There is a certain charisma that comes from preternatural talent. Following the French Revolution, some Frenchmen wanted the restoration of the old Bourbon monarchy — let’s call them the Bidondines. Others wanted a more vigorous application of the revolution through the guillotine — let’s call them Bernobins. But those who eventually supported Napoleon — the Butticidaires — were attracted to a man of destiny. (Let’s forget, for the purposes of my metaphor, the roughly 5 million military and civilian deaths caused by the Napoleonic Wars.)
There is a sense among Buttigieg supporters I talked to in Iowa before the caucuses that they are in on the ground floor of a phenomenon — maybe one less Napoleonic than Obama-like. And there is little doubt that the future of the Democratic Party in some way will be dramatically influenced by Buttigieg’s arrival on the scene.
Yet should this measure — the measure of talent — be decisive in the decision-making of Democratic primary voters? It is possible, unfortunately, to imagine Buttigieg’s consummate high school debate skills looking small on the stage next to Donald Trump’s whirling inferno of resentment, deception and rage. Just as it is possible to imagine Biden’s goofy authenticity faring well against Trump. Just as it is possible to imagine Bernie Sanders’s grumpy extremism looking attractive beside . . . no, actually, I honestly can’t imagine that.
Political talent is important, but not sufficient. It must be deployed in the context of a compelling thematic. And there are two themes that have generally won national elections for Democrats: generational change and moral restoration.
John F. Kennedy (the “New Frontier”), Bill Clinton (“Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow”) and Barack Obama (“Hope” and “Change”) were each elected on the promise of turning a page in American political life. Clinton used centrist policy ideas to symbolize his departure from George McGovern liberalism. Kennedy and Obama succeeded through deliberate, determined vagueness. Their aspirations were liberal in tone — getting past a period of stagnation and division and embracing needed change — without offering many specific policy proposals that would frighten centrists.
Buttigieg — the winner of the JFK Library’s Profile in Courage essay contest in 2000 — clearly views himself in Kennedy’s category. “Every time my party has won the White House in the last half century,” he said recently in New Hampshire, “we’ve done it with a candidate who is focused on the future and hadn’t been in Washington very long, or not at all, and was opening the door to a new generation of leadership.”
The constraint here is that his aspirational liberalism is accompanied by actual liberalism. Buttigieg can only be considered a moderate in contrast to an avowed democratic socialist. He may oppose the abolition of private health insurance, but any candidate who supports the abolition of the electoral college, entertains expanding the Supreme Court and has a maximalist position on abortion rights and a minimalist position on religious liberty is not actually very moderate.
Buttigieg’s unexpected advantage in the general election might well concern the second theme: moral restoration. This is the message that Jimmy Carter carried to victory in 1976, pledging a new era of character and honesty rooted in faith after the oozing slime of the Nixon years.
If the former mayor ends up facing Trump, the most vivid and immediate contrast would be ethical rather than generational. By any measure of public or private character — basic honesty, service to country, family values, tolerance, concern for the vulnerable, commitment to the common good — Buttigieg is the president’s demonstrated superior. Just ask: Which human being would you, as a parent, want your son or daughter to grow up to be like? The question answers itself.
This does not mean that Buttigieg would be the strongest candidate against Trump. But he would certainly be the better man.