Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., came to The Post on Friday to talk about why he is running for president and what he hopes to accomplish if elected. Here is the full transcript and audio recording of our conversation. — Fred Hiatt, Editorial Page editor
Highlights of Buttigieg’s comments from the interview
Click on a highlight to jump ahead in the transcript below.
- “The nominating process is our best chance to hash out these differences that are substantive, but nowhere close to the difference in values and the sense of urgency that motivates all of us on the Democratic side, as well as a lot of independents, and an increasing number of what I call future former Republicans, to want to mobilize to end the Trump presidency.”
- “Without smarter and more effective regulation, you’re going to continue to see a world where large tech companies make corporate policy decisions that are actually public policy decisions because they have so much impact.”
- On Afghanistan: “Empires have famously despaired of trying to get certain outcomes to happen in this area, but we do have responsibilities that go beyond our military objective and should use a number of different tools in our toolkit to try to bring them about and secured.”
- On his “Medicare for all who want it” plan: “We’re going to set a floor. And either through the generosity of an employer or through the efficiency of an administrator, folks can try to beat that plan.”
- “We’re talking about taxation as if there’s just some intrinsically morally right and wrong level of taxes. What we need is a fair way that distributes the burden of funding all the things that we need, in order to have a thriving country.”
- On his Douglass Plan: “Colorblind policies or neutral policies may on their face be a lot better than a nakedly racist policy. But they’re not going to be enough to deliver equity.”
- On his Supreme Court proposal: “My appointments will be to a court that agrees with me more, but the intent of this reform is to set up for the next 100 years a court that we can look to as standing apart from the political process.”
The full transcript
Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor: Thank you for coming. We really appreciate it. …
And we asked our readers if they had questions, and we actually have a lot of really smart subscribers, so I thought I might start with one of theirs.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Sounds good.
Fred Hiatt: Which is, what lessons can we draw from the results of the U.K. election? How do you see the results affecting the U.S.? And I would just add, is there any lesson for the Democratic Party in particular?
Pete Buttigieg: Well, I think it begins with the understanding that the U.K. is in a very unique situation. I do think there is something to be said for the importance of unifying and coalition-building leadership. And I think that’s been a challenge for Labour. Then again, if you’re looking at the U.K. and looking at what makes the Tories comparatively politically successful outside of the Brexit drama, a lot of it’s that the Conservative Party there has adopted positions that here would be considered liberal. For example, I think they’re on board with the 2050 climate plan that would be carbon-neutral by then, which is clearly what we’ve got to do. And here in the U.S., I think we’ve got to recognize the fact that a healthy American majority exists for common-sense positions that are also progressive positions. Whether it’s on climate, whether it’s on health, on wages, even issues where my party has been on defense, like immigration or guns.
Right now, there’s a healthy majority, if we can keep it. That’s not really reflected in the way Congress works and the way Washington works. But I think the job of a nominee, and certainly the job of the president, is to galvanize and not polarize that majority and work with the American people to get something done. So a lot of the analogies between the U.S. and U.K. break down, given the complexities of what they’re dealing with. But it is worth thinking about in the American context, what it means to make sure you can build out that majority that’s ready for change.
Fred Hiatt: And does the primary process work against galvanizing that majority here?
Pete Buttigieg: I don’t think so. I don’t think it has to. But I think redistricting reform is needed. Certainly the way that the primary process meets the creation of districts that are drawn, such that politicians are picking out their voters, instead of the other way around, leads to all kinds of problems in the way Congress works. But I think that the nominating process is our best chance to hash out these differences that are substantive, but nowhere close to the difference in values and the sense of urgency that motivates all of us on the Democratic side, as well as a lot of independents, and an increasing number of what I call future former Republicans, to want to mobilize to end the Trump presidency and Trumpism with it.
Molly Roberts, editorial writer: So you, unlike your current competitors, have more or less grown up with the Internet. Do you think that the Web’s impact on the world has been net-positive or net-negative? And how has your outlook on that changed over the years?
Pete Buttigieg: Who was it who said about the French Revolution that in terms of its impact, it’s too soon to say?
Stephen Stromberg, editorial writer: Zhou Enlai.
Charles Lane, editorial writer: I think it’s a fake quote, but whatever.
Fred Hiatt: So probably Winston Churchill.
Pete Buttigieg: But really, we’ll need a couple hundred years before we can say for sure. What I will say is that the development of Internet technology started with a sense that it’s a frail flower and we need to leave it alone and see what’ll happen. And now it has grown into something that, I think, threatens to devour us if we don’t manage it in a better way. And without smarter and more effective regulation, you’re going to continue to see a world where large tech companies make corporate policy decisions that are actually public policy decisions because they have so much impact. But they do it without any of the mechanisms of democratic government that we have when we make real public policy decisions.
And that’s one of the reasons why it was alarming to see the spectacle, as we have a couple of times, of a tech founder being grilled by a panel of legislators who make it abundantly clear that they have no idea what it is they’re regulating. I think asking whether the Web or tech is good or bad misses the fact that it is what we make of it. Right? And it’s the air we breathe. We’ve got to make sure that the air is healthy.
Molly Roberts: So I guess we can talk about how to make sure the air is healthy. You said in a speech that “it’s not enough to combat falsehoods. We must also disseminate truth” and that “it’s time we took an integrated and innovative approach, bridging public and private sectors.” So that raises the question of what was …
Fred Hiatt: That was in the context of global communication …
Molly Roberts: The public and private sector bridge, I think, is a big question right now about [how] you don’t want these tech companies to be making these corporate decisions that are public policy decisions, but also especially when it comes to an area like speech, getting government involved is tricky. I’m curious on that speech question what role you think you think there is for government to play.
