When Pete Buttigieg was a young twenty-two-year old nobody, he wrote an article for The Harvard Crimson about the dangers of the media creating premature narratives for political candidates, as well as the danger of a political candidate feeding into those narratives. His thoughts on Al Gore stick out to me:
Take the story of Al Gore’s famous “exaggerations,” first reported in The New York Times and Washington Post. That strange beast, the press, had determined early on in 2000 that Gore’s narrative would be about dishonesty. The story was perfect: Clinton lied, Gore lies. So, when he made three accurate claims about helping to fund the Internet, knowing the writer of the film “Love Story” and investigating a toxic disaster at Love Canal, the media exaggerated his claims, then wrote about how he exaggerates. The papers, not just misquoting him but doing so out of context, wrongly said he claimed to have invented the Internet, inspired “Love Story” and discovered Love Canal. The errors were eventually sorted out, but the damage was done.
This passage seems relevant today, as Pete himself has fallen victim to certain predetermined narratives lobbied at him, some of them fair, some of them not: he’s too inexperienced. He can’t attract black voters. He’s a do-nothing moderate. He sold out his progressive ideals to appease his corporate donors. The list goes on.
I’m looking forward to seeing how Pete handles the next debate, where he’ll almost definitely be under fire from candidates all across the political spectrum, who have run out of nice things to say now that he’s become an actual threat. And as Pete himself stated fifteen years ago:
If a candidate has the misfortune of actually encouraging a pre-established, unfavorable narrative, it’s all over.
We can see his understanding of this issue from his handling of that first criticism, of him being too inexperienced and too young to be President of the United States. So far he’s managed to prevent this from being the defining narrative of his campaign, partly because so many of the other candidates are worryingly old, and also because there’s nothing about Pete’s demeanor that makes you associate him with the naivety or the recklessness of youth. He clearly knows what he’s talking about. He’s got the oratory skills of a politician twice his age. You can ask him a question about some random obscure issue and he’ll have an off-the-cuff response that’s both in-depth and never evasive. Pete’s done little to encourage the idea of his youth being a weakness.
Then there’s the issue of him not being able to attract black votes, which is something that Julian Castro in particular has hit him hard on. In a recent interview, Castro drew a contrast to the demographics of his base as opposed to Pete’s base.
First off: I think Castro should spend less time worrying about whether it’s too risky to nominate someone who can’t attract black and Latino voters, and spend more time worrying if it’s wise to nominate someone who can’t attract any voters. Because Castro’s been stuck at ~1% in all the national polls after over six months of nonstop campaigning. Maybe Pete’s not doing as well with minority voters as he should be, but at least he’s doing well with someone.
Second off: Castro’s attack is part of a larger disingenuous narrative that Pete’s low polling numbers with black voters means there’s something wrong with Pete in that area. That he’s ignoring them, or that he doesn’t know how to connect with them, or that he simply doesn’t care about that section of the democratic base. When in reality, Pete is pretty well-liked among the black voters who are familiar with him, both in South Bend and throughout the country as a whole.
When you ask black voters if they like or dislike a candidate, rather than asking them which candidate is their first choice, Pete’s got roughly the same level of support as Castro. Pete’s issue with black voters is the same as Bernie’s back in 2015: he’s new to the scene and hasn’t had time to establish trust within the community, whereas his opponents have. If there’s anything more to this, it’s way too soon to say.
Then there’s the big complaint, that he’s sold out his progressive beliefs out of a combination of corporate donor influence and political opportunism.
Now, I’m somebody who’s been following Pete’s campaign from day one, and while I’ve seen plenty of quality critiques of his policy and his rhetoric, the narrative that he “steered his once-bold campaign into the moderate lane” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Mainly because he hasn’t actually changed his stance or his political views on anything. His criticisms of Medicare for All are exactly the same, as is his rhetorical technique of framing progressive ideals in a way that appeals to moderate sensibilities.
Pete’s rhetoric is a big part of why he’s one of my favorite candidates of the primary, even if I don’t fall in line with him ideologically as much as I do with some of the more hard-line progressive candidates. Because one of the big problems a lot of liberals have is an unwillingness to have an argument on somebody else’s terms. They have a habit of making their arguments in a way that only sounds convincing to those who already agree with their underlying framework.
As much as I may agree with you that abortion should be legal, for instance, ultimately the “my body, my choice” argument is not going to be effective on a pro-life person. Why? Because to a pro-life person, it’s not just your body at stake here. The idea that fetus is a person who should be protected just as much as any other person is the core of their belief, and you’re not going to change their mind without addressing that core head on. If you want to change someone’s mind, you can’t just stay within the bounds of your own understanding of the issue; you’re going to have to meet them where they’re at.
This philosophy of Pete’s — of trying to sell progressive policies in a way that moderates and even some conservatives could get behind — has drawn a lot of criticism from the progressives who were actually paying attention to him prior to his recent debate performance. And that’s fine; there are plenty of valid critiques to be made. But once you understand what Pete’s trying to do, the accusations of him selling out, or flip-flopping, fall flat.
This Pete you’re getting to know now is the Pete he’s always been. You can’t keep trying to put him in a progressive or a moderate box, as if those are two distinct, binary categories. Pete’s always been a mix between the two and he’s always been clear about that. It’s not his fault no one was listening.
Unfortunately, as Pete knows from the treatment of Gore, whether a narrative is fair or not doesn’t matter. If it exists, it’s damaging. The Los Angeles Times may apologize for misquoting him criticizing Obama, but the damage of the misquote is already done. Progressive figures like Zephyr Teachout may apologize for sharing misleading articles about Mark Zuckerberg’s influence on his campaign, but again, the damage is already done.
So, what can Mayor Pete do to fight back against these false narratives? I have no idea. He’s hardly the only candidate dealing with this problem, and there’s no single solution that applies to each campaign. But he’s a smart guy, he’ll figure it out. At the risk of sounding very stupid six months from now: I don’t think Pete’s going anywhere any time soon.