A photo of Pete Buttigieg with a background of question marks.

Gage Skidmore

All the Rage

Gage Skidmore

The Inexplicable Viability of Mayor Pete’s Vanity Campaign

If Buttigieg weren’t a white dude filling the Democratic centrist void, would anybody be taking this inexperienced mayor’s bid for president seriously?

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Pete Buttigieg probably didn’t intend to get this far. The South Bend, Indiana, mayor, who started as a media novelty and is now one of the front runners to win the Iowa caucus, is not so different from many of the no-hope candidates who’ve hung in for the first year (!) of the 2020 Presidential Election. He didn’t buy his way onto the debate stage, like Tom Steyer, nor is he a fringe-dwelling chaos agent like Tulsi Gabbard. But, like New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio or Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper or any of the other no-name white guys who’ve since disappeared from our collective memory, Mayor Pete is likely just an ambitious local politician who wanted to make a name for himself on the national stage, and thought the primary might be a good way to get noticed.

The problem is that we are less than 90 days from the Iowa caucus, the once-historically diverse Democratic primary field is now spiraling toward an all-white and mostly male field. And Buttigieg—who has neither the experience to serve as president nor any deeply felt convictions to govern from, should he be elected—has outlasted several better, or at least more interesting, candidates. He is now a viable candidate for the presidency. His success is, among other things, an indicator of how much better we tolerate self-serving ambition when the person who has it is a white man.

Buttigieg’s good fortune is not his own doing. The implosion of Joe Biden’s candidacy has left a white-male-centrist-shaped hole in the party. There are certain Democratic voters who will never feel totally comfortable running a woman or a person of color in the general election, and Bernie Sanders—another white guy who, like Biden, seemed unassailable at the beginning of the primary and has been losing ground ever since—will never appeal to moderates, or, most likely, to people outside of his pre-established fan base.

Enter Pete Buttigieg, a white man who has happily drifted toward the middle lane, even as it means hastily revising or abandoning his prior positions. He entered the race by “[declaring], most affirmatively and indubitably, unto the ages, that I do favor Medicare for All”; he’s now become the policy’s loudest critic, complaining about M4A “raising taxes on the middle class” and explaining why he won’t provide non-citizens with health care. He entered as a Spoon-playing, Bernie Sanders–loving millennial promising a “new generation of leadership;” now, he’s a free-college-loathing managerial type who plays well with baby boomers.

There are other moderates in the race, most with longer and more distinguished records. Yet someone who “just feels uncomfortable” voting for Senators Amy Klobuchar or Cory Booker can slip easily into formation behind Mayor Pete, without questioning why he feels like the safer choice. Buttigieg isn’t unilaterally privileged—he’s gay, and no one should seek to deny how much hatred, violence, and death gay men in America have faced. But he’s also white, male, Harvard-educated and comfortably middle-class in a way that makes him seem unthreatening to those in power. Buttigieg is less a candidate than he is a reassuring, candidate-like shape; his plans are rarely even articulated—safer to let people infer what feels most comfortable for them—and can always be scrapped if they hamper his advancement. This chameleon act, making one’s way on a bright smile and a fresh haircut and a willingness to endorse whatever is most convenient, is, needless to say, not as profitable for candidates who are not white guys.

To understand the free ride Buttigieg has gotten, you can look to the data: One Harvard study, endlessly cited during the 2016 election, found that male politicians perceived to be “power-seeking” were seen as strong, whereas “power-seeking” women incited feelings of “moral outrage.” But this question is not purely hypothetical. The best way to understand Buttigieg is to look at the female candidates around him, who have been tagged “ruthless,” “ambitious” and “inauthentic,” and often driven out of the race, for showing one-tenth of his open hunger for power and advancement.

Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris both entered the 2020 race with substantially more name recognition than Buttigieg. Gillibrand had been mentored by Hillary Clinton, whose Senate seat she inherited, and had garnered national press coverage for her leading role in the #MeToo movement. Harris, the second Black woman ever elected to the Senate, was a Democratic star in the making—often compared to Barack Obama—whose formidable performances in Senate hearings had gained her an ardent following. Both women’s entrance to the presidential race was greeted with widespread mistrust, contempt, and sometimes outright fury.

The sexism involved in Gillibrand’s downfall was more overt; her chances were nuked by powerful party donors, who were angry that she had been the first to call for Al Franken’s resignation after he’d been accused of sexual misconduct. Any positive mention of Gillibrand would attract swarms of Franken defenders, calling her power-hungry, opportunistic, or treacherous—all the stereotypes we apply to women in power to explain our feeling that women should have less of it—and her media coverage was dominated by Franken to the exclusion of nearly everything else. Her run was as doomed as it was short-lived. Harris’s positions on trans rights, sex work, and mental health all drew thoughtful critique, often from women who supported her. Yet she also inspired virulently personal anger, which was more focused on tearing her down as a person than on pressuring her to adopt better positions. The “leftists” who called Harris an “evil sociopath”, complained about her laugh, or questioned whether she was faking her enjoyment of rap were often not advancing any specific agenda so much as they were propagating the same old stereotypes: Corrupt, selfish, “inauthentic,” untrustworthy.

Neither candidate was perfect (is there such a thing?), yet in the end, the attacks on them could be boiled down to the same sexist epithet: Both women, I am reliably informed, were “disingenuous opportunists.” Yet if the phrase “disingenuous opportunist” applies to anyone, it applies to Pete Buttigieg, who has thus far been free to shape and re-shape himself, to elbow his way to the front of the line, to blatantly act in pursuit of his own advancement and not much else, in ways that would have gotten a female candidate condemned with a thousand different versions of “selfish” or “liar” by now. (A man of color wouldn’t fare too well with his approach, either—just ask Julian Castro, who’s been labeled “mean” for challenging his debate opponents the same way Buttigieg does every time he steps on stage.) Pete is hardly beloved of the left, but aside from a few dunks on Twitter, he is more or less taken seriously. We can understand why Pete would push us to grant him more power before he’s put in the same amount of work as his competitors, or why he’s more focused on advancing up the ladder than in standing by his principles, because we raise white men to engage in the pursuit of power for its own sake. Pete Buttigieg is just doing what white men are expected to do.

What white men are expected to do, however, is different than what presidents should do. A historically diverse primary field, in a critical election year, should not come down to which guy can most easily contort himself to fill the white-male-centrist slot, even if certain conservative Democrats can’t imagine any other type of candidate as a “leader.” Pete Buttigieg probably never intended to become a frontrunner, and while he was still essentially running to raise his profile, rather than running to govern, it was easy to ignore him. Now, however, it’s time to start taking him as seriously as he takes himself—and taking Pete Buttigieg seriously means acknowledging that he probably shouldn’t be in this race at all.

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