Pete Buttigieg: Yeah. There’s no obvious fix here. But we know, for example, there’s a precedent in the context of American politics for regulations on campaign spending. So when you have tech companies making money off of political speech in the form of advertising, I do believe they have a responsibility to verify the truth of that advertising. We certainly would expect a TV station or a newspaper to bear responsibility for the veracity of anything they published by way of advertising for money. Why wouldn’t that also be an expectation for tech? I also think that some of this can be cooperative. There are certainly areas where we want to make sure that government is supporting efforts to do the right thing as we have with, for example, issues around human trafficking that can be abetted by technology. And that could be a model that needs to be certainly refined and improved but could point the way toward where government can get involved without arousing some of the worst First Amendment issues that we have to worry about.
Molly Roberts: There’s been in particular question of removing the shield that tech companies have that makes sure that they’re not liable for content posted by third parties or any old user. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Pete Buttigieg: I think it needs to be on the table. Again, I don’t think that there is a meat-cleaver approach that’s going to work here, because it does get into First Amendment issues. But you also see a lot of tech companies having it both ways, saying that, you know, this is protected speech and that, hey, we’re just a bulletin board, and at the same time monetizing what’s going on there. And if you’re drawing revenue from content directly or perhaps indirectly, that creates responsibilities.
Fred Hiatt: If I can follow up, on verifying the truth. Let’s say you have a candidate who says climate change is a hoax. Do you want Mark Zuckerberg saying they’re not allowed to do that on Facebook?
Pete Buttigieg: So there is a reason why they don’t want to be in charge of that, and there are cases where the government can’t be in charge of that, either. But we do recognize as a matter of law some extent to which lying can lead to legal consequences. We can always craft problematic hypotheticals. But remember how fake news got started? It was not disagreeable news. It was newspaper or, you know, online articles circulating saying, you know, “the pope endorsed Donald Trump,” flatly, demonstrably, uncontroversially false statements. We can least begin there and assign responsibility for that, knowing that there will always be challenging boundary cases.
Molly Roberts: And just to be clear, so that’s talking about disinformation and more probably that maybe it doesn’t spread in advertising. Do you think that technology companies should be policing that disinformation, even when it’s not monetized, which is a distinction I think you were drawing before?
Pete Buttigieg: Yeah, I think they still have a responsibility there, but it does get more complex the more you zoom out. And this can’t only be something that the tech companies do. They have responsibility. We also need to make sure we become harder targets. In the same way that now when my eye falls on a page of The Washington Post that has a full-page ad, even if it resembles newsprint, within a couple of seconds, my brain will have enough pattern recognition to realize it’s an ad. I’m not sure we have that same pattern recognition that we’ve developed in the same way when it comes to what we see online. And so we need to make sure that in addition to holding companies responsible, we make sure just as a matter of citizenship that we are better equipped to resist the interventions of trolls, bots and other forms of misinformation.
Molly Roberts: As far as what that looks like, you could also theoretically regulate that, have rules for exactly how a digital ad should be displayed, how small the text could be.
Pete Buttigieg: Well, and the appeal of that is that it moves in the direction of enforcing an expectation of transparency rather than enforcing a certain standard of what speech is true or false, or good or harmful. And so I think, again, looking at some of the examples that have come from responsible regulation of political advertising gives us a pretty good launching point for these questions.
Christine Emba, columnist: Have you had conversations with tech executives about this? What sort of conversations are you having? I know some candidates have a more antagonistic-seeming relationship, it seems. But I mean, you are in contact with Mark Zuckerberg, I think, already. Right?
Pete Buttigieg: Well, I mean, we knew the same people in college and I’ve known him socially. We don’t sit around talking about the questions we’re talking about now.
But I’ll say this. I have noticed in Silicon Valley that there’s a lot of, I think, concern among people who are coming to terms with what it is they’ve created. And maybe it’s less among the CEOs than it is among the kind of middle layer of folks, who built out some of these technologies with a sense of tech utopianism that was really kind of prevailing as recently as 10 or 15 years ago. And they’re now realizing the implications of what’s been created. And so we just have to do the right thing from a policy perspective. But we should also, I think, press those who are involved in industry to recognize what’s at stake and and try to get them on the right side.
Charles Lane: I would like to ask you something about the economy, and I think, in a way, the fact that we’ve been in a meeting with a presidential candidate and it didn’t come up first is itself very indicative, because the economy, by any measure broadly, is doing extremely well right now. We have 3½ percent unemployment. The Gallup survey says that 67 percent of Americans, roughly, regard their personal finances as good or excellent. Your job and that of the other candidates would be a whole lot easier in trying to take on an incumbent now who is plus-12 in his management of the economy and underwater on everything else, if those numbers weren’t true. So my question to you is how do you, in the face of that, knowing that President Trump is up 12 points on his favorability on the economy, persuade people that the economy won’t, kind of, go the other way if he’s not around? And specifically, what about it needs changing?
Pete Buttigieg: First of all, I think we’re measuring the wrong things. Don’t get me wrong. Low unemployment is better than high unemployment. GDP growth is better than GDP contraction. But my presidency would view the most important economic statistic as neither of those but rather the income growth of the 90 percent. That captures some of those other things, captures growth in the economy, it captures employment. But what it also does is prevents us from believing that everything’s going along just fine, when you have a lot of economic growth and it barely gets to most Americans, which is the circumstance we’re dealing with right now. Go back to 2016, when also the economy by those conventional measures was doing great and we allegedly had an economic-anxiety election. What we’re seeing right now is the GDP going up and life expectancy going down at the same time in the United States of America. That shouldn’t even be possible. And it reflects that the headline numbers around the Dow Jones are not really capturing the American experience — I would argue not even capturing the American economic experience today. Add to that the fact that even by the kinds of numbers that are conventionally cited, it’s pretty hard to argue that this president’s management is brilliant relative to his predecessor. After all, President Obama came in with unemployment around 10, left with it around 5. The new president comes in and sees it at 5, go to 4 and he’s like the rooster who thinks he made the sun come up in the morning. His basic pitch on the economy seems to be “go ahead and tolerate the chaos, tolerate the racial division, tolerate the bad example for your children; and in return for that, I will give you economic growth almost as good as Barack Obama did."
