Some people look at Pete Buttigieg and say “Yeah, he’s great, but he’s so young and inexperienced. He’s not ready to be president.”
On the face of it, the objection is understandable. He looks quite young and he’s “only” the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city of 100,000 in the heartland. Why consider him when there are multiple senators, governors, and an ex VP running?
Yet, if you look a little deeper, this objection loses steam.
He’s Not Actually All That Young
Buttigieg will be 39 on the day of his inauguration in Jan 2021. Nearly 40 is not young. It’s the age of a man in the prime of his physical health and mental acuity. And that’s just an average man. Buttigieg is far from average.
We have all known people mature for their age, great achievers that are ageless. Greta Thunberg, a worldwide leader at 16, is a stunning recent example. Given all that Buttigieg has accomplished, including becoming mayor of the fourth largest city in Indiana at age 29, having served in the military for 8 years, and earned degrees from Harvard and Oxford, it is clear that Buttigieg is of this “early overachiever” ilk.
Furthermore, other world leaders are of a similar age. Emmanuel Macron in France took office at 39, Justin Trudeau in Canada at 44, Leo Vardakar in Ireland at 38, and Jacinda Arden in New Zealand at 37. Teddy Roosevelt was 42 on the day of his inauguration. JFK was 43.
In sum: Buttigieg’s age is no barrier. Indeed, compared to the 70+ ages of the leading three candidates, Buttigieg has a strong advantage. Democrats need to ideally hold the White House for eight years. That would be difficult for all three of the front-runners. Not so for Buttigieg.
But He’s Only a Mayor. Not True and also: Yay Mayors!
Buttigieg isn’t “only a mayor”.
He was a Navy Intelligence officer for 8 years, including 7 months deployed to a war zone in Afghanistan. Here’s a quote from one of Buttigieg’s commanders about the important role he played.
Of additional note: Buttigieg learned to speak Dari in order to liaison with local allies. Sounds like skills we need in the White House and an ideal background for a Commander-In-Chief. No other candidate in the field has this type of military intelligence background.
Buttigieg speaks 7 languages and has a First from Oxford in Politics, Economics, and Philosophy. Buttigieg is not some local Indiana boy who has never been abroad. He studied in England, spent time in the Middle East, and his understanding of the world and its cultures is quite sophisticated. In fact, he’s broadly acknowledged as the strongest candidate in the Dem field on foreign affairs, along with Biden. After Buttigieg gave his foreign policy speech, General Barry McCaffrey tweeted this: “Buttigieg is an incredibly gifted and thoughtful Presidential candidate. He would also be a superb Sec State or Sec Def.”
He’s got a strong political foundation. From being president of the Harvard Dems and hanging out at the Institute of Politics in college, to campaigning for Obama and Kerry, to running for Indiana State Treasurer in a red state (and losing) and then mayor (and winning), Buttigeig is far from a political neophyte. He can speak deeply on political philosophy, the constitution, and the history of American presidents like Lincoln and Kennedy. Politics is his lifelong passion.
And yay mayors! The job of mayor is much closer to the job of president than being a legislator. In a “strong mayor” system like Indiana, the mayor is responsible for everything from a 300+ million dollar budget annually, managing 1000+ city employees, to the hard infrastructure of the city, to economic growth and development, to working with the police and emergency services, to being the city’s moral and emotional leadership in good times and bad. And as mayor of South Bend, Buttigieg didn’t just hang out in the role and do okay. No, he instigated a remarkable renewal and took South Bend from being one of America’s top ten dying cities to being a city growing and thriving again, filled with optimism and hope. (Video: Fusion: Saving America’s Dying Cities) (Podcast: Good Guy Pete by South Bend natives)
A mayor also “eats what he cooks”. He encounters consitutents in the grocery store and while walking the dog. He has to become adept at listening and creating policies that speak for the people. You know, the way democracy is supposed to work.
By comparison, a legislator has a small personal staff, works on policy, and is isolated from their constituents most of the time. So why do we believe a senator has more relevant experience than a mayor? There’s the experience of working in the “Washington system”, yes. But do we really want someone steeped in DC-speak and inured to “we’ve always done it this way?” (The answer, Dear Reader, is no.) What Buttigieg needs to know about Washington, he can learn from wise cabinet appointments. As demonstrated above, the man is a quick learner and knows how to listen.
His Presidential Campaign IS the Ultimate Test
However, putting aside all of the above, I would argue that, to understand if Buttigieg is really ready to be president, the best indicator is and will be his presidential campaign.
- He’s polling 4th nationally, only bested by two senators and a former VP who have been on the national stage forever. He’s outpolling other senators, governors and people with a high national profile. Buttigieg started a mere 6 months ago with a couple of staff, tiny mailing list, and zero name recognition. If this seems like no biggie, consider that the Mayor of New York City got into the race, got his ass handed to him, and dropped out. Rising above the crowd through sheer talent and determination? That’s presidential.
