “super-progressives who think fighting = politics.”
Former vice president Joe Biden, for his part, deploys a shrug rather than jujitsu to take down Warren. She’s living in a progressive fairyland. I know what real governing is like. While Biden insists his vision is forward-looking, his frequent references to President Barack Obama, his longevity in politics and his obvious familiarity with every world leader and local pol inevitably convey a message of continuity. Get rid of Trump, get back to the glide path Obama put us on and “there’s not a thing America cannot do.” He does not recognize that the pieces will need to be reassembled in ways we have not seen, perhaps to create something at least different in tone from Obama.
A uniter for a new era. A fighter for a new definition of America. A trusted hand to stabilize America. Those are the essential messages for the three candidates.
To some extent, Buttigieg and Biden’s message overlap: Warren is so out there and so unrooted to reality that she endangers the essential task of ridding the country of Trump. (Both camps, Biden’s especially, salivated over state polling showing how poorly she does in critical swing states.) Secondarily, they also present themselves as voices from the heartland who can avoid the “coastal elite” label that Republicans will affix to Warren.
Warren and Buttigieg do converge over the desire for newness, for something other than a Washington insider. They stand ready to receive the voters who roll their eyes when Biden goes on a rambling discourse on African American parenting.
Warren and Biden sync up in another way, though only implicitly. They offer the wisdom, they say, that comes with experience and age. In other words, “Pete, wait your turn.” That works better for Biden, who had decades in the Senate and two productive terms as Obama’s wingman, but Warren is on shakier ground. Buttigieg claims the experience of having served in the military (How long before he starts challenging her “get out of the Middle East” as the left’s incarnation of Trump’s America First?) and the experience that comes from living in a red state in the heart of the Midwest.
Against that backdrop of ideology and vision comes the cold, hard reality of organizational strength in the Iowa caucuses. Warren might have had the advantage early on; Buttigieg’s Liberty and Justice performance, and more importantly, his crowd-generating bus tour suggest the momentum might have shifted to him. Biden’s on-the-ground strength and enthusiasm are question marks. And meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has yet to show he can expand beyond his die-hard base.
At this point, it is far from clear which distinctive message will prevail. Moreover, as any Iowa caucuses watcher will tell you: Look who gets “hot” in the two to three weeks before the Feb. 3 caucuses. Until then, the word “front-runner” remains a misnomer.