I think it’s actually a weak case at the end of the day. What we need is to make sure that American lives are secure. First of all, that they’re secured against the ups and downs of the economy. And also ensure that we invest in the domestic sources of our economic growth and competitiveness, which include the basics, the very basics that have been eroded both in the last two years, and certainly in a bigger sense over the last 40 years in our country: education, infrastructure, health, the fundamentals of social mobility. And if we continue disinvesting in those, we shouldn’t be surprised to continue to see America fall completely out of the top ranks of countries in which the American Dream of being born at the bottom and coming out at the top can be experienced.
David Ignatius, columnist: I’d like to ask you three baseline foreign policy questions. Foreign policy hasn’t been much of a subject in the Democratic debates in the campaign, so let me just focus on these three. First, would you be inclined to be willing to pursue some small residual force in Afghanistan, focused on counterterrorism, after some peace agreement is concluded? Second, if the American troop presence in northeast Syria continues, roughly something under a thousand, that the president vaguely defined, but we all kind of know that it’s about supporting stability there. The day you take office, if those troops are still there, would you be inclined to keep them? And finally, would you think about seeking to rejoin the JCPOA or the Iran nuclear agreement if you became president?
Pete Buttigieg: So the Syria model actually informs the answer, I think, to the Afghanistan question in the medium term. After all, what we had there was a small number of troops, special operations and intelligence capacity, really a tiny number if we talk about the area that the president withdrew from, who were able to prevent the worst outcomes just by being there. And I think that as we develop a much more narrow and specific account of what the American objective in Afghanistan is, which from a military perspective is the defense of the American homeland — from a political perspective, it’s a lot more, we want to continue to support gains that have been made there — but from a military perspective, it’s protecting America, then it does lead to a likely medium-term scenario, where the bulk of the ground troops are gone, something, by the way, that I believed was underway in 2014. I thought, I was made to feel like I was one of the very last troops turning out the lights when we were packing up and leaving. And years later, we’re still there in comparable proportion. So that’s clearly got to come to an end.
But part of that way out, in order to keep the core American security objectives, may well involve a very light-footprint presence of highly specialized and capable intelligence and special operations people on the ground.
As for Iran, it’s unlikely that we could simply resurrect and rejoin the JCPOA in its prior form. But leaving it was a mistake, and agreements to contain Iranian nuclear ambitions remain a good idea. The picture is different. The economic pressures are different. The political scenario is different. And crucially, our relationship with some of the allies that account for — I believe the "J" stands for "Joint" — the allies that account for the coalition that was securing this has obviously changed.
But I also think there remains an opportunity, especially given the economic, if not isolation, certainly vulnerability of the Iranian regime, to achieve something that would help us once again slow or stop the move toward nuclear weapons there.
Karen Tumulty, columnist: Could I just follow up? The Post just published thousands and thousands and thousands of pages of interviews that show that military leaders and administration leaders were consistently lying to the American public about the goals in Afghanistan and progress toward those goals. Having served there, does this surprise you and what do you think are the implications of that going forward?
Pete Buttigieg: The truth is, it is not completely surprising, although it’s extremely frustrating. When I think about the weight that I placed on decisions that I made as a lieutenant, on whether to go outside the wire to meet some Afghan police official, and if I did, who to take with me, and just how I weighed that. To see these kinds of reports about people making the decisions that affected thousands of lives instead of two or three at a time like my decisions, is disheartening. But it’s also, I think, an indication of how removed some of the conversations happening, certainly the conversations happening in Washington, became from just the experience of being involved in this conflict from the perspective of communities like mine that are sending so many people into the military.
And knowing that relative to the people making decisions, the folks going into the military are more likely to be low-income, more likely to be people of color, more likely to be from lower-income and often rural areas. It feels like the conversation has drifted so far away from doing right by them. And you certainly feel that when you read these kinds of things.
Fred Hiatt: So you distinguish between the political and military goals. I think the number of troops in Afghanistan is down to 12,000. If the defense and intelligence experts working for you come to you and say, “We don’t need 10,000 to do your counterinsurgency mission, but if we keep 10,000 there, we can keep the Taliban at bay and girls can stay in school. If we don’t, if not, then we lose those political gains.” How do you process that?
Pete Buttigieg: So I don’t think that it can be as simple a scenario as a troop count leading to a societal outcome. On the contrary, if that were true, we’d somewhere in the last 15 years have been able to declare victory. I think that what we need to recognize is, first of all, the role of the Afghans in their self-determination. Secondly, the role of the international community in supporting aspirations like securing and expanding the gains for women in human rights there, that are not just American policy objectives, they are human rights objectives that are consistent with what the community of nations wants to see and I believe what the Afghan people want; and our own responsibility because of the fact that we changed the trajectory of that country, to ensure that there is no backsliding, especially when it comes to the rights of women. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important that the Afghan government be at the table more than from public reporting they appear to have been, in the conversations that have gone on with with the Taliban.
And so there will not be an easy way to deliver this. I mean, empires have famously despaired of trying to get certain outcomes to happen in this area, but we do have responsibilities that go beyond our military objective and should use a number of different tools in our toolkit to try to bring them about and to secure them.