- He’s a powerful fundraiser. He raised $44 million in Q2 and Q3 combined, more than any other candidate. And he has as many individual grassroots donors (580,000) as anyone other than Sanders, who began with a huge mailing list from his 2016 run. Buttigieg did that coming from nothing and without taking lobbyist or corporate PAC money. This requires brilliant strategy, networking, and massive hard work. Even with all that, it doesn’t happen without impressing the hell out of every person he meets. That’s presidential.
- He’s built a top notch campaign machine very quickly. He hired on staff that worked for Obama, the DNC, Clinton, and other big political powerhouses. They didn’t join up with “a small town Indiana mayor” on a whim. They joined Buttigieg because they saw something remarkable in him. And his organization is now “everywhere” in the field in the early states, according to local media. This shows his strategic strength, his understanding of campaigning and politics, and his ability to get people passionately behind him and ramp up fast. That’s presidential.
- He’s shown impressive consistency of message, strength, and calm. In every interview, including having press on the bus with him for 3 days in Iowa recently, he sticks to a consistent message, answers any question with great understanding and nuance, and shows respect for the press, honesty, and patience. He’s never flipflopped on an issue or said “I’ll think about that” or dodged a question. Even when it’s clear someone wants him to give a different answer, Buttigieg sticks to his position. That’s HARD. And it shows that Buttigieg will have one of the most transparent and media-friendly White House admins ever. That’s presidential.
- He’s running a modern campaign. His content team, social media presence, use of video, etc show a millennial sensibility and understanding of the importance of great shareable content. This is what it’s gonna take to drive out the youth vote. And imagine this sort of inspiring content coming out of the White House! (see campaign videos on Pete’s Instagram). Using the best tools, hiring the best talent, and spreading a positive, hopeful, fun message? That’s presidential.
- He’s using his campaign to demonstrate positive leadership. With Buttigieg’s rules of the road, refusing to be baited into trashing other candidates, and focusing on a message of hope rather than one of outrage and despair, Pete is already showing true leadership. He’s not just campaigning, he’s said he’s already demonstrating a new type of politics, a healing of the divide, creating a sense of belonging and community for all. What kind of ambition does it take to have a goal like that whilst also trying to, you know, get elected? To want to do good in the world even while still running his campaign? That’s presidential.
- He’s made his campaign about the people — not himself and not Trump. It is an easy win to take a swipe at Trump and get a laugh or a cheer. But mostly, Buttigieg avoids that temptation. “If we’re talking about him, we’re not talking about you.” Some candidates campaign almost entirely on an anti-Trump message. But so what? Everyone already knows he’s terrible. Buttigieg has shown great judgement and wisdom in knowing what really matters. Further, he is leading by example. Instead of running in circles for days about every stupid thing Trump says or does, like the media pundits, Buttigieg calls out Trump’s worst behavior but immediately pivots to talk about what the post-Trump era will look like. He stays true to his own priorities and refuses to let Trump steal the show. That’s presidential.
- His policies are top notch. All the policies he’s released have been praised by experts as being top of the field. He’s constantly meeting with people on the ground, such as HIV/AIDS activists, to listen and learn more deeply about the issues his policies need to address. He has an ability to distill and get to the heart of problems and suggest practical plans to solve them at a root, not a cosmetic, level. It’s not about having all the answers yourself, it’s about knowing how to assemble a team, respect expertise, listen, and focus that input into a plan of action that reflects your fundamental core values. That’s presidential.
- He’s shown he understands where his ‘holes’ are and that he’s willing and able to do the work to fix them. Not polling well with minorities, Buttigieg led with the Douglass Plan and has consistently gone out of his way to speak to Black Americans, whether that’s at the NAACP, or meeting with small locals groups and Black leaders everywhere he goes. He’s not ignoring his weak spots, or pretending he’s stronger than he is. He’s doing the hard work to turn that weak spot into a strength. That’s presidential.
- In the diversity of his campaign staff, Buttigieg demonstrates “showing vs telling”. I love that most of his heads of staff are powerful women such as Lis Smith and Jess O’Connell. He’s assembled a large group of PoC and LGBTQ on his staff. He’s living up to what he says: that the White House and cabinet should reflect the diversity of the US, that EVERYONE is equal and invited to participate. That’s presidential.
- He’s convinced a whole lot of people that he is “presidential” material. Not only does his polling and donations show his candidacy has convinced a lot of people to support him, but even those who have another first choice will say Pete is “presidential” in the debates, or that he is destined to be president “some day”. By comparison, most others in the Dem field have not convincingly made this impression.
So let’s be real. It’s not remotely easy to run for president, much less to stand out in a crowded field of 25+ candidates. The very fact that Pete is successfully campaigning at the HIGHEST LEVEL in the field (maybe matched only by the Warren campaign), is, in itself, a sign that he has what it takes.
Buttigieg’s campaign shows he is strategic, politically savvy, knowledgeable about a broad range of issues, works enormously hard, listens and learns quickly, is appealing and charismatic, is patient and even-tempered, and has both ambition and the real world chops to achieve his goals. In short: he is ready to be president.
The process itself is the winnowing gate. Pete often talks about the fact that it’s not just about winning, but about DESERVING TO WIN. He’s showing the world that he deserves to win this thing. And by May of 2020, I suspect he will have convinced even his biggest skeptics.