According to the polls, one of four candidates in the still-sprawling field of Democratic presidential contenders will be the party’s nominee. Three are senators and a former Vice President who everyone expected to make the final cut; the fourth is a thirty-something mayor with a funny name you never heard of until this year.
With less than three months to go until the first ballots are cast in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana is upending the political establishment with a level of grassroots momentum that candidates with far more name recognition are struggling to muster.
Is America ready for a President Pete? Is the 37-year old mayor of a Midwestern city up to the monumental task of steering our ship of state through troubled waters? Who is Pete Buttigieg anyway?
I am often asked if the Pete I knew as a student was bound for the Oval Office. My answer is yes and no.
Yes, the Pete we see on TV — with his easy grasp of the facts, his crisp rhetoric, his uncanny calm — is remarkably similar to the student I befriended thirteen years ago when we were studying political philosophy in graduate school. Through years of discussion groups and debates, I never saw him come up short on matters of fact or fluency. And I certainly never saw him lose his calm.
But no, I can’t say I ever envisioned Pete running for president. He always struck me as too decent and unassuming, too committed to big ideas and moral sentiments, to seek such a role.
Which is why I am convinced Pete is precisely the person America needs right now to repair the damage done by Donald Trump, and more importantly, to bring a divided country together in support of bold solutions to our greatest challenges. Allow me to explain.
For members of our early Millennial generation coming of age in the 90s and the early aughts, the American presidency and Washington were defined by dysfunction, a loose relationship with the truth on matters of personal integrity or foreign intervention, and bitter partisanship that blocked progress.
The Pete I came to know was better than that. True to his Midwestern roots, he said what he meant and meant what he said, and you never had any reason to second-guess him. Although he was invariably the smartest person in the room, he would never dream of telling you so or putting other people down — a product, perhaps, of his own familiarity with social marginalization in a society less than tolerant toward LGBTQ+ people.
And when Pete spoke, people listened. Of the many examples that come to mind from our student days, I am particularly reminded of a 2007 debate in which Pete inveighed against the established path of triangulation and its cold calculations. Eager though we were to win back the White House after President Bush, Pete convinced the room that a return to first principles and the unapologetic progressivism of the Roosevelts was the better way. More important than the next election, he argued, was shaping the terrain of ideas on which political battles would be fought today, tomorrow, and for a generation to come.
Those ideas and their real-life implementation were what really got Pete going. The talk of unity, freedom, security, and democracy we hear from him today did not spring from some focus group or pollster’s pen. Pete has been contemplating these concepts for years and putting them into practice as chief executive of the same comeback city where he was raised by his Indiana mom and immigrant dad. He is determined not to cede such essential American ideals to conservatives who eagerly claim, and then distort, their meaning.
“Freedom,” as Mayor Pete likes to say, is so much more than merely “freedom from;” it is also “freedom to” realize our God-given potential by having access to healthcare, clean air and water, affordable housing, and the like. “Security” is more than wielding weapons of war for our individual “protection;” it is economic security, climate security, election security, and more. Achieving true freedom and true security in the 21st century requires a real democracy — not big government or small government per se, but good government that actually represents the needs and aspirations of our people. The policies that follow matter, of course, but Pete is right to remind us that principles come first.
Although I always felt Pete’s quintessentially American ideas — not to mention his humility and kindness and ability to listen to others — should be found in a president, I doubted if they ever would. So I never gave much thought to the idea of a President Pete — until Donald Trump.
After a president who personifies amoral self-dealing and a dangerous disregard for the truth, our nation desperately needs an unimpeachable character for our next Commander in Chief.
After a president who seeks to return America to an exclusionary “greatness” gone by, the country must elect a forward-looking leader who puts “goodness” first.
After a president who revels in putting people down, America needs a president who will lift people up and begin the painstaking task of knitting our divided nation back together.
This is the promise of President Pete. Our country would do well to seek it.