Fred Hiatt: Just on David’s point about the place of foreign policy and a campaign, I noticed on your website, when you go to Issues, you have to then go to More Issues before you come to foreign policy. And it just made me wonder this year, as you go around, to what extent is it on people’s mind? Do they worry about terrorism?
Pete Buttigieg: Sure. I’d say it’s on people’s minds more than you would think when I’m on the road. I was surprised to find myself being the first candidate to do a major foreign policy address, when whenever we did that was, in May, in the springtime, and I think that it deserves more attention than it’s getting. Although politically, it’s often one of those things that gets little attention until something happens and suddenly it’s the only issue on people’s minds.
But I will tell you, I hear a lot more about foreign policy than I hear about impeachment, for example, in terms of the questions that I get from voters. And they’re not always arcane questions of foreign policy; there are questions about what are we going to do with America’s relationship to the world. The fact that American prestige has been reduced to an SNL mockery of the guy in the lunchroom nobody wants to talk to shows you what’s at stake and something that goes beyond just what’s interesting to foreign policy buffs, but the more basic question of whether America can continue to be regarded as a credible, reliable force for good in the world, something on which our own security depends, because our advantage has always been that our interests have aligned with universal interests or I should say, universal values, as well as more specific concerns. When you’re in communities, for example, that have disproportionately furnished the troops who’ve been sent to carry out these policies. Right now there’s probably a kid in Iowa or South Carolina or Indiana who is packing their bags for Afghanistan and wondering exactly what it is we’re doing there.
Fred Hiatt: What are the other things people ask?
Pete Buttigieg: One more point, that kid could not have been born on 9/11, necessarily.
Fred Hiatt: What are the top three things that people do ask you about?
Pete Buttigieg: A lot of health care. A lot on opportunity, especially in areas that have been excluded, whether we’re talking about the continuing effects of racial exclusion in creating a racial wealth gap and racial income gap in this country, or the concerns of folks in the industrializing areas or in rural areas. By the way, far more than is true in the imagination of commentary, sometimes that’s the same thing. When you’re in South Carolina talking about rural issues, you’re typically talking about African American rural issues. When you’re in the industrial Midwest, talking about the fate of autoworkers, a lot of times we’re talking about workers of color. So we’ve got to recognize the intersections here. But that’s coming up all the time.
A lot of questions that I field are a little broader than the policy level. They’re really about belonging. They’re about division. They’re about exclusion. You can feel it. It’s an understanding that maybe the American experience, in general, in recent years, but especially under Trump, is characterized by division and exclusion. And it shows in different ways. But you can tell it’s on folks’ minds. On everything from the way that our families have become divided to the fear of whether it’s really going to be possible for the next president to leave the American people more unified than before.
So I get lots of different forms of that question. But I’d say it’s coming up all the time. And then if we want to talk about questions that are out of proportion to how much they’re covered, obviously health care gets covered a lot. Economic issues get covered a lot. Mental health, though, is something that comes up all the time. And not only at a general level from individuals and families who were impacted, but it is something I hear almost as often as I hear about pay when I’m talking to teachers. Because there’s a sense that teachers have been put on the front lines of mental health without the resources to do much about it. And that’s not just in terms of mental health first aid training that they need, but the ability to actually know where to refer people when there are issues. Sometimes I’ll do a show of hands, but I’ll just ask sometimes of hundreds of people how many folks here would say that you or a co-worker or a family member have had an addiction issue or a serious mental-health issue? And just about every hand goes up. So relative to how much attention that commands, I think it’s huge and deserves to be talked about more.
Stephen Stromberg: So on health care, you have your “Medicare for all who want it” plan, and you say if corporate insurers are unable or unwilling to lower costs or offer plans that are dramatically better than what’s available today, competition from this public insurance alternative will naturally lead to Medicare for all. One way to read this is that you favor a subsidized public plan that would undercut rather than really compete with private plans. So are you really able to say that if you like your private plan, you can keep it?
Pete Buttigieg: Well, if a private plan is sucking money out into profits or failing to efficiently deliver care, then it deserves to fall down in the face of the plan that we’re going to create. What I do see is a lot of cases where folks, and I’m especially thinking of people in labor, are reluctant to entertain leaving or being kicked off their plan, not so much because they think that the administrator is more efficient but because the plan is more generous. And so we want to make sure that we’re not setting the line in a way that nobody could ever go above on what health-care support ought to like in this country. I do think that functionally it amounts to a floor. We’re going to set a floor. And either through the generosity of an employer or through the efficiency of an administrator, folks can try to beat that plan. But we should be that floor, we’ve got to make sure that the floor is there. And I think that leads to the most organic pathway towards what will be either a dramatically improved system or Medicare-for-all environment. And I’m pretty neutral on whether it needs to be one or the other. I’ve said publicly that I favor Medicare-for-all as the destination I envision that’s most attractive, but honestly, the most important thing is not who’s covering you. It’s are you covered and are you covered well.
Stephen Stromberg: So the the public plan, it would be, you take what you take out of the profits from the insurance companies and the maladministration, as you mentioned, in some of these insurance plans and yours. You’re saying that underneath that there is sort of an efficient private model that could compete with a public model that you’re suggesting.
Pete Buttigieg: That’s what I want to put as a test. And if it can’t compete, then that’s not a bad thing.
Ruth Marcus, deputy editorial page editor: Can I ask a question about something that may not come up on the campaign trail very much; it certainly doesn’t come up among your rivals that much. You said the other day about the debt and deficit, “My party is not known for worrying about the deficit or debt too much, but it’s time for us to start getting into that.” So, first of all, very basic question, why is it time to start getting into it? And second of all, what does that mean you would want to do?
