Pete Buttigieg has some kind of magic right now. His campaign bio, “Shortest Way Home,” was the 25th-best-selling book on Amazon when I checked on Monday. That put him just a few dozen places behind Michelle Obama, and thousands or tens of thousands of places ahead of Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and the other candidates who have campaign books out now.
In a recent Iowa poll he surged to third place. His campaign just announced that it’s raised an impressive $7 million since January. And I can’t tell you how many Democrats in places as diverse as Nebraska, Indiana, New York and Washington have come up to me over the last few weeks raving about the guy. I met a superfan in Frederick, Md., who says that every few hours she calls the campaign to give another $10.
This is the biggest star-is-born moment since Lady Gaga started singing “Shallow.”
Why are people so in love with the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who almost nobody had heard of until he did a CNN town hall on March 10?
It’s important to remember that when Democrats vote next year, they’ll not only be choosing a policy alternative to Donald Trump, they’ll also be making a statement about what kind of country they want America to be.
The Trump era has been all about dissolving moral norms and waging vicious attacks. This has been an era of culture war, class warfare and identity politics. It’s been an era in which call-out culture, reality TV melodrama and tribal grandstanding have overshadowed policymaking and the challenges of actually governing.
The Buttigieg surge suggests that there are a lot of Democrats who want to say goodbye to all that. They don’t want to fight fire and divisiveness with more fire and divisiveness. They don’t want to fight white identity politics with another kind of identity politics.
They are sick of the moral melodrama altogether. They just want a person who is more about governing than virtue-signaling, more about friendliness and basic decency than media circus and rhetorical war.
Buttigieg’s secret is that he transcends many of the tensions that run through our society in a way that makes people on all sides feel comfortable.
First, he is young and represents the rising generation, but he is also an older person’s idea of what a young person should be. He’d be the first millennial president, but Buttigieg doesn’t fit any of the stereotypes that have been affixed to America’s young people.
Young people are supposed to be woke social justice warriors who are disgusted by their elders. Buttigieg is the model young man who made his way impressing his elders — Harvard, Rhodes scholar, McKinsey, the Navy.
Young hipsters are supposed to flock to coastal places like Brooklyn and Portland; after college, Buttigieg returned to Indiana.
Young people are supposed to be anti-institutional, but Buttigieg is very institutional — his life has been defined by his service to organizations, not his rebellion against them.
Second, he is gay and personifies the progress made by the L.G.B.T.Q. movement, but he doesn’t do so in a way that feels threatening or transgressive to social conservatives. He has conservative family values; it’s just that his spouse is a husband, not a wife. He speaks comfortably about his faith and says that when he goes to church he prefers a conservative liturgy to anything experimental.
Third, he is a localist and a Washington outsider, but he carries no populist resentment and can easily speak the language of the coastal elite.
Buttigieg has spent his political career in Indiana, where pols are expected to go to county fairs and eat the catfish filet and cheesecake on a stick. He wasn’t alive when the Studebaker plant shut down in South Bend, but he has the trauma of Midwestern deindustrialization in his bones. He lives in a house near his mother where the mortgage comes to about $450 a month. On the other hand, he was friends with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard, earned a first at Oxford and thrived as a corporate consultant.
Finally, he’s a progressive on policy issues, but he doesn’t sound like an angry revolutionary. Buttigieg’s policy positions are not all that different from the more identifiable leftist candidates. But he eschews grand ideological conflict.
“The whole point of politics is everyday life,” he said in his CNN town hall. His book is mostly about how as mayor he faced problems like snow removal and fixing potholes. His big achievements were renaming city streets, repairing the sewer system and tearing down derelict buildings. He says he’ll do whatever works.
I’ve only met Buttigieg once, when we were seated at the same table at a dinner in Detroit a few months ago. He was smart, modest and self-effacing, and I can’t square that impression with his assumption that at 37 he’s qualified to be president of the United States.
But maybe that’s Buttigieg — he squares a lot of circles. He deftly detaches progressive policy positions from the culture war. He offers change without Sturm und Drang.
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