Introduced by his husband who choked back tears, Buttigieg delivered a farewell speech Sunday night every bit as elegant and uplifting as the campaign he was drawing to a close. Interrupted by chants of “2024,” Buttigieg traced his improbable journey, lauded his staff and volunteers and made clear that he took his campaign “rules of the road” seriously. Those included truth (that his pathway had closed) and responsibility (to ensure the effect of his running was in service of his goal to unify the country).
He did not mention Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) by name, but listening between the lines, you knew that Buttigieg feared becoming a hindrance to Sanders’s more viable opponents. He was crystal clear: His goal had been to unify a divided nation and win up and down the ticket. That, he determined, was now served by leaving the race. He conceded politics can be ugly, but assured his supporters that at its best “it is moral; it is soul craft.”
Buttigieg as a candidate was so verbally nimble that his campaign could and did send him everywhere: Sunday shows, cable TV shows, town halls and “cattle calls” where voters could easily compare candidates. He more than held his own in any of those situations as well as in debates, where his performances ranged from good to superior. His access to voters and the media alike set the gold standard for openness and should win his communications director, Lis Smith, plaudits.
Moreover, at a time of divisiveness and populist fury, Buttigieg projected a calm, rational approach to politics and warned that a president’s job was to unite the country, not to glorify himself. He spoke out on behalf of veterans, for responsible internationalism and for greater awareness about mental health. He was often the adult in the room among much older candidates who were making ludicrous promises or snap judgments about receding from the world.
Where some voters and commentators saw calculation and robotic delivery, I saw earnest preparation and self-possession, two qualities in short supply these days. In the face of outbursts of bigotry from the likes of talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, Buttigieg reacted with dignity and reinforced that he is, in fact, an exemplar of family values. Buttigieg also helped Democrats recover their comfort level with people of faith and reclaim the language of faith for his party. In this and so many ways, he brought dignity and grace to his campaign and his party.
He smartly got out as former vice president Joe Biden shifted into high gear, not wanting to enable Sanders’s fire-breathing populism, which Buttigieg scorned. Billionaire and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) should follow suit. Gracelessly hanging on with no viable path compares poorly with Buttigieg’s decision. It is no virtue to stick around with no path to victory simply to claim you outlasted more responsible candidates.
Buttigieg could run for president 40 years from now, but likely will not have to wait that long. He has years in which to gain experience, maybe as a Cabinet member, a leader of a nonprofit or an elected lawmaker. His great failing — the inability to transcend racial barriers — can certainly be addressed, although not within the space of weeks or months. Bridge-building and establishing credibility with minority communities cannot be accomplished on a campaign timetable.
I count myself among those disappointed that a true intellectual with a first-class temperament could not make it to the presidency. His admirers should be buoyed, however, by the confidence that he might well make it there in the future. Of all the 2020 contenders who fell short, Buttigieg will be, I predict, the most memorable; certainly no one has a brighter future.
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