Pete Buttigieg: Yes. Well, first of all, let me be clear, my party has done a much better job of fiscal responsibility than the other party. I believe it’s true that every single presidency in my lifetime that has been Democratic has seen a reduction in the deficit. And the reverse is true with every single Republican presidency in my lifetime. As we speak, we have a Republican presidency cheering a scenario where we’ve got a trillion-dollar deficit. But I find that our party doesn’t talk about it much. And in some corners of our party, it’s not fashionable to care about it. I think that we need to, first of all, because just generationally, I think that I may be here when some of these fiscal time bombs go off. I also think that we need to recognize that we’re approaching a point where you can’t ignore spending we need to do on infrastructure and safety net and health and education being crowded by debt service. I’m not one of those who would say that deficits can never play a role. I’m saying that we’ve taken our eye off of them as a country and as the party that, between the two parties, has done a better job handling it when in power, we should own this. We should talk about it. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it because it does matter. And what what we’ve seen is that this deficit was created, in my view, not by an excess of investment in our social democratic institutions but by enormous tax cuts for the wealthy. And the total real-world collapse of the theory that those tax cuts pay for themselves is one of the most important things that happened in the last 40 years. That should be held in mind by everybody making policy for the next 40.
Ruth Marcus: So is your theory as president of addressing the deficit that it’s a raise-taxes solution?
Pete Buttigieg: Well, given that we’re underinvesting and that it’s either got to happen on the cost side or — I mean, I think we can find more efficiencies, as you always do when you assess various programs — but fundamentally, this is a revenue problem. And part of how I’m trying to make good on what I say on the trail is our campaign will always have “pay fors” for everything I propose. I mean, the stuff I’m proposing isn’t cheap, right? You line up everything we’ve talked about with health, education, housing and so on, and we’re in the neighborhood of $6 to $7 trillion over a decade now. That’s dramatically less than my competitors because I do care about making sure I’m making promises we can keep. If the margin of error in the disagreements over the cost of your health-care plan is equivalent to the entire United States GDP, I think that’s a problem, right? So it’s one of the reasons why it does matter that my health-care plan over a decade is $1.5 trillion instead of $20 or $40 [trillion] depending on who you listen to.
But we’re also gonna have to raise the revenue. And the good news is we can, without going to some Eisenhower-level taxation system, without doing anything that’s incompatible with robust economic growth: by doing things like rolling back the Trump tax cuts; ensuring there is a higher, reasonable, but definitely higher marginal tax rate on income; by reforming the way we handle capital gains in this country; by closing other loopholes, like the 199A loophole; by better enforcing what we’ve got, we can raise just as much revenue as it’s going to cost to do any of the things I’m saying.
Ruth Marcus: You can raise revenue to pay for the new things you want to do, but that doesn’t address your fiscal time bomb. [crosstalk].
Pete Buttigieg: So everything I’m talking about should collectively be deficit-reducing or deficit-neutral, taken together. We don’t know because some of this is cyclical. Some could happen, but fundamentally on the whole, it will be deficit-reducing.
Stephen Stromberg: So one of your efficiencies that you identified, one of your “pay fors,” is negotiating with pharmaceutical companies on prescription drug costs. How would you ensure that those negotiations actually yielded the reductions in costs that you predict?
Pete Buttigieg: Well, first of all, we’ve got to make sure that we have a minimum number of areas where those negotiations take place, high-volume and high-need drugs, so that even under a Republican administration that might not have the same enthusiasm for these negotiations, that I would, that there’s a floor. The other thing to remember is that it is in the interest of well-regulated pharmaceutical companies to make sure that they’re at the table and participating in these negotiations. And we are going to need remedies as a backstop, if there is a lack of good faith. It’s why we need to have, as I’ve proposed, controls on runaway price increases that are faster than the rate of inflation that can’t be justified by something like an ingredient shortage, which we know is happening all the time. A company’s doing this not because it’s part of how they fund innovation, not because they have to, but because they can. And so negotiation is part of it, but only part of it, when it comes to what we’ve got to do to reduce those runaway price increases.
Stephen Stromberg: So what’s the backstop? I mean, do you set a price, you know, legislatively? Do you legislate some kind of arbitration system if the negotiations fail? Maybe you’re talking about a new drug that there’s no preexisting price and so you can’t really say it’s runaway price because there’s nothing to compare it to.
Pete Buttigieg: Right. The inflation backstop or the inflation kind of safety valve, that’s about things that are brought to market and then making sure that they can’t be gouged.
Stephen Stromberg: Exactly.
Pete Buttigieg: It’s certainly more complicated in terms of new therapies. Although I think that the newest therapies are not the ones we’re talking about the most right now in terms of families suffering, right, when you hear about what’s going on with insulin. Insulin is not an exotic invention anymore. There are some policy design questions around how to make sure the negotiations work well. But we can’t even get to those policy design questions if we remain in a world where, in principle, it’s prevented from happening in the first place.
Fred Hiatt: Just to come back to Ruth’s question on the deficit and the debt. We certainly agree that it’s an issue, but we get a lot of pushback now, saying, “look, because the Republicans have shown they don’t care and they just did what they want, Democrats, if they regain power, why should they be saps and limit themselves in important things like infrastructure and health care and education? Let’s go for it.” Do you hear that? And why is that wrong?
Pete Buttigieg: My point is that we can do the big things I’m proposing without an irresponsible outcome on the fiscal side, if we’re willing to raise revenue. And by the way, raising revenue is something the American people are ready to do. When I talk about this American majority that exists, I’m not talking about a consensus, but where maybe more than 60 percent territory on most of this stuff. On pretty much everything we’re proposing to do, from health to a higher minimum wage to paid family leave, to even gun legislation and a pathway to citizenship and immigration, these are things the American people support. It’s actually very hard to find something in the kind of boldface items on the Republican platform that the American people are on balance or for.
