He’s the mayor of a small Midwestern city known for football and virtually nothing else, and he was constitutionally too young to run for president until literally the day before Donald Trump was sworn in, in January 2017. Yet attired in a gleaming white shirt and tie, sans sports coat, South Bend’s Pete Buttigieg showed up at MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Wednesday looking more than ready to stride into the Oval Office, roll up those bleached sleeves, and start cleaning up the mess that’s festered there for the last 26 months.
“My face is my message,” the 37-year-old Buttigieg told the panel of wowed pundits, selling his youth as a feature, not a bug. “We need generational change, and we need more voices to step up from the generation that has so much at stake.” It was a great sound bite in a Democratic 2020 presidential primary race that’s already drowning in them, but what was most impressive about the Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar and Afghanistan vet was his quick confidence in fielding the kind of tough policy questions we’ve seen befuddle some of the better-known candidates who came in touting their experience.
In machine-gun fashion over the 15-minute interview, Buttigieg told America where he stands on the Electoral College (kill it) and Medicare-for-all (yes, but phased in with an option to keep private insurance until single-payer can dominate), voiced provocative ideas for voluntary national service and a radical overhaul of the increasingly politicized and unpopular Supreme Court, and spoke about Afghanistan and Syria with a wisdom and nuance not currently seen within a stone’s throw of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The TV talking heads were blown away — host Joe Scarborough said not long after on Twitter he was “overwhelmed” by the feedback he was getting and that “[t]he only other time in 12 years that we heard from as many people about a guest was after [Barack Obama]..." — but so were a lot of regular viewers. In Oklahoma City, labor lawyer Tim Melton went online and donated $10 to Buttigieg as soon as the interview ended.
“This guy’s smart,” Melton told me by email. “Maybe he’s the right combination of youth, liberalism and non-conformity to the straight white male formula for the moment.”
Maybe. If you’re a politics geek, you know the old saying that “Republicans fall in line while Democrats fall in love.” Suddenly, a whole lot of Democrats seem to be falling in love with the previously all-but-unknown Hoosier. And what’s not to love? Buttigieg manages to straddle the desires of voters who want the familiar — his white male Ivy League pedigree — and those who want the radically different, a candidate who’d not only be the youngest president but the first openly gay one.
He throws off killer quotes — lambasting Vice President Mike Pence, his fellow Indianan, as “a cheerleader for the porn star presidency” at a recent CNN town hall — while satisfying the yearning for a president who actually reads books, with his riff in Esquire on whether running for president is more like James Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegans Wake already gone viral.
It all adds up to make Buttigieg the perfect candidate...
...to be the next vice president?
Look at it this way: Buttigieg is engaged in a remarkable — but yet also whispered — political race with his peers in the Democrats’ 35-to-50 age bracket, a group that also includes Georgia lawmaker Stacey Abrams, Florida mayor Andrew Gillum, and also, arguably, two announced 2020 presidential candidates from Texas, former cabinet secretary Julian Castro and ex-congressman Beto O’Rourke. While it’s not impossible that one of these will become America’s 46th (or 47th) president on Jan. 20, 2021, the more conventional wisdom is that they’re racing to lead the next generation of Democrats — to become the presidential pick in 2028 (or maybe 2024 ... more on that in a second). And the present road to future glory runs through the 2020 vice presidency.
On Thursday, this submerged race for No. 2 on the Democratic ticket burst into the great wide open with news that Abrams — who became an overnight sensation with her narrow 2018 loss in a Georgia gubernatorial race marred by voter suppression — was meeting behind closed doors in D.C. with Joe Biden, the 76-year-old ex-veep who’s leading in all the polls and is expected to announce for 2020 any day now. As Axios reported hours before the meeting, Team Biden is weighing an unprecedented pre-primaries announcement of a running mate, possibly Abrams. Doing so, the argument goes, would allow Biden to argue that he’s working — over the long run, anyway — to elevate women and candidates of color, not to block them.
The biggest obstacle to that plan may be that Abrams is simply too hot a commodity to take a backseat to anyone, even a Democratic Party icon such as Biden. During Abrams’ all-too-brief star turn as her state’s gubernatorial candidate and last month as the party’s selection to rebut Trump’s February State of the Union Address, she displayed grace and an ability to summon America’s better angels in a style that echoed another famous Georgian, Dr. Martin Luther King.
It’s not surprising, then, that Abrams is still weighing whether to run for president. It’s the same gamble that Buttigieg is making — that in the age of Trump, an unconventional and arguably short resume is no longer a disqualifier to lead the nation.
In many ways, Abrams and Buttigieg are the answer to a riddle that the Democrats created for themselves. During a decade of almost cult-like devotion to Obama and his presidency, the party was butchered in all the other key races — for governor, Congress and state legislatures — that normally would fill out the resumes for the next batch of young leaders. When the 2018 midterms rolled around, the party discovered it actually did have 30- and 40-somethings who were charismatic and smart.
But they weren’t in presidential launching pads — and because they were fighting entrenched Trumpism in blood-red Sunbelt states like Georgia, Texas, and Florida — they didn’t get over that mountaintop in 2018 either. The three most popular — Abrams, Tallahassee mayor Gillum running for Florida governor, and O’Rourke challenging Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — all fell just short. But many party activists are too eager to keep elevating these young voices to let a defeat stop their upward climb, especially when the three Democrats with the best traditional qualifications — Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — are all over 70.
This dilemma is why you’re going to see more focus on the vice presidency among the 2020 Democrats than in any other presidential run-up in history. It’s telling that the two big stories on the Democratic side Thursday both revolve around the vice presidential slot — the Biden-Abrams confab and a seeming gaffe from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who said, sure, he’d pick a woman as his running mate but why aren’t you asking the women candidates if they’d pick a man?
That’s because the Democrats’ vice presidential dilemma offers promise — a way for the party to showcase its youth even though the actual nominee may be a septuagenarian — and peril, as the party looks to make peace between its warring factions with women and non-whites loudly and rightfully demanding a seat at the table. Most party activists believe a ticket with two white men is a non-starter, so the vice presidential prospects for a Buttigieg or an Abrams are heavily contingent on what the presidential nominee looks like. But the competition within this younger bracket should be fierce.
And why not? It’s a safe bet that whatever happens next year, the person ultimately considered the best and the brightest from the under-50 grouping of Buttigieg, Abrams, Gillum (who this week took himself out of the presidential race but accepted a high-profile gig running a Florida vote drive), Castro and O’Rourke will become the next Democratic frontrunner. Their day will come either in 2028, after a two-term presidency, or in 2024 under scenarios that Democrats would either like (a one-and-done Biden term) or hate (Trump, the sequel). To get to that place, the 2020 race for veep should be subversively exciting.