Sometimes the confluence of unrelated events provides a moment of clarity in politics. So it is with the recent travails of former vice president Joe Biden and the recent emergence of Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 presidential race. They highlight the challenges that generational politics will play as Democrats select a nominee to run against President Trump.
The two men are virtually bookends in the Democratic race. At 76, Biden is more than twice the age of Buttigieg, who at 37 is just two years past the constitutional requirement to stand for the presidency. Americans have never elected a president as young as Buttigieg, just as the nation has never elected a president as old as Biden.
Biden brings longer experience than anyone else in the field. He has been in the public arena for more than half of his life, having been elected to the Senate at an age younger than Buttigieg is. That experience will be a principal attribute as he tries to make the case to Democrats that he is their party’s most electable candidate and, if he were to win the nomination, that he is capable of settling down the country and able to be president from day one.
Biden served eight years at the right arm of President Barack Obama, chaired two of the most important committees in the Senate (Judiciary and Foreign Relations), has been in the middle of many of the important domestic policy fights and at the forefront of the most significant foreign policy issues over the past few decades. He has been on the winning and losing side of these debates and, given how events played out, on the right side and the wrong side of history. He has admirers and critics for the positions he has taken.
Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., offers a far shorter résumé, but one that nonetheless is marked by accomplishment. After graduating from Harvard, he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. He is a military veteran who served in Afghanistan. He also has served as a government executive, albeit it as the leader of a city of only about 102,000 people. Openly gay and married, he has felt the country’s cultural changes in ways other candidates have not.
Both politicians have Rust Belt roots and claim to be in touch with the region of the country that will likely decide who occupies the Oval Office in January 2021. Biden saw the region from its heyday through its decline. And partial rebirth. Buttigieg has been on the front lines, trying to bring back an aging city. Biden has a naturalness among white working-class voters but is a true Washington insider. Buttigieg is a genuine outsider who as a mayor has seen the struggles of those citizens on a daily basis.
It is still early in the process, and the field is large and growing. Biden is at the top of most polls. Buttigieg trails well behind but is rising of late. Both are expected to make their candidacies formal sometime this month, but their experiences of the past few weeks have brought generational challenges for each into sharper focus ahead of those announcements.
Biden has been on the defensive since Lucy Flores, a former Nevada assemblywoman, described what she said was an uncomfortable encounter with Biden when she was running for lieutenant governor of her state. Several other women have recounted their own such experiences. None called those moments examples of sexual harassment. Meanwhile, other women who have known or worked with Biden came to his defense, saying those physical expressions revealed an empathetic and genuinely kind person.
The criticisms were serious enough, however, that Biden and his team recently released a video in which the former vice president said he believes politics is about making connections with people and that at no time was it his intention to make anyone uncomfortable. But he acknowledged that those on the receiving end of hugs or shoulder strokes or gentle kisses might interpret the moments differently.
While not exactly a #MeToo moment, what Biden felt was the impact of a cultural shift that has left him somewhat at sea, uncertain of exactly what the new rules are but aware that he will be judged for past actions by standards that are now different. He is on notice, which was why, though he did not say he was sorry for the way he has physically expressed his empathy, he twice said in the video, “I get it.”
The broader issue for Biden is whether there will be other times during the campaign when his experience reveals him to be a politician of an earlier era who formed at a time when America was a different country. It will be on him and the team he assembles to be mindful that, despite his many attributes, they should not assume that his four decades of public service have left him fully equipped for the tests ahead.
No one questions whether Buttigieg is of this time, given his age and life experiences. He, more than anyone, represents generational change — perhaps too much for some voters. He is youthful and looks younger than his age. How does he take advantage of being on the other side of the generational divide from Biden without being disqualified as too inexperienced, too unready?
One way is by continuing what he has been doing. In his public settings, whether at campaign events or televised interviews or speeches before larger groups, he has sought to project the image of a person who has thought through issues, rather than sounding like a candidate speaking mostly from campaign talking points or language developed by committee or focus-group testing.
When he’s asked how he goes from being the flavor-of-the-month candidate to a serious contender for the nomination, his answer is that he must do it with substance. He has begun to attract attention and something of a following not by gimmicks or flash but by the quality of his message and perceptions of his character. By his own example, he has tried to project a maturity and temperament that contrasts with the president.
Buttigieg has benefited from low expectations, which he has far exceeded. But can he assemble a winning coalition? As he is taken more seriously, those expectations will rise and then he will be tested in more significant ways. He will be scrutinized differently. He will be measured as a potential president, not simply as an intriguing newcomer whose intellect sparkles in ways that impress cable commentators. Ultimately, he will have to cross a threshold with voters: Can they envision him in the Oval Office, as commander in chief?
For Buttigieg, the generational issue will be the question of whether he is ready. For Biden, that is not an issue. For the former vice president, it will be whether he can take the country into its future. Or is he too rooted in the past? When the two eventually meet on a debate stage sometime this summer, along with other rivals for the nomination, the contrasts will be more visible than ever. Will either provide the reassurance that voters will be looking for?