Fred Hiatt: How about climate, the carbon tax and dividend?
Pete Buttigieg: If we do the dividend right, then most Americans will experience it the same way we experience the Bush tax cut: as a check in the mail. Now, the dividend formula should be progressive so that we make sure most Americans are more than made whole. Anyway, as you know from my democratic reform agenda, I also believe that we should push on things, that we need to make the case for that maybe aren’t popular. But my point is, especially when it comes to taxing corporations and the wealthy, there is a strong majority for this among the American people. It’s the American Congress where we’re having trouble.
Christine Emba: On that note, you mentioned just a few moments ago that you want to raise revenue, but we don’t have to go back to Eisenhower-level taxes. Talk to me about that. What’s wrong with that, exactly, or why is that something that you are opposed to or think that the American people would be opposed to it if they’re so open?
Pete Buttigieg: Well, I think when you start hearing about marginal income tax rates pushing into the 70, 80, 90 percent range, it starts to feel unreasonable. Admittedly, some of this is about how these things strike us more than you can compute. By definition, you can’t compute a number that officially is reasonable. But I think we have an intuition. I think we know it when we see it. And I think most of us would say 90 percent taxes is a little much.
But I also think most of us know that what’s happening here — when Amazon, forgive me, or FedEx pays less in federal income tax than you and I did, specifically zero, we know something is dramatically wrong with the system. I think that the problem has become that sometimes taxation is being talked about in isolation, like what should the tax be rather than, what do we need to do and how are we going to pay for it?
It would be like, if you’re buying a car and you say a number without looking at the car, without even knowing what make or whether it’s a truck or a sedan or what color it is, just going off the number. Most people think about cost and what you get for that cost in the same thought. And yet we’re talking about taxation as if there’s just some intrinsically morally right and wrong level of taxes. What we need is a fair way that distributes the burden of funding all the things that we need in order to have a thriving country. And what we know is that right now the burden is way out of whack and proportionately lower- and middle-income Americans, relative to wealthy Americans [and] corporations, are shouldering far too much of that burden.
Christine Emba: So if 90 is high and zero is low, and say that you’re the president and your job is to galvanize people towards some correct intuition or some number that’s helpful, what are you thinking, actually? Like, what is your perspective as to what would be fair that you would then presumably be trying to convince America?
Pete Buttigieg: So I think on the income piece, as a matter just kind of common sense or intuition, I think it’s best to keep it below 50 percent as a marginal rate on income. We’re still crunching numbers on a couple of things I’ve not yet released on the spending side. And again, I view taxation as something that’s supposed to correspond to spending versus something in itself. So I don’t have the marginal rate handy for you right now that I think we’re going to land on. But what I’ll tell you is that reforming the capital gains tax system, including some kind of mark-to-market reform so that it keeps pace, some kind of financial transactions tax — these are all part of a broad portfolio that collectively have the effect of making sure that the corporations and the wealthy people who own them are shouldering a greater share of the burden.
Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor: Is some of that going to entitlements so you have a plan to stabilize entitlements, Medicare and Medicaid?
Pete Buttigieg: Yeah. First of all, on Social Security, the reality is that you only have to make a couple of moves, one of which is to collect past the $250,000 level on payroll taxes, to have the Social Security trust fund be just fine well into the years when I expect to be drawing on it, and without any cuts of benefits. Similarly on the health side, and this is part of the bigger question about how we responsibly fund health care in this country, because last I saw, I think that the Medicare negotiation move alone amounts to something on the order of $300 to $400 billion over a decade, per CBO. There is more than enough to work with to make sure that we are funding our health-care needs.
Now, that being said, there’s also a lot of reform that has to happen to publicly administered health-care plans. We know that CMS could be more efficient. We know, in the new machine age, the number of human hands that have to touch a prior authorization probably ought to be zero. And I have not yet met a doctor who’s living in that reality. So Medicare as we know it, just growing that is not enough. We, of course, need to make improvements. But I don’t think those improvements need to come at the expense of patient care.
Fred Hiatt: Another one of your spending items, or some of them, are contained in the Douglass Plan. One of the premises of which is, just because we’ve fixed the rules, we haven’t undone the effects of years or centuries of oppression. Which is also the premise that people who support flat-out reparations, but you don’t go there, and I wonder why not.
Pete Buttigieg: Well, I do support H.R. 40 for the same reason.
Fred Hiatt: A commission?
Pete Buttigieg: Yeah. Now, the commission will have to wrestle with complex questions about how to do this. And I don’t think we should wait for the commission to deliver policies that are reparative, including with resources, whether it’s the $50 billion that ought to go into HBCUs for all kinds of reasons or the targeted funding for health equity or any of the other things that we’ve proposed in the Douglass Plan. But my basic thinking on this is that we all recognize that if you save a buck at 5 percent, it’ll turn into $2 in four and eight. It actually turns into a $1,000 over 150 years. And if that’s true of a dollar saved, it’s true of a dollar stolen. And it’s part of why these harms and inequities will compound if left alone. And colorblind policies or neutral policies may on their face be a lot better than a nakedly racist policy. But they’re not going to be enough to deliver equity. And that is what part of the motivation of the Douglass Plan has in common with the move toward reparations.
Lee Hockstader, editorial writer: You said that there’s an American majority for path to citizenship, but you also know, and you’ve said often that that has to be part of a grand bargain on immigration. And like other Democrats, you talked about doing DACA path to citizenship and generally, no more kids in cages, no more breaking up families. But you’ve also said the first thing we have to do is border security, you said that to Newsweek. What does border security mean to you?
