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Pete Buttigieg is more electable than Bernie Sanders — and more progressive than you think

Buttigieg dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on March 1. Here’s the case for his candidacy from a Vox series published earlier in 2020.

Vox writers are making the best case for the leading Democratic candidates. This article is the fourth in the series. Read them all here. Vox does not endorse individual candidates.

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination March 1 after a fourth-place finish in the South Carolina primary, saying he believed the best path forward was to “step aside and help bring our country and party together.”

The case for Pete Buttigieg is simple: The Democratic Party wins when it nominates young, charismatic leaders who are able to convince people outside the party’s base that Democratic values are their own.

It is a model that drove Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and John F. Kennedy to the presidency. And it could be the model that puts Pete Buttigieg there.

As the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he’s not the most experienced candidate running. And while he would probably be the most left-wing nominee since at least Walter Mondale, he is hardly the leftmost candidate in this primary, and he’s worked hard to differentiate himself from the maximalist platforms of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Pete Buttigieg speaks in Des Moines, Iowa, on February 1, 2020.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

But Democratic primary voters are weighing competing priorities. They want a nominee who is progressive but still electable. They want a leader who is smart and even-tempered but who ideally isn’t of an age and health status that puts their ability to run a presidential campaign and serve a full term in doubt. They want a president who can represent underrepresented groups while speaking to Obama-Trump voters who feel threatened by that kind of social progressivism.

There is a strong case that Buttigieg is the candidate who best fulfills those competing demands. He would be able to pair a form of liberalism that’s more ambitious than Obama’s with a sophistication about political institutions and structures that Obama sometimes lacked.

The combination could prove incredibly powerful, and redefine the party for a generation. The results out of Iowa suggest that Democratic voters are beginning to see it too.

Pete Buttigieg is a liberal who makes people think he’s a moderate

Amid the “Mayo Pete” and “Pete is CIA” jeers of his left-wing critics, it can be easy to forget what Buttigieg’s actual policy agenda is. That agenda would easily be the most progressive by any candidate for the general election in decades. Here is a brief rundown of economic and social policies he’s endorsed and promoted:

But that’s not all. Buttigieg has devoted attention to big structural problems that afflict our democracy, and has proposed solutions that are genuinely radical.

Taken as a whole, his agenda isn’t as ambitious as that of Sanders or Warren. But make no mistake: This is a bold wish list, full of items that either the Obama administration struggled to pass even with 59 senators (like immigration reform and a price on carbon emissions) or that would’ve been too radical for Obama to begin with (like a $15 minimum wage, universal child care, a Medicare buy-in not limited to the elderly, and sectoral bargaining — the last of which has barely received any coverage, but which would at a stroke vastly increase the power of the American labor movement).

The fact that his agenda isn’t as progressive as those on the left flank of the party is a plus for Buttigieg, not a minus. Sanders and Warren have performed a valuable service by making the objectively quite ambitious agenda of Buttigieg appear, by comparison, incredibly mild, a centrist approach to expanding the safety net.

A perception of relative moderation will most likely help, not hurt, the eventual nominee. The most rigorous studies on this question from political scientists tend to find that moderate nominees have a distinct advantage over ones perceived as more extreme, largely because they don’t activate their opponent’s base the same way a more extreme nominee would.

Put another way: Sanders would terrify and turn out Trump’s base, whereas Buttigieg likely would not.

Pete Buttigieg supporters wait to be recounted during the Iowa primaries in Des Moines, on February 3, 2020.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

We can get more specific here, too. Buttigieg’s most prominent point of differentiation from his leftier rivals is on Medicare-for-all, which he shares as an ultimate goal but rejects as a step too far in limiting choice for the time being. Instead, Buttigieg is pushing “Medicare for all who want it,” which is exactly what the name implies: a buy-in option for Medicare that he sees as setting us on the path to Medicare-for-all.

