Too much, too young? Mayor could become the first millennial president – Crimson Tazvinzwa, AIWA! NO!
Jon Allsop, CJR|| Pete Buttigieg is having a moment.
The openly gay mayor who has seen South Bend through a rebound is a little-known contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination
Yesterday, “Mayor Pete” chatter amped up again: New York magazine unveiled its new Buttigieg cover package; Politico Magazine dropped its own, similar profile; and The New York Times put him on A1 (albeit below the fold).
Later in the day, Buttigieg’s official campaign launch, in South Bend, made a buzz. “The only time I have heard as excited a reaction to a campaign as I heard today about Buttigieg’s launch was Barack Obama in 2008 and Ronald Reagan in 1980,” Joe Scarborough—who already hyped Buttigieg after a March interview on Morning Joe—tweeted. “Yes, it’s very early. But the reaction has been remarkable.”
Buttigieg stories usually hit the same notes—millennial; openly gay; veteran; speaks Norwegian; plays the piano; reads Joyce; “it’s boot-edge-edge”; Chasten, his husband, the breakout social media star—the list goes on. Taken together, these talking points explain a large part of the Buttigieg boom. His generational alignment and sexual orientation open up legitimate new conversations about the direction of US political culture.
Other aspects of Buttigieg’s media appeal, however, invite greater self-reflection on our part. He’s a white man in a cycle that has so far paid disproportionate attention to white male candidates.
His liberal-yet-Midwestern-folksy positioning intrigues watchers of the horse race (fund-raising tallies are commonly touted; so are the assessments of Democratic operatives). His overt, cultured intellectualism makes him an obvious foil for Trump, without forcing us to think too hard about the structural forces that put Trump in the White House. And he’s fun: a TV-character candidate pitched somewhere between the West Wing and Parks and Recreation writers’ rooms.
Another big reason Buttigieg has blown up? Access. In her New York cover story, Olivia Nuzzi writes that Buttigieg “will say yes to an interview.” Yesterday, she reinforced that point on CNN’s Reliable Sources. “His campaign’s been very savvy giving a lot of access to really whoever asks for it,” she told host Brian Stelter. “He’s really everywhere… Nobody else is that accessible right now and I think that really counts for a lot. It makes a big difference in how much attention you get at an early stage if you’re available for comment or for an interview.”
The press, obviously, should welcome the opportunity to engage openly with candidates for public office. But access alone isn’t a good reason to lavish disproportionate attention on one candidate over all the others. Buttigieg has attracted some good, thoughtful reporting. Overall, however, it’s hard to escape the impression that we’ve let Buttigieg talk his way into serious presidential contention without demanding much substance.
As several features on Buttigieg have noted, his platform, as far as it exists, is long on values and hopeful-sounding rhetoric, but short on policy specifics, at least compared to rivals like Elizabeth Warren. In the Times, Alexander Burns devoted a whole article to Buttigieg’s longstanding preoccupation with personality and messaging, at the expense of hard detail. In news coverage, however, that strategy is rarely more than a footnote. It seems, collectively, that we’re wise to what Buttigieg is doing. And yet we have fallen for it.
Buttigieg told Nuzzi that he’ll use “substance” to outlive his “flavour-of-the-month period.” (“What does that mean?” Nuzzi writes. “I have no idea.”) But he told Burns it would be “inauthentic” for him to outline too many proposals because presidents aren’t free to execute the letter of their plans. There’s plenty to be sceptical about here. To date, however, the bulk of Buttigieg coverage has contrived to turn him into a Thing, then marvel that he’s somehow become a Thing, with questions coming later. Will his moment last? Going forward, our coverage choices will determine the answer.
Below, more on Pete Buttigieg:
- Explaining the appeal: Nuzzi offers a memorable one-paragraph summation of Buttigieg’s appeal. “Sick of old people? He looks like Alex P. Keaton. Scared of young people? He looks like Alex P. Keaton. Religious? He’s a Christian. Atheist? He’s not weird about it. Wary of Washington? He’s from flyover country. Horrified by flyover country? He has degrees from Harvard and Oxford.” It goes on. Read the rest here.
- A media transformation: An interesting nugget from Adam Wren’s piece for Politico Magazine: “In [Buttigieg’s] first visits to New Hampshire, he could reliably fill somebody’s living room. Today, he’s getting stopped by fans in airports—though they sometimes mistake him for a reporter, he jokes, since he’s on cable news so frequently—and has a dedicated pack of national and international reporters following him, a byproduct of those well-received TV interviews.”
- On Fox: According to Wren, Buttigieg was the first Democratic candidate for 2020 to appear on Fox News Sunday. While the Democratic National Committee has sworn off Fox News as a debate partner, individual candidates are free to appear on the network if they choose. Tonight, Bernie Sanders will participate in a Fox News town hall in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at 6.30pm ET.
- Deep breaths: As Buttigieg coverage started to amp up earlier this month, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote that it was time for a “few deep breaths… A young, promising politician having his media moment can be captivating. It’s part of what makes politics a great spectator sport. And it might even turn out to mean something. But, remember, we’ve been here before. Howard Dean had his moment in 2003. So did Herman Cain in 2011. Somehow, life went on. Pulse rates returned to their normal levels.”