Pete Buttigieg: Well, it’s a hell of a lot different than what you see right now. It doesn’t involve family separation. It doesn’t involve the kinds of detention conditions we’re seeing. I would argue it shouldn’t involve CBP in the business of housing anybody at all. I would shift that to Health and Human Services because an enforcement agency doesn’t have the setup to be taking care of people. I would argue that there should not be such a thing as a for-profit detention center for children. Of course we have a border and we will continue to have a border and we will maintain our border. That’s part of being a country. But a lot of what needs to happen include technological changes, training improvements. And we’ve got a president right now whose understanding of security technology, even though we’re living in the 21st century, his understanding of security technology is 17th-century, it’s a wall, a moat full of alligators. It’s these literally medieval ideas that don’t really reflect the reality that we’re living in and are not going to serve to make us safer,.
Lee Hockstader: But affirmatively, what do you do? What do the Democrats do to take away the magnet, to take away what the president calls catch and release, what he says are all these loopholes in the current policy that acts as the magnet for migrants to come?
Pete Buttigieg: Well, first all we got to look at root causes, right. So the current trend with migration has a lot less than it used to do with seeking opportunity and a lot of it now is seeking safety. And I always think of the interview with, I think, a Salvadoran migrant who said “I’m not even after the American Dream. I’m just fleeing a nightmare.” Which is why if we want to talk about really dealing with what’s called the “magnet,” I would say we’re dealing with the push that has people concluding that their lives and their children’s lives depend on them fleeing the country they live in. As long as that’s true, we’re going to have migration challenges, no matter how you set up the border. And it’s why we have a national interest in supporting Central American Triangle countries. It’s why this punitive idea of cutting funding to Central American countries is perfectly wrong. It’s exactly the opposite of what we should do. But also, it’s why we need to make sure that our hemisphere is prosperous. Frankly, if Mexico became more secure and prosperous, that would also have an effect, not just on migration of folks from Mexico, but what folks from Central America would do. It’s not going to be an easy fix here. But what we know is that each of the steps that this administration has taken has increased the level of fear and division and suffering and not at all increased level of security at the border or in the country.
Karen Tumulty: Would you do anything to refine the criteria for asylum?
Pete Buttigieg: First of all, we’ve got to recognize that asylum is a right. And what we’ve seen is a move away from some justifications for asylum, in terms of safety and and oppression and harm, that I believe do belong in those criteria. As much as possible, we should work to harmonize those criteria internationally so that this is consistent with international law. But it begins with the simple recognition that when somebody is seeking asylum, they’re not trying to get a favor. They’re asserting, as is their right, something under international law.
Lee Hockstader: Is it also a right for asylum seekers to cross into the United States and wait for asylum in the United States as they apply?
Pete Buttigieg: Because we know we can handle that. I mean, you look at things like the Family Case Management Program, virtually everybody in it showed up when they were supposed to for their appointments. So the remain-in-Mexico policy, again, may have a political benefit to this president, but it doesn’t really correspond to reality.
Fred Hiatt: Let’s do another reader question. “Your only government executive experience is being mayor of a relatively small Indiana city. How is that enough or relevant to make you qualified to become the leader of the most powerful nation in the world?”
Pete Buttigieg: So it is a leap to go from any job to the presidency. It should be humbling for anybody contemplating it or competing for it. I also wonder, though, if I would get that same question if I were a legislator here in Washington, if I were a senator or a member of Congress. And with all due respect for what goes on on Capitol Hill, you could be a very senior senator in our country and have never in your life been responsible for more than a hundred people, in terms of day-to-day management.
And so part of what I would say is that when you’re a mayor of a city of any size, you not only have the experience of making policy, which is what legislators do. You also have the experience of managing an administration and balancing the budget, right? We don’t get to print money or have the kinds of deficits that Washington can at the city level. But not only that, you also have the responsibility of guiding a population and you realize through that work that often, where you earn your paycheck is in functions that are not described or written down anywhere.
They have to do with the tone you set. And in the case of South Bend, the work that had to happen to get the city to believe in itself after being told at the beginning of this decade that it was dying. That kind of experience, not to mention the experience of being sent to war on the orders of a president and having that particular understanding of the gravity of the decisions that are made in the situation, I would argue is as good experience as any for the leap that, again, faces anybody going from any job that isn’t the president’s into the Oval Office.
Ruth Marcus: Can I ask you about this Supreme Court? You have an innovative idea of five Republican-appointed justices, five Democratic-appointed justices, five chosen by consensus from the justices themselves. That seems to presuppose that the optimal court is a kind of consensus court that has some kind of equal-ish division in it. Is that your goal, or is your goal a liberal Supreme Court?
Pete Buttigieg: So the Supreme Court will become more liberal in my presidency because my justices that I would appoint would have a philosophy that’s more consistent with my own. That’s different from the questions I think we need to deal with through institutional reform. That’s about securing for the next century a court where the political stakes of appointments change. What we have now are these apocalyptic ideological firefights every time there’s a vacancy. We have the spectacle of people seeming to feel compelled to time their departure from the bench or or even time their departure from the earth according to who’s in power at the time. And there’s something grotesque about that, because Supreme Court justices used to just retire like anybody else. And the stakes have changed so that even people who might want to can’t or — we’re not in a normal environment, let’s put it that way.
And changing that will have all kinds of benefits, not only in terms of the nominating process but things like these very idiosyncratic briefing patterns where you brief the Supreme Court of the United States, not based on the most compelling legal arguments you can think of but based on the idiosyncrasies of a single person considered to be the swing justice. And so there are all kinds of things that we can do to make that process more just, more healthy, through a move to reduce the political stakes.
