Yesterday afternoon, presidential candidate and current mayor of South Bend Indiana, Pete Buttigieg gave his first foreign policy speech of the campaign at Indiana University. The speech ran about 45 minutes, and covered, among other things, five key proposals that would make up the backbone of his foreign policy approach if he were elected president. Rather than go in to a lot of detail myself about what he said, I’ll just link you to a good overview from Vox. If you’d like to see the speech itself, you can find it here.
His speech generated a lot of buzz, not so much because he said anything we wouldn’t expect any Democratic candidate for president to say, but rather because he was the first person to say them. A lot was also made of the fact that he sounded presidential during the speech, like someone who was confident and who knew what they were talking about. If nothing else, the speech will probably have the effect of elevating Buttigieg in the polls, perhaps putting some distance between him and some of the other “single-digit” candidates in the field.
As of this writing, according to RealClearPolitics, Buttigieg is tied for 4th in national polling averages. According to that data, with 6.8% of the vote, he’s within striking distance of Elizabeth Warren’s 3rd place 9.8%, but still well behind Bernie Sanders’ 16.8%. Of course, all of that’s never mind the fact that Biden is miles out front with 32.8% of the vote.
Of course many, (especially Buttigieg supporters), would say that it’s still very early in this race, and even such a large gap as 32.8% vs 6.8% can be overcome with time. There are even indications this early on that a bottom-of-the-table candidate has a good chance of unseating someone like Biden who, after all, represents the cadre of “old guard” Democrats that the younger and more progressive members of the party are kind of sick of.
Be that as it may though, Buttigieg isn’t going to win, and the reason he isn’t going to win can be summed up in two words: he’s gay. I know it offends liberal sensibilities to say it, but the simple fact is that Buttigieg’s sexuality is going to cost him any chance of winning. If you want to understand why, you needn’t look any further than our current president, or rather, you need to look at the people that voted for him.
As I’m fond of reminding anyone who cares to listen to me, Hillary Clinton lost the election in 2016 as a result of losing three absolutely crucial states that had been reliably blue for almost a generation: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. To add insult to injury? She lost those states by just 88,000 votes. Now, the reason I’m typically fond of reminding people of that is that it should give anyone who isn’t a Trump supporter hope. Hillary Clinton was a historically unpopular candidate. Surpassed, ironically, perhaps only by Trump. The conventional wisdom, (and so far this has been borne out by polling), is that the Democrats could probably field a scarecrow wearing an American flag pin, and still stand a reasonable chance of beating Trump in 2020.
So what does any of this have to do with Buttigieg’s chances? It comes down to the reason Trump won those typically blue states. You could make the argument that he won there purely because Clinton was so unpopular, and that’s a good argument, but it wasn’t the only force in play.
Even leaving aside the all-important spectre of Russian interference, the America of 2016 was not Obama’s America of 2008, or even 2012. In the eight years since Obama’s first election win, the ultra-right-wing elements in this country had been stirred, driven to a frenzy by the affront of a black man in the White House. If there’s any sure bet you could make, it’s that when a racist is angry, he’ll start hearkening back to that “simpler time”, when things were the way they “should be”.
I’m not trying to suggest that Donald Trump was elected by a bunch of racists. I mean, a bunch of racists definitely voted for him, but they’re not the reason he won. The thing is, that “simpler times” message resonates with a lot of people who aren’t racist, albeit for different reasons.
People who are out of a job because time and technology have left them behind will yearn for a “simpler time”. People who struggle to understand the realities of globalization and the newly emerging emphasis on political correctness will yearn for a “simpler time”. These people aren’t racist, and it would be unfair to call them that, but the message cooked up by the elements in this country that are racist will still resonate with them.
Whether you see it as a good thing or a bad thing, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was a radical departure from the norm for a country that had reliably elected old white men as President for it’s entire history. That departure stirred up something in this country that, in my opinion makes it extremely unlikely that Clinton would have won against a more conventional Republican than Donald Trump. Even absent Donald Trump’s siren-call to the extreme right, I believe this country had filled up on all the “change” it could take, and it would have voted for a comforting, conventional, conservative white guy given the chance. I believe that was true in 2016.
Today, we’ve had two years of Donald Trump. Donald Trump doesn’t fit the definition of “comforting” in any way at all. He’s not conventionally conservative either. He was swept into power by a combination of effective Russian social media marketing, an opponent who was just unpopular enough, and by tapping into a deeply-ingrained fear of change that permeates much of middle-American society. That fear was stoked by right-wing elements for 8 years of the Obama presidency.
I don’t know if that combination is enough of a recipe to lead him to victory in 2020, but there are plenty of people, (not the least of which is the President himself), who think so. The reason Joe Biden is so far out front in current polling is that despite being a Democrat, he represents the comforting, conventional choice.
I’m not saying that means Biden should win. I’m not even saying that his securing the Democratic nomination will mean that he will win. It may very well be a candidate a bit more liberal, a bit further to the left, that ultimately takes the Democratic nomination and, (hopefully), takes Donald Trump down. At this point though, I’m convinced that candidate will not be Pete Buttigieg.
We are still in a moment in this country where many of the people who voted for Donald Trump would still vote for him if the alternative is someone just a little too “different” for their tastes. Frankly, it’s the reason that every woman in this race is running behind the two extremely old white guys. The more I hear from him and about him, the more I like Pete Buttigieg, so I think it’s a damned shame that something as irrelevant as his sexuality would pull him out of the running, but I fear that’s where this is going to end up.
Honestly, I believe there’s just one thing that can prove me wrong, however unlikely it may be. The progressive voice in this country is locked away in the young and in minorities that typically don’t bother voting. I say this realizing that in many states the minority vote is badly and blatantly suppressed, but most of the younger voting-age people in this country have no good excuse.
That said, if the youth in this country were woken up to the existential danger represented not only by Trump, but by the Republican party as it exists today, and they chose that moment of awakening to start voting, then I think a candidate like Buttigieg stands a very good chance, not only of taking the Democratic nomination, but of destroying Trump in a general election. Still, I’m not holding my breath.