All of that was on display at the 92nd Street Y in New York in May 2019 when I interviewed Buttigieg, whose CNN town hall two months earlier had catapulted him to national prominence. And that self-assurance and message discipline remained as Buttigieg sat across from me on Monday in a hotel conference room in Charleston, S.C., to make the case that he should be the Democratic nominee.
He is in the top tier for the nomination after eking out a delegate victory over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Iowa caucuses. But Sanders’s big win in Nevada and his rising polls numbers have folks wondering whether the democratic socialist from Vermont can be stopped. When I asked Buttigieg whether it was too late to halt Sanders’s rise, he said, “No, but it will be if we don’t get our act together.” When I asked him what getting “our act together” looks like, Buttigieg responded, “What I think that should look like is to rally around a candidate, perhaps the one candidate to have actually beaten Bernie Sanders anywhere in the country this cycle, which is my campaign.”
Buttigieg is also worried about the tone of Sanders’s campaign. “I recognize that he speaks for a lot of ideals that we share, but it’s also an approach that is about consolidating a base and pushing away people who disagree with you at a moment when I think we have to be doing the opposite,” Buttigieg told me. “We cannot expect to succeed against a president this divisive if we’re sowing a different kind of division from our side. There’s a better way, and our campaign shows the promise of making that happen.” Buttigieg argued that, if elected, he would be the most progressive president because he believes he could unite what he calls an “American majority” that is in line with the Democratic Party on major issues.
“There is a powerful American majority right now that agrees, for example, that the public sector should step up and fix the health-care problem, just as long as we don’t force it on too many people, that agrees that minimum wages have to go up,” Buttigieg explained. “We’ve got to do something about gun violence. We’ve got to create a pathway to citizenship when it comes to immigration. We’ve got to act on climate. This is an American majority of let’s galvanize it and not blow it up.”
Besides, Buttigieg pointed out, “I believe that some of the proposals that come from Sen. Sanders go too far and are not going to be passed anyway.”
One big hurdle for Buttigieg’s chances is African American voters. When he got into the race, no one knew who he was, so his flat-line of support among that community was understandable. He argued then that his standing would improve once they got to know him. But that effort has been hobbled by a series of serious controversies that have called into question his awareness and understanding of the African American community. In the latest NBC News-Marist poll of South Carolina voters, Buttigieg garners just 4 percent support.
Even if his attempts to show it have been lacking, I’ve long believed that Buttigieg’s heart is in the right place on issues of importance to black voters. He sees his experience as an openly gay man as an entree to empathy for other marginalized communities. Still, despite the missteps, Buttigieg knows he is asking a lot of African Americans as he works to win their votes.
“I recognize what I’m asking … in particular when I’m asking for the vote of a black American, I’m asking for a vote, first of all, that was won, especially here in the South, within living memory at a terrible cost, in terms of the courage and the blood that was needed just in order to get that vote that I’m asking somebody to trust me with,” Buttigieg said. “I’m asking them to give it to a newcomer. I’m asking them to give it to me knowing that we have had colossal struggles with racial justice on my watch in our hometown of South Bend, as every diverse city has. But we can point to all of the things that went well and all of the things that didn’t. And I recognize the hurdles that that represents.”
Buttigieg then previewed a remark that would make its way into Tuesday’s debate in Charleston. “Look, it’s not lost on me that when there’s a debate stage now, it’s a bunch of white candidates sometimes talking about race in a way that I think all of us should pause and be humbled by,” he told me. “I think that among us, the thing that each of us brings that is most relevant to Americans of color right now is the ability to defeat Donald Trump, because nobody is feeling the pain of living under this administration more than black and Latino Americans. … There is a laser focus on making sure that we win precisely because there are so many Americans who cannot afford for us to lose.”
Of course, I had to ask Buttigieg what he would say to my Aunt Gloria, who remains stalwart in her support of former vice president Joe Biden, and my mother, who is still leaning toward former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg. Both of them desperately want Trump defeated. But my mother likes Bloomberg because she thinks he will fight fire with fire against Trump. It’s an emotional response that Buttigieg addressed with characteristic calm when I asked him to make the case to them that he is really the person to beat Trump.
“You can’t beat him at his own game because it’s his game. I understand the appeal. Basically, the idea is we create our sort of alternative version of Trump and put it up against Trump. But I think if we do that, people are going to go for the original. I think the only way to deny this president his famous ability to change the subject and take over the conversation, is to offer up something completely different,” Buttigieg said. “Every time a Democrat has won the White House in the last half-century, it’s been with somebody who was new on the national scene, somebody who was opening the door to a new generation of leadership.”
That’s what happened with Bill Clinton in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2008. Come Super Tuesday, Buttigieg will have a better idea whether he is closer to joining that club.
(Disclosure: I worked on Bloomberg’s first campaign for mayor in 2001. My husband currently works on his campaign in North Dakota.)
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