Charles Lane: I just wanted to follow up, not on this. When you said you were deployed on the orders of the president, I got momentarily triggered, and let me explain why. Because as you well know, Tim Kaine and others have been talking for some time about the extraordinarily tenuous relationship that now exists between the original authorization for all these deployments …
Pete Buttigieg: Yes.
Charles Lane: And the actual deployments. And the discussion of Syria earlier kind of took it for granted that it was kind of up to the next president to put troops kind of where they want. I just wanted to address that, as somebody who aspires to be president, would you be open to something many of your predecessors of both parties have not been, which is engaging with Congress about dialing back, to some extent, the latitude that presidents have to make these kinds of long-term deployments?
Pete Buttigieg: Absolutely. Another of the things that strikes me in looking at what’s been revealed in the Afghanistan papers is just the extent to which the American people have not really participated or been reasoned with, in terms of the big decisions about this conflict, at least not in the right ways. And so, I think it’s so important that Congress have its role, and I imagine Congress would hesitate to embrace that role because this is so difficult. But one thing that I’ve committed to is that we would have a three-year sunset built in into an AUMF so that if as president, I concluded that we really did need to extend an on-the-ground engagement past three years, it will be necessary for me to go back to Congress and convince them to. And it would be necessary for them to weigh in and take the tough up-or-down vote on whether that’s the right thing to do.
Charles Lane: Do you think we need a new one for Syria?
Pete Buttigieg: I think that we need a new one overall, past the original post-9/11 one. I mean, we have troops in East Africa in 2019 based on an authorization passed to deal with what happened in 2001. After we lost troops in Niger, a lot of members of Congress admitted not realizing we were even there. So I do think the time has come to redefine the scope of our missions and our engagements, knowing that dealing with al-Qaeda is not exactly what is being expected of a lot of the troops on these deployments.
Fred Hiatt: We’re running short on time, and I wanted to ask you one question from your book, something that stuck with me, where you said you often think about going back in time to the South Bend of the ’60s or ’40s or ’20s and that when you got there, at first you would feel nostalgia and envy but soon you would feel pity for the people there because any of them would be better off in the South Bend of today. Why so, and are the people in South Bend better off than they were in the ’90s, or 10 years ago? Talk about that a little bit.
Pete Buttigieg: To me, this is the core falsehood of Make America Great Again. It’s that the nostalgia for the past evokes a time that for so many was not as great as advertised. And that simply turning that clock wouldn’t make us better off. So I described in the book how it would feel, especially coming from a city that had a heyday, and that heyday ended. So by many conventional measures, our city was dramatically better off in the '20s or in the '40s. It was growing. It was more fashionable. And by the measures of that time, it was more prosperous. But people were living shorter lives. There was a level of racial exclusion that is different than today. Obviously, a gay mayor like me wouldn’t have that much of a chance.
There are so many ways in which we should be glad, even as we look at the loss that happened as a city like ours was abandoned by its original industrial titans. Still, progress matters. Progress is real, progress happened, and that’s why we can’t just turn back the clock. I certainly believe in the progress in our city in this decade. I think most people in our city would agree. We started the decade fending off accounts that we were dying. And now we are growing. It’s okay to believe in the city, it’s not just the things I can measure in terms of unemployment, job creation, poverty and investment. It’s the fact that you can just feel that the city believes in itself. It’s part of what I mean, we talk about the relationship between mayor’s goals and the presidency. It’s harder to quantify. But it’s no less important.
Ruth Marcus: And I just I wanted to follow up on your question because I really didn’t quite understand it. It does seem like the structure that you’re setting up does envision a closely divided court. Is a closely divided court better or worse for the country than a overwhelmingly liberal court?
Pete Buttigieg: Will it be closely divided? I’m not sure we can expect that naturally as a long-run outcome. I think it’s possible in the short run.
Ruth Marcus: Five, five and five seems to suggest that.
Pete Buttigieg: Well, it depends what’s happening among the five, but the whole idea is that they were seated by consensus. So the terms of predictable, even tribal division, among the first five and the second five may not obtain in the third five. This is the experience of local government where we have Democrats and Republicans back home, too, in office and we have ferocious political divisions. But the difference is, they’re not as entrenched. The person that I came this close to just letting them have it because they were creating all kinds of problems as a legislator for me on one issue, becomes the swing vote allowing my budget to pass the next year.
These things typically happened in healthier moments in our democracy. Sometimes it involved crossing party lines. Sometimes it involved crossing regional lines. The fault lines have been there. They’ve been different. They’ve shifted. But the real problem, I think, is the extent to which these lines have now been encrusted in our expectations of the judiciary. So the intent of this reform is not to get a court that agrees with me more. My appointments will be to a court that agrees with me more, but the intent of this reform is to set up for the next hundred years a court that we can look to as standing apart from the political process.
Fred Hiatt: Anything you wish we’d asked you?
Pete Buttigieg: I got all kinds of softballs you could have asked me. No, I appreciate the chance to be here.
And I think that there is a sense of urgency right now that we need to understand, that goes beyond just the urgency that we feel about dealing with Trump and Trumpism. It’s dealing with forces that made someone like him possible. And when I talk about exchanging the American experience of exclusion for one to belong and fit, that with all of the concrete policy changes I believe need to be made, this is what I have in mind. And this, I believe, is what has made it possible for a candidacy as unlikely as mine to get this far. We’re going to need to do a lot of work both to deliver big, bold changes and to have a country that’s more unified than we are. We cannot achieve one without the other. If we skip one step, the other will collapse. And yet I think we can do it. I think we have the values to do it. I think enough of the American people are ready for it. And under the right presidential leadership, more of the American people will become ready for it. And that’s why I’m sitting here and that’s why I’m running for president.
Fred Hiatt: Thank you.
Pete Buttigieg: Thanks.
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