A mayor? Who’s 37? What are Democrats thinking? Maybe that Buttigieg could beat Trump.
Many of us in the Boomer cohort had an existential reckoning a while back when we suddenly noticed all of our doctors were younger than us. Should we, could we, trust a fresh-faced doctor who could be our son or daughter? Eventually we accepted the inexorable march of time, and got over it.
I’m reminded of that transition as Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, leaps into the lead in the first Democratic contest of the presidential nominating season, the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses. Should we, could we, trust this man as president — as leader of the free world? I mean, come on. He’s 37. The most votes he’s ever won is 10,991. In 2011.
The Democrats are blessed with many candidates of many attributes. But two of those in the top tier, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, are well into their 70s — not an optimal age for a job requiring vast reserves of mental and physical energy. And Sanders and another top-tier contender, Elizabeth Warren, are unsparingly, unapologetically further left than most American voters — not a recipe for winning moderates and disaffected Republicans in a general election.
Now this top tier has arguably expanded to include Buttigieg who, it’s only fair to note, would turn a slightly less preposterous 39 one day before Inauguration Day 2021. That’s only three years younger than Teddy Roosevelt was when he took the oath of office.
Some people are born old souls
Why is there a Buttigieg boom, or at least boomlet? I’ve been thinking a lot about this and keep recalling my musical son’s interview at a school for creative kids. “If someone gave you $1 million, what would you do with it?” the admissions counselor asked. There was a long, painful pause, and finally my 13-year-old answered, “I guess the first thing I would do is pay my taxes.”
Not surprisingly, he did not get in. And not surprisingly (sitting there witnessing this firsthand, because that’s how they did it at this school), we were not surprised. Some people are born old souls — grounded and unusually responsible from an early age. He was one, and Buttigieg is another.
Biden’s less than stellar debate and campaign trail performances, along with repeated indications that his head is in a mythical Age of Bipartisan Comity with people like Mitch McConnell, have sent many moderate Democrats on a quest for another candidate. Someone who, like Biden, is more center left than left, but unlike Biden seems to have the chops to compete in the Trump-McConnell era — no rules and no mercy.
Pete Buttigieg at a Veterans Day event on Nov. 11, 2019, in Rochester, N.H. (Photo: Elise Amendola, AP)
Buttigieg has checked many middle-of-the-road boxes. His resume includes service as a Navy intelligence officer in Afghanistan and three years at the management consulting firm McKinsey. He’s religious and married (and also, by the way, gay). And on health care, a preoccupation of the Democratic field and to some extent voters, he emphasizes freedom of choice in his Medicare “for all who want it” plan, in contrast with the Sanders-Warren Medicare for All proposals that eliminate private insurance.
If Buttigieg were a bad or even mediocre candidate, none of this positioning would matter. But voters like the fresh way he talks about politics and the debate-stage sangfroid that suggests he would not crumple under Trump’s withering attacks. He has also shown that, as opposed to Biden, he knows an opening when he sees one. That was never more apparent than his answer to a debate question about professional setbacks — a short, affecting soliloquy about his fear that coming out as gay as a young mayor would end his career.
His life of course does have an aspect of “white privilege” — son of two professors, educated at Harvard and Oxford, and now a young novice catapulting into the top tier of a large field of experienced politicians. But Buttigieg volunteered for military service, and he has struggled with hard questions most people never have to face about identity, honesty and whether to live an authentic life.
Age and experience question is valid
Like everyone running, up to and especially President Donald Trump, Buttigieg has his political problems. For a start, there’s his trouble getting traction with the black voters who are a bulwark for Democrats in general elections. Race relations in South Bend have been tense, his outreach plan met mixed reviews, and the early primary state where he’s doing the worst is South Carolina, which has the most heavily black primary electorate.
The age question is in large part an experience question, and it is valid. Yet it’s hard to take that seriously given that Republicans nominated and elected Trump — a real estate developer and reality TV star who often seems completely unfamiliar with American values, the Constitution and even how a bill becomes a law. That would not be a Buttigieg problem.
Being gay is another question mark. But as we saw with Barack Obama amid the collapse of the economy in 2008, sometimes voters cast aside demographics and go with the best person for the job, the one with the temperament that fits a desperate moment.
I don’t know how far Buttigieg will get or how far he ought to get. Sometimes the only way to know if someone has what it takes is when they show you that they do, by persisting and winning. That could be him, if he can sustain this rise in the face of the attacks surely coming his way from primary rivals recognizing he’s a threat. It could be someone else, especially as the Democratic field continues to expand, even at this late date.
The only sure thing is that this moment qualifies as desperate.
Jill Lawrence is the commentary editor of USA TODAY and author of “The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock.” Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence
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