Pete Buttigieg, the jolly and substantive mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is having his day in the sun. Conservatives like David Brooks in The New York Times and liberals like, well, everyone on CNN seem convinced that Mayor Pete is having a breakthrough moment. Loathe as I am to be a wet blanket, I think this is all pretty much crazy talk.
The big news yesterday was that Buttigieg, whose last name Americans may or may not eventually learn to pronounce, had raised $7 million in the first quarter of his campaign. That’s not chump change. The only two other campaigns that announced their earnings, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, had $18 and $12 million, respectively. Seven million dollars is a lot of walking around money, and not to be sneezed at, but the 1-3 percent that Buttigieg is polling at nationally is only 1-3 percent more than I’m getting.
The national media seem to have a thing for Mayor Pete, and so do some of his competitors’ campaigns. Buttigieg is most often set against Beto O’Rourke, and that makes a lot of sense, since O’Rourke more than any candidate not named Biden or Sanders has made the strongest moves in polling since announcing his candidacy. The natural inclination seems to be that Buttigieg pulls voters from Beto. But I’m not so sure.
Ultimately the thing Buttigieg is missing is star power. His aw shucks story is fun and uplifting, but he doesn’t control a room, much less a TV screen. As much as we would like to believe that presidential races are decided by policies and qualifications, we know that they aren’t. Every president elected in the modern age has a spark of personality, a bigger than life quality that makes us believe he can hold such a high and powerful office. Buttigieg doesn’t have that.
So why are all of the important outlets and people pretending Buttigieg has what it takes? Some of it is identity politics. Much to the consternation of the editorial class in New York and Los Angeles, Democratic voters nationwide seem fine with voting for old, straight, white men. Bernie and Biden aren’t supposed to be leading in the polls, but here we are. O’Rourke, who has now moved into third place ahead of Harris, is just salt in the wound. The wokening of the Democratic Party isn’t happening fast enough.
The best way to think of Buttigieg’s candidacy, and its current embrace by the media, is as a timeout. The first quarter of the Democratic primary is coming to an end, and the teams are in a bit of disarray. The Robert Mueller report is a disaster for Democrats, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s nonsensical ramblings are grabbing more headlines than is any Democratic contender for president. The race increasingly looks like it will come down to Biden, Sanders, and Beto. That’s not the primary most liberal commentators wanted or expected.
But timeouts are tactical. They don’t really change the game. There is no reason to believe Buttigieg will ever poll in the double digits, and there is plenty of reason to believe that he won’t. He is, simply put, not a serious candidate for president, but a placeholder while Democrats try to decide who they are. Who they are, however, is becoming increasingly clear, and it’s not the fainting couch faculty lounge crowd that so many believe it to be.
Buttigieg may well have a long and productive career in American politics. One can imagine him a future senator from Indiana, perhaps a governor, eventually perhaps even more. But he is not going to be the 2020 Democratic nominee for the presidency. And everyone should really stop pretending that is even a remote possibility. It isn’t.
The Democratic primary is definitively taking shape. It does not have the features that the progressive base hopes for. Buttigieg is not going to change that. Democrats appear poised to do something they have not done since 2004: nominate a straight white man for president.
For this, that, and the other reason this is surely problematic. On the other hand, they may nominate someone who can beat Trump. Time will tell. But one thing is certain, that person will not be Pete Buttigieg. It’s been nice to meet you, Mr. Mayor, but your 15 minutes are up.