Watching Pete Buttigieg’s big announcement with friends yesterday I was struck with how much he appeals to people just like me. I even saw myself in his description of himself as a nerdy teenage misfit and in his English teacher’s glowing praise. I had teachers who still talk like that about me, though I haven’t done anything spectacular with my life. Like me, Pete is a visionary; he likes the big picture view. His faith, his modesty (if a presidential candidate can be called modest), his calm demeanor are all traits that resonate with me. Where he is different from me, it is in ways I admire: he is smarter, more articulate, more energetic (younger!), potentially more inspiring.
So the crowd gathered under the leaky roof of the old Studebaker assembly plant, outside in the even colder rain, and many living rooms like mine, was predominantly white and middle class and presumably educated. The media love him because they are also smart and middle class—and he is a great interview. We, the initial enthusiasts, will probably continue to be his most enthusiastic supporters. We are Pete’s base.
Candidates about whom I’ve been enthusiastic have seldom been winners. (I was a paid staffer in Chicago for Mondale-Ferraro. Remember them? 1984.) The exception was Barack Obama, for whom I volunteered. So I am skeptical about my own enthusiasms because I know I’m in a minority. My hope is pinned on the inspirational part of Pete’s skills, his ability to tell a compelling new story that gathers people in far outside my white-middle-class-wisdom perspective. So far, people of color supporting him are few and somewhat hesitant, far from enthusiastic, and I understand why. It is impossible for a candidate to reflect everybody. (Though Obama reflected a lot more of us than his African-American base.) Pete will have to work at this. Locally, he has shown that he listens to people, adjusts, and eventually brings them along. That takes time and patience and I don’t know how it will work on the national stage.
At some point he will feel the pressure to adjust in a different way: to tone himself down. He will be urged to stop kissing his husband in public, stop talking about his faith in a way that makes both seculars and evangelicals uncomfortable. Chasten will be criticized and scrutinized and tamped down on social media, Pete will be handed a suit jacket. So far Pete has been successful because he is “refreshing.” It is “refreshing” for a politician to be honest and upfront and answer almost any question directly and thoughtfully. But with big success will come the temptation to elevate strategy over authenticity.
True, Trump got all the way by being supremely unself-censoring, not even hiding his lies. It was a kind of strategy. Let’s hope Pete sticks to the strategy of being his best self and asking the same of us—many, many more of us than his current base.