In the last month, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has become the Democratic Party’s newest rock star. “Mayor Pete” has benefited from fawning mainstream media attention that has centered on the notion that he is the perfect blend of attributes and resume items that speak to both Middle West authenticity (a married, small-town mayor and military veteran) and coastal sophistication (Harvard and the fact that he is gay).
As his impressive first-quarter fundraising numbers indicate, Buttigieg has caught the interest of prospective Democratic donors, as well as showing signs of making inroads among voters in the early polls. That’s an astonishing feat for a 37-year-old who, as his local Republican critics like to point out, has never won more 10,991 votes in a successful run for office.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about his candidacy is not the possibility that he could be America’s first gay president. Rather, it is that he is perceived as one of the leading moderates in the 2020 Democratic presidential race.
There are currently 18 Democrats running for president. Former vice president Joe Biden, who still hasn’t announced his candidacy, is current favorite, and a few others, like New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, are lurking on the margins, still laboring under the delusion that they, too, have a chance to be the one to challenge President Donald Trump next year.
It’s only natural for political journalists to invent classification categories to help make sense of the race. But while it would be untrue to declare that there no differences on the issues between the leading candidates, the mention of lanes—especially one for moderates—is misleading if you’re attempting to have a discussion about how any of them might govern if they were elected. And there is no better example of this than Buttigieg.
Buttigieg Is Further Left Than His Image Suggests
By any reasonable standard, Buttigieg is a hardcore liberal on the issues. He supports a form of Medicare for All and eventually phasing out private insurance, as well as a vast expansion of other entitlements. He also backs the Green New Deal, the Paris Climate Accord, and other “aggressive” methods to combat global warming, not to mention increasing gun control, expanding student loan forgiveness, and opposing Trump’s immigration policies.
But in 2019, a Democrat can be termed a moderate if he’s not a self-proclaimed socialist, not in favor of ending all private insurance, or not in favor of nationalized college tuition. Much the same can be said about the others that pundits are lining up in the Democrats’ moderate lane.
The leading so-called moderate contender is Biden. But that seems to be based entirely on his long past record of stands that appealed to working-class Democrats in previous generations. Biden has given little or no indication that he is prepared to take on the far-left wing of the Democratic Party on any current issue.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar attracted attention for alleged moderation by saying she opposes Medicare for All, even though in virtually the same breath she expressed support for greatly increasing access to it, which is a difference without much of a distinction. More to the point, her record is in line with the inclinations of the doctrinaire liberals of the Minnesota Democratic Farm and Labor Party.
Other Democrats who are put forward as potential moderates have even less claim to the title.
Harris, O’Rourke, and Company Aren’t Any Better
Sen. Kamala Harris’s moderate bona fides consist of boasting of high conviction rates and backing the police when she was San Francisco’s district attorney. She has since backed away from anything that sounds remotely like what we are accustomed to hear from a “law and order” candidate, and has embraced every other radical proposal she can in order to boost her candidacy and pander to fellow liberals.
Former representative Beto O’Rourke is another alleged moderate, but that’s mostly a function of his failure to enunciate much of a platform beyond his belief that he ought to be president. Yet his record over the course of three lackluster terms in the U.S. House reveals him to be just as much of a down-the-line liberal on fiscal issues.
Even those few Democrats who have some genuine moderate credentials don’t really fit the profile. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is a fiscal conservative who mocks the talk about Medicare for All as unrealistic. That makes him a right-winger in the context of today’s Democratic Party, and was enough to convince him that he hadn’t a prayer of competing successfully in the presidential race. But on many other issues, such as gun control and the environment, the billionaire is as left as any of those who stayed in and are thought to have a chance in 2020.
The same is true for former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who is toying with an independent run in 2020, which he says he will undertake if Democrats nominate an extreme left-winger (which is probable at this point). But other than opposing the more radical entitlement schemes put forward by Sanders and the other candidates, there is nothing in Schultz’s record or his current platform that indicates he’s not a liberal.
What modern Democrats term moderation has little or nothing to do with economic or social issues, let alone foreign policy. Rather, it is a sensibility.
All About Personality, Not Substance
At a time when the culture of the Democratic Party is increasingly determined by avowed socialists like Sanders or the trio of radical freshman members of the House who have seized the public imagination—representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib—what counts as moderation is not opposition to extreme liberalism but temperament and demeanor.
Buttigieg is thought of as moderate because he often comes across as soft-spoken, respectful of faith, and willing to listen to other points of view even if the differences between his positions and that of Sanders are not all that major. The same is true for Klobuchar, whose candidacy, at least in the planning stages, seemed to be based on the idea that someone who embodied “Minnesota nice” might be a refreshing alternative to Trump. (At least, it did until former Senate staffers described her as a raging tyrant of a boss.)
Biden’s moderation is a function of his reputation as a glad-handing traditional politician who can make friends with opponents on the other side of the aisle, something that is hard for us to imagine the perpetually angry Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez doing. But given his record for demonizing opponents (such as his 2012 speech to an African-American audience that Republicans would “put y’all back in chains”), this is as much of a misnomer as the attempt to argue that his beliefs on the issues are out of touch with those of the radicals.
The truth about the 2020 Democratic field is that there are no moderates if, by that term, we mean those prepared to appeal to independents and Republicans as candidates who oppose the excesses of their party’s radicals. Nor do any seem capable, let alone willing to repeat, Bill Clinton’s “Sister Souljah moment,” when he established himself as someone prepared to stake out territory in the center of the political spectrum.
That’s a shame in a party where, according to Gallup, 34 percent consider themselves moderate and 13 percent conservative. In other words, there might actually be room for a genuine moderate. But no such person will be among those running. That speaks volumes about the strength of Democratic radicals and what will likely shape up to be a race in which, despite Trump’s flaws and unpresidential demeanor, he may not have much trouble convincing voters that his opponent isn’t part of the political mainstream.