It appears that the media’s long (in news-cycle terms) honeymoon with Pete Buttigieg is over. Gone are the days of flattering coverage from, well, pretty much everywhere—stories about Buttigieg’s love of Ulysses, his faculty with languages, and affection for Phish and the Dave Matthews Band (well, I guess they weren’t all flattering stories). Over the last couple of weeks, Buttigieg has received scrutiny more appropriate to a leading presidential candidate instead of simply being rolled out like a new diet soda.
There have been stories investigating his time as mayor of South Bend, and deep dives into his decision to demolish hundreds of homes and to fire the city’s black police chief. Mayor Pete Mania has begun to falter, as has the candidate’s standing in some tracking polls. Instead of wondering whether he can knock off Joe Biden, journalists are now asking questions about his failure to connect with black voters.
Buttigieg’s meteoric rise owed a lot to his personal charisma and to his biography—an openly gay Afghanistan veteran, a Rhodes Scholar, old enough to have some executive experience, young enough to seem like a break with the past—but it also relied heavily on obsessive, often fawning media coverage. “I want him on everything,” Lis Smith, the political operative pulling the strings of Mayor Pete’s campaign told Politico. Other candidates sometimes say no to press availabilities; Buttigieg seemingly never did. He was on TV all the time. When he wasn’t meeting voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, he was doing podcasts.
However, Buttigieg might be finding out that strategy has its limits. He continues to appear on TV (he has a Fox News town hall scheduled for May 19), and churn out cable-ready soundbites (just yesterday he told the Today show that he “couldn’t imagine” God being a Republican), but this strategy seems to have diminishing returns for candidates not named Donald Trump. Instead, if Buttigieg wants to keep his seat at the big-kids’ table, he should try something new—he should stand for something.
Donald Trump dominated media coverage during the 2016 election. He relied on a vicious cycle that has continued, with some variations, into his presidency. He would spend the early morning hours either tweeting everything that came into his head or having seemingly endless conversations with his (now former) buddies at MSNBC’s Morning Joe. The insane things he said would then become fodder for the rest of the day on cable news, with pundits dissecting his every word and reporters chasing down members of Congress for comment. This approach “helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls” during the primary, according to a study from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.
“Trump’s dominant presence in the news stemmed from the fact that his words and actions were ideally suited to journalists’ story needs,” the Shorenstein Center’s Thomas Patterson wrote in late 2016. “The news is not about what’s ordinary or expected. It’s about what’s new and different, better yet when laced with conflict and outrage. Trump delivered that type of material by the cart load.” Trump effectively boxed out other Republican presidential candidates during the primary; during the general election, he employed a similar strategy to shape the conversation.
Trump wasn’t just laying out soundbites, though. His ideas were crass, often abhorrent, but they perfectly matched his pugnacious tone. His voters, sick of predictable pablum from buttoned-up pols, wanted a brawler. Trump based his campaign on building a wall between the United States and Mexico and jailing his political opponents—on doing what others would not do to stop illegal immigration and “drain the swamp.” His plans were facile, racist, and unworkable (as the last two years have proven), but he out-hustled his GOP opponents to claim the title of most repugnant.
Without Trump’s knack for creating an endless stream of outrage, it is possible Buttigieg might actually be better served by some real reporting. But so far, on the policy front, Mayor Pete has been difficult to pin down. A “democratic capitalist” who has advocated for some serious political reform—like abolishing the filibuster and increasing the size of the Supreme Court—Buttigieg wants to get credit for supporting a kind of Medicare for All (in his version, it’s “Medicare for all... who want it”) but opposes abolishing private insurance. He says he likes the Green New Deal, but is otherwise vague on his plans to fight climate change. (And it’s never a good sign when Beto O’Rourke is lapping you on energy policy.)
That’s not to say that Buttigieg is a completely empty vessel, just that keeping things vague on policy has been part of his, until now, successful strategy. Married to his schoolteacher husband Chasten for almost a year now, the South Bend mayor has repeatedly targeted fellow Hoosier, Vice President Mike Pence, for the former Indiana governor’s homophobic beliefs, and, in the process, provoked a small-scale culture war with the right over what it means to be a good Christian. You can see the germ of a larger message here—about GOP hypocrisy, which, in turn, could foster a host of other policy ideas—but you might have to squint a bit.
Thus far, Buttigieg has been resistant to offer specific proposals. Asked about the lack of a policy section on his campaign website, he was dismissive. “I’ve been pretty clear where I stand on major issues,” he said last month. “But I also think it’s important we don’t drown people in minutia before we’ve vindicated the values that animate our policies. We go right to the policy proposals and we expect people to be able to figure out what our values must be from that.” The recipe here is probably right—articulate a broader message and then fill it in with specifics—but the justification still sounds like a hedge, the natural distillate of a presidential campaign rooted in a person, rather than in what that person would do as president.
Buttigieg’s campaign might be at a pivot point. There has been talk of reviving John McCain’s access-heavy “Straight Talk Express” campaign, which would, in theory, continue to cement the saccharine-sweet relationship between Buttigieg and corporate media reporters. But that’s really just a tactic in service of the same, apparently ebbing strategy. An early blitz of coverage turned the small-city mayor into a big-time contender, but that means there are now expectations he will act like one. The sketches he has drawn on Morning Joe, Today, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert deserve to be colored in with actual ideas. The tête-à-tête with Pence showed Buttigieg can take a stand when he wants to, just as it showed he can get media attention when he does.