Buttigieg’s position may inflame die-hard left partisans, but it might be a better general election play. The best evidence we have from the 2018 midterms, as compiled by Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz, suggests that supporting Medicare-for-all cost Democrats about 4.6 percentage points in swing districts; the average Democratic margin was higher in districts where the Democratic candidate didn’t back Medicare-for-all, despite those districts being more Republican-leaning overall than districts where pro-Medicare-for-all candidates ran.

More to the point, although Democrats control the House, there is not a House majority for Medicare-for-all at the moment, and there certainly isn’t a Senate majority or even a majority of the Senate Democratic caucus that supports it. If the next Democratic president proposes a full Medicare-for-all bill to a Senate where the pivotal members are moderates and avowed Medicare-for-all opponents Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) and Joe Manchin (WV), the idea will be dead on arrival. After negotiations, Warren and Sanders will inevitably arrive at a compromise that will likely involve some kind of buy-in proposal.

So the question is: Is it worth paying a potentially significant electoral price for backing Medicare-for-all considering the very low likelihood that any Democratic president could enact it anyway? If the answer is no, then the case for Buttigieg looks strong.

Buttigieg has a far more realistic view of today’s politics than Joe Biden

Much of the above can count as a case for Joe Biden, who, like, Buttigieg has positioned himself as a moderate alternative to Sanders and Warren. As my colleague Ezra Klein has noted, despite being labeled moderates, “if Biden or Buttigieg actually win the nomination, they will be running on the most progressive platform of any Democratic nominee in history.”

But it would be a mistake to throw Biden and Buttigieg into the same bucket. Whereas Biden remains wedded to romantic notions of returning to a pre-polarization Washington where Republicans and Democrats hobnob and work frequently across party lines, Buttigieg has a clear-eyed view of the institutional barriers to progressive policy and how to remove them.

Biden has repeatedly told supporters that he expects the Republican Party to come to their senses upon his election. “With Donald Trump out of the way, you’re going to see a number of my Republican colleagues have an epiphany,” he told fundraiser attendees in November, “Mark my words. Mark my words.” While his comments about working with segregationist senators like James Eastland in the 1970s drew ire for the racial implications of those collaborations, at their heart was this conviction on Biden’s part that he could work with anyone, that the raw power of his commitment to collaboration could overcome the deep forces polarizing American politics.

It’s just one piece of evidence among many that Biden is out of step with where the party is.

And it’s not just Biden. Even Bernie Sanders has brushed off the idea of abolishing the filibuster in favor of a bizarre gambit to exploit the budget reconciliation rules to pass Medicare-for-all. At best, this would only enable one piece of controversial legislation to pass, leaving the rest of the policy agenda abandoned; at worst, it will appall old-school Senate Democrats even more than filibuster abolition.

Buttigieg, by contrast, has a much stronger connection to the more brass-knuckled realities of 2020s politics.

Pete Buttigieg greets supporters at a campaign rally in Coralville, Iowa, on February 2, 2020.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Instead of relying of Republican goodwill, he has concrete plans to amplify Democrats’ relative power: by repealing the filibuster to enable the passage of popular social programs that Republicans will then be reluctant to repeal; using a slim Democratic majority in Congress to add DC and (if they so desire) Puerto Rico as states; reducing the Republican geographic edge in the Senate for years to come; and passing sectoral bargaining to build up labor unions as a countervailing power to American business.

He also sparked the first serious conversation of the campaign about revamping the Supreme Court to prevent partisan rulings striking down progressive legislation. He has floated the idea of expanding the Court to 15 justices, five from each party and another five selected by the partisan justices, in hopes of breaking the narrow conservative majority that threatens everything from Medicare-for-all to universal free college.

In an era crying out for structural political reform, Buttigieg’s approach on this front is vital. He understands that Democrats need to fight with all the tools at their disposal to get even a modest legislative package accomplished. And he’s laid out plans to use those tools.

