Pete Buttigieg has a nifty politician’s knack for coming off as a soothing, healing figure who projects high-mindedness — even while he’s plainly kicking his opponents in the teeth.
“There is a lot to be angry about,” he was saying, cheerfully. Mr. Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., was seated aboard his campaign bus outside a New Hampshire middle school before a recent Sunday afternoon rally. He was sipping a canned espresso beverage and his eyes bulged as he spoke, as if he was trying to pass off as revelatory something he had in fact said countless times before.
“But fighting is not enough and it’s a problem if fighting is all you have,” he said. “We fight when we need to fight. But we’re never going to say fighting is the point.”
In fact, these were fighting words: barely disguised and directed at certain Democratic rivals. As Mr. Buttigieg enjoys a polling surge in Iowa and New Hampshire, he is trying to prevent a rebound by Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has leveled off in the polls after a strong summer, and contain Senator Bernie Sanders, whose support has proved durable.
Both are explicit fighters, while Mr. Buttigieg, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and some others warn that Democrats risk scaring off voters by relying too heavily on pugnacious oratory, and by emphasizing the need to transform America rather than focusing simply on ending the Trump presidency and restoring the country to some semblance of normalcy.
As Mr. Buttigieg has sharpened this critique, however, he has adopted a more aggressive tone himself — a sly bit of needle-threading that has coincided with his rise. Mr. Biden, too, has combined cantankerous language about beating Mr. Trump “like a drum” with more uplifting rhetoric about “restoring the soul of America.”
As Mr. Buttigieg spoke, Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders were holding rallies in which they could scarcely utter two sentences without dropping in some formulation of the word “fight.” They spoke of the various “fights” they had led and the powerful moneyed interests they had “fought” and how they would “keep fighting” all the way to the White House.
Every politician wants to be known as a “fighter,” even the placid young mayor who has promised to “change the channel” on Mr. Trump’s reality show presidency and all the rancor that has accompanied it. But Mr. Buttigieg is also fighting against what he sees as the political trope of fighting per se. He is presenting himself as an antidote to the politics-as-brawl predilection that has become so central to the messaging of both parties and, he believes, has sapped the electorate of any hope for an alternative. “The whole country is exhausted by everyone being at each other’s throats,” Mr. Buttigieg said.
Mr. Buttigieg, he of the earnest manner and Midwestern zest for consensus, fashions himself a peacemaker.
By the same token, Mr. Obama ran as a postpartisan antidote to the “same old fights” that had gridlocked Washington for years. He was pitching a kind of political mood music, similar to what Mr. Buttigieg is attempting 12 years later.
If nothing else, Mr. Buttigieg argued, he represents a more pragmatic alternative that is characteristic of his age cohort — or at least the part of it not screaming itself hoarse at Warren and Sanders rallies.
[read in full at NYTimes.com]