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Pete Buttigieg’s uncharacteristically fiery debate: ‘I don’t need lessons from you on courage’

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) and former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) had a heated exchange on guns during the Oct. 15 Democratic debate. (Video: CNN)

Pete Buttigieg is better known for his cogent policy explanations than his political brawling. But in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate in Ohio, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., displayed a sudden feistiness toward his opponents, and not just the ones polling higher than him.

He went after Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (Vt.) on health care, got emotional while arguing with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) on Syria, and had a lengthy back-and-forth with former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke on gun policy, during which Buttigieg threw out the insult of the night: “I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal.”

His approach drew praise (the policy wonk finally showed he’s tough enough to take on President Trump, some said) as well as criticism (others saw a preachy millennial, punching down).

What happened

Buttigieg’s more combative posture began on the campaign trail over the past few weeks. He called Warren’s refusal to say whether Medicare-for-all would raise taxes on the middle class “evasive.” He was asked about that in the debate, just after Warren declined to answer the question several times.

It was an easy tee-up for him to go after the current leader in some polls. “We heard it tonight, a yes-or-no question that didn’t get a yes-or-no answer,” he said, turning toward Warren on the stage. “Look, this is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular. Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this."

Later, on foreign policy, Gabbard was explaining why she believes that Americans should get out of Syria.

Buttigieg, a fellow veteran, was asked to respond. His answer was arguably one of his strongest of any debate and was memorable for its passion: “When I was deployed, not just the Afghan National Army forces, but the janitors put their lives on the line just by working with U.S. forces. I would have a hard time today looking an Afghan civilian or soldier in the eye after what just happened over there. And it is undermining the honor of our soldiers. You take away the honor of our soldiers, you might as well go after their body armor next. This president has betrayed American values. Our credibility has been tattered.”

Finally, Buttigieg and O’Rourke have spent the past few days arguing through media interviews about whether O’Rourke’s plan for a mandatory buyback of assault weapons is too radical for the political moment.

They got the chance to go at it in person Tuesday, when the moderators asked Buttigieg to renew his attacks on O’Rourke. He did.

Buttigieg: “Congressman, you just made it clear that you don’t know how this is actually going to take weapons off the streets. If you can develop the plan further, I think we can have a debate about it.”

O’Rourke argued that congressional leaders can expand background checks as well as try to buy back assault weapons. He accused Buttigieg of being “limited by the polls and the consultants and focus groups.”

That got Buttigieg quite riled up. “The problem isn’t the polls; the problem is the policy,” he said. “And I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal. Everyone on this stage is determined to get something done.”

O’Rourke accused Buttigieg of mischaracterizing his motives and making light of the gun debate by calling O’Rourke’s proposal a “shiny object.” “That was a slap in the face to every single one of those groups and every single survivor of a mass casualty assault with an AR-15 and an AK-47,” O’Rourke said. “We must buy them back.”

Buttigieg replied: “On guns, we are this close to an assault weapons ban. That would be huge. And we’re going to get wrapped around the axle in a debate over whether it’s, ‘Hell yes, we are going to take yours guns?’” (Side note: In Congress, the gun debate has stalled, and there is little to no bipartisan support for an assault weapons ban.)

The backstory

Buttigieg is one of the best fundraisers in the Democratic primary, but he’s struggling to poll in the top tier. So it’s no coincidence that at this debate, he tried to stand out.

Going after Warren is a no-brainer — most candidates tried to pick a fight with her at some point. But Buttigieg demonstrated a willingness to argue with almost anyone.

His new attempt at a fiery persona comes as former vice president Joe Biden dips a bit in the polls. Buttigieg has long sided with Biden’s more moderate views on health care and economics, and his campaign is almost certainly calculating that if Biden gets out of the race, Buttigieg could attract some of his supporters.

Tuesday’s debate could be an attempt to show those voters that he can handle such a status if the opportunity arises. “He’s showing tonight that he is ready — that he can take or throw a punch when needed,” a Buttigieg campaign official wrote in an email, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The potential downside for Buttigieg is to be determined. He is getting more attention (this article is certainly evidence of that), but does he risk eroding his sensible, not-a-politician, Midwestern persona in the process?

After all, one of his opening lines in Tuesday’s debate included this: “I’m running to be the president who can turn the page and unify a dangerously polarized country.”