The two-night NBC Democratic debate format — overcrowded with contestants, busting at the seams with moderators — was always, and only, ever going to be a congeniality contest.
In a “debate” where not every participant got to comment on every issue, it was never going to be much more than a perfunctory show of hands, with audiences gleaning little data to truly contrast positions on big-ticket topics.
In such a format, candidate attention instead focuses on positioning. It’s about candidates’ framing their campaigns — in tone, in message, in appeal — and deferring most of the detail to other forums. It’s why Elizabeth Warren was often hunched over her lectern — akin to a sprinter on the starting line — consciously conveying an unbridled desperation to finally get started. It was why Kamala Harris reclaimed her time as the only black woman on the stage, to prosecute a polished case against her highest polling competitor. And it’s why Kirsten Gillibrand kept directing her comments to “the women” in the audience, in an overt attempt to brand her campaign as about channeling all that pink pussy hat fury.
And then there’s Mayor Pete. The middle-America candidate who media quickly fell for — replete with his bundle of seeming clashing identities of soldier/homosexual/God-fearer/intellectual — had, alas, recently been on the outer.
Mayor of the small city of South Bend, Indiana, a recent mass shooting and an officer-involved killing meant that Pete’s primary pitch — to run America like its best run cities — had started to seem a tad shaky. Attempting to tackle hometown unrest head on, Buttigieg took leave from the hustings to helm a town hall meeting where, for several grueling hours, his townsfolk gave him a thorough bollocking.
It was, therefore, no surprise that on the Miami debate stage, Mayor Pete was called upon to address the happenings at home.
In one of Debate Night 2’s most memorable moments, Mayor Pete answered a pointed question about the goings on in South Bend — notably, about the racial composition of the police force being worse today than before he became mayor — and, he contritely admitted: “I couldn’t get it done.”
There are absolutely reasons to see Buttigieg’s contrition as a breakout moment from the debate.
Fronting an audience in a setting where he’s asking to be “chosen” and admitting to be imperfect is, in many ways, refreshing. Here, we saw a new and very 2019 masculinity, and a new and very 2019 style of leadership, apparently accented by those buzzy A-words of accountability, authenticity and accessibility.
Even more pronounced was the sharp contrast between Mayor Pete’s contrition — of owning his personal and professional deficiencies — and Joe Biden. Biden who Harris had taken to task over both his voting record and his apparent nostalgia for his worst bipartisan collaborations. Instead of Biden acknowledging personal failing, articulating an evolved position, or even presenting a particularly convincing case about pragmatism and policy trade-offs, he stood there looking shamed. Chastened. Observe his head-hung posture. A more perfect contrast between old and new style leadership and old and new masculinity couldn’t have been better staged. Stir Trump into this mix — of whom the words “I apologise” only ever get spoken under duress in Handycam hostage videos – and the contrast between past and future, between Mayor Pete and near-expiration date-style leadership was obvious.
It’s important to praise a candidate who can tap into what’s on trend and palatably woke, and to laud just how far America has come in having a young gay man command such a position on the stage and in the public imaginary. It’s equally important however, to note some of the limitations.
Mayor Pete — the ivy league educated polyglot; the military man with music prowess — is obviously an overachiever. But making suitable inroads into the racial tensions in South Bend isn’t something he’s excelled at. Mayor Pete is both an accomplished man and one who’s underperformed in his current job. Pete is not only using his mayoral LinkedIn entry to gain national attention, but asking Americans to actually elect him president. Elect him over every other candidate. Elect him even with some substantial professional shortcomings.
The smartest person in a country is almost never elected leader. The most accomplished, the deepest thinker, the best negotiator is never hired. These are things we accept. It’s never been a best and brightest contest, rather, it’s a tussle between a small, self-selected sample of people with skills in hiring and fundraising and charisma. And here’s Mayor Pete asking to be given the job over and above everyone else in the running. Here’s Mayor Pete claiming some kind of exceptionalism, asking for a chance on a federal level, even when things in South Bend remain significantly shambolic.
It’s important here that we ask, would we extend such goodwill, and focus so much on Pete’s humble contrition if he were a she? If he weren’t white? Would our expectations be so low if he wasn’t in possession of so many unique identity markers packaged up for us in the body of a handsome white man?
Everyone has career stumbles, and certainly no one achieves as much as they’d like in any elected office. But is simply acknowledging ineffective leadership enough? Are we still expected to put Pete at the front of the queue in spite of everything? Are there no candidates who’ve actually achieved more in the race relations space than Buttigieg?
The political landscape of 2019 appreciates humility, contrition. Likes the idea of leaders who can admit when they’re wrong, who can vow to try harder and to do better. It’s worth questioning, though, whether being good at this bit — at the promising, at the prostrating — is enough. Or whether, surprise surprise, the electorate wants a little more than an admission of inadequacy.
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne and currently a Visiting Professor at Wesleyan University. Her tenth book Sex and Sexuality in Modern Screen Remakes will be published later in 2019.