What’s remarkable is that he’s been able to take that approach without coming across as shrill or unduly combative. He presents as a moderate, as a “hope and change” candidate like Obama who is able to use rhetoric and charisma to overcome the resistance of skeptical moderates and center-right voters.

The model of a charismatic rhetorician packaging progressive ideas in a moderate message is one that has worked incredibly well for Democrats historically. Like Obama, Buttigieg would make history: He would be the first gay president, Chasten Buttigieg would be the first first husband, and the two of them would become America’s first couple barely six years after they were legally allowed to marry in their home state.

And Buttigieg is unique in pairing the Clinton/Obama approach of hopeful promises of a changed politics with a more hardheaded approach to institutions and the rules of the game than Clinton or Obama ever had.

Advisers are more important than experience

The most serious case against Buttigieg is that he lacks the necessary experience to hold the office of president. His sole tenure in government has been as mayor of a tiny city — smaller than Waterbury, Connecticut, or Peoria, Illinois.

But it is not obvious why Buttigieg should be considered less experienced at being an executive than many of his major rivals. It has been three decades since Bernie Sanders served as a mayor, and in that case as mayor of a smaller city than South Bend. The same goes for Elizabeth Warren. They might know how “Washington” works, but that’s hardly the same as knowing how to run the executive branch.

The candidates’ résumés, with the notable exception of Joe Biden’s, tell us little about their ability to manage complex bureaucracies. But Buttigieg has performed well at other tests of executive judgment and temperament. As the saying goes, “personnel is policy,” and Buttigieg has assembled some of the most impressive personnel of any candidate.

Danny Yagan, the Berkeley economist and one of Buttigieg’s top economic advisors, is widely considered one of the world’s top young public finance economists, and has already reshaped how the profession thinks about taxing wealth.

Austan Goolsbee, formerly the Obama administration’s top economist, is advising Buttigieg as well, despite having served with Joe Biden. And he’s not alone: Various foreign policy luminaries, including Clinton’s national security adviser Tony Lake, Iran expert Vali Nasr, and top Obama adviser Philip Gordon, have endorsed Buttigieg. What Buttigieg lacks in experience, he more than makes up for in the accumulated expertise of his supporters.

What’s more, one of the best tests of presidential capability is how well candidates manage their own campaigns. Presidential campaigns are vast, sprawling operations with hundreds of employees, dueling advisers, tough strategic decisions, and huge demands on their leader’s time and resources. The experience of running is of course different from the experience of being president, but it’s a test of executive mettle nonetheless.

Buttigieg walks addresses supporters during his caucus night watch party on February 3, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Tom Brenner/Getty Images

The fact that Buttigieg has run his campaign exceptionally well, lapping candidates who on paper should have far outpaced him, like Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Govs. Steve Bullock (D-MT) and Jay Inslee (D-WA), says only good things about his managerial acumen. There was no reason to think the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, could wind up as one of the top contenders for the Democratic nomination, and Buttigieg deserves substantial credit for the operational decisions that helped bring him to that point.

There are arguments for Buttigieg that I frankly won’t echo here because they don’t hold water. Winning the incredibly Democratic-leaning city of South Bend doesn’t say anything about his ability to win Indiana, much less the rest of the Rust Belt. He is not a “Washington outsider” in any meaningful sense: Indeed, his deep ties within pan-geographic elite networks have produced his impressive corps of advisers.

But while it’s easy to knock down bad arguments for Buttigieg, it’s harder to rebut the real arguments for his nomination: that a liberal perceived as a moderate, with a hardheaded view of American institutions but a hopeful, charismatic approach to campaigning, is exactly what the Democratic Party needs right now.

For more on Pete Buttigieg, listen to Ezra Klein’s conversation with the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, on this episode of The Ezra Klein Show.

Read the rest of the Case For series: The case for Bernie Sanders; The case for Elizabeth Warren; the case for Joe Biden; the case for Mike Bloomberg; the case for Amy Klobuchar. Vox does not endorse individual candidates.


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