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Pete Buttigieg Is Still Fighting the Last War

A lifelong obsession with reforming the Democratic Party's rhetoric has trapped the South Bend mayor in the politics of the past.

It’s Pete Buttigieg’s moment. Again. His combative performance at the most recent debate, coupled with the release of a few polls suggesting he’s entered the top tier of candidates in Iowa, have allowed him to reclaim the national spotlight for the first time since his entry into the race. He now appears to be a serious contender for the Democratic nomination. The Mayor Pete rising now is not the candidate who initially broke out with praise of the Green New Deal and decriminalizing illegal border crossings. In his place, we find something more conventional. “While he hasn’t pivoted 180 degrees on policy proposals,” The New York Times recently reported, “Mr. Buttigieg has gradually reinvented himself as more of a moderate.”

That reinvention was presaged by Buttigieg’s long-standing quest to reform the rhetoric of the Democratic Party, a cause Buttigieg took up in his formative years. In 2003, his senior year at Harvard University, he took the Democratic Party and its standard-bearer at the time, John Kerry, to task in columns for The Harvard Crimson. Timid and tired messaging, he argued in one, put Democrats at risk of “losing a critical, though unseen, fight—the struggle over the language of American politics.”

“The real challenge for the Democratic Party, and its presidential candidates in particular, is to figure out how to reverse the Right’s stranglehold on our political vocabulary,” he wrote. “I don’t have a quick solution handy, but I’m pretty sure that if the Dems don’t act fast to reclaim our language, they risk losing the word battle before they realize they’re fighting it.”

It has been said that Joe Biden’s supporters seem to want to pick up where the Democratic Party left off before President Trump’s election. Something similar can be said about the Buttigieg candidacy—the longer it goes on, the more it seems to reflect the concerns of a different political era. This may well be part of what endears him to his backers and donors from Wall Street and Silicon Valley. It also makes him one of the candidates least suited to our political moment.

Buttigieg’s command of political language and his ideas for rethinking the way we talk about weighty concepts were some of the early selling points for his campaign. In his campaign announcement speech in April, Buttigieg argued that the Democratic Party should reclaim the language of “freedom” and “security” from the right. This material was clever, but odd. Freedom and security have been less conceptually resonant in the Trump era than questions of citizenship, nationhood, personhood, and the rule of law.

But they were top of mind during the Bush era—and among Buttigieg’s pre-occupations at the time. As The Boston Globe’s Liz Goodwin reported in May, Democratic politics were a topic of intense discussion in Buttigieg’s immediate circle of university friends. They jokingly called themselves The Order of the Kong—“a group of like-minded Harvard students…who endlessly discussed, over late-night Chinese food and beer, how the Democratic Party could make its way out of its Bush-era malaise.” Buttigieg would continue these discussions after leaving Harvard, co-founding a group called the Democratic Renaissance Project, which Buttigieg described as “an organization of young people dedicated to bringing new ideas into public debates.”

Trygve Throntveit, a historian at the University of Minnesota who overlapped with Buttigieg at Harvard gave a presentation to this group titled “Pragmatism and the Contours of a Progressive Foreign Policy” in 2011 and told me by email that the Project explored “the practicability of progressive policies—and more important, goals—without succumbing to naive idealism or a lazy so-called realism.”

“Those I met were very political, in a positive sense,” he wrote. “Even as young college students and graduates, they understood that conflict and disagreement are inevitable and incrementalism is often necessary, but that ideals matter and bold action is sometimes the most practical as well as democratic course.”

Angus Burgin, a historian at Johns Hopkins and the author of The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression, gave two presentations to the group in 2009 and 2010 about the Mont Pelerin Society, a think tank dedicated to the promotion of free market principles, whose founding members included the economists Fredrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman. “People like Hayek and Friedman had developed a kind of infrastructure of ideas around free markets, but then migrated into the Republican Party from Goldwater through Reagan,” Burgin told me recently. “And I think they were just trying to think—along with all the other people they brought in to talk about different topics—about models for how the Democratic Party could reinvent itself from ideas upward rather than merely engage in ongoing policy disputes without necessarily a clear sense what the ultimate philosophy undergirding their political project was.”

What remains of the Democratic Renaissance Project is a blog, started in 2007, which was abandoned after a month in which four posts were published. Two of those posts featured commentary on the health care reform debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Another post criticized the blogger Markos Moulitsas for pushing an anti-Bush strategy for the 2008 general election. Only two of the blog’s members, K. Sabeel Rahman and John Pappas, published under their own names. The site’s other users went by pseudonyms—EHT, NDM, Ramazzini, Tacitus, Traveler, calvinball, and nickrod. It’s not clear which, if any of these, might have been Buttigieg.

The members of the Democratic Renaissance Project have taken divergent paths in the intervening years. Ganesh Sitaraman, one of Buttigieg’s Harvard classmates, is now a law professor at Vanderbilt with extensive writings on monopoly power and the need for more robust antitrust policy. In 2011, he became Elizabeth Warren’s policy director and has been among her top advisers ever since. Rahman, who went to both Harvard and Oxford with Buttigieg, is now president of the liberal think Demos and also writes frequently about antitrust policy.

Both Sitaraman and Rahman have also been proponents of institutional reforms. Buttigieg’s proposal to overhaul the Supreme Court—creating a bench of 15 justices with five Democrats, five Republicans, and five others selected by the first ten—is an idea first proposed by Sitaraman.

Ideas like these were central to Buttigieg’s early campaign. Then, he railed against the Electoral College, voter suppression, and gerrymandering. He talked up Sitaraman’s court proposal and expressed an openness to eliminating the Senate filibuster. But as the Times recently reported, Buttigieg’s donors have discouraged him from promoting institutional reforms. “Multiple financial bundlers told the campaign that the Supreme Court and Electoral College proposals were not popular, according to people familiar with the discussions,” the Times’ Reid Epstein wrote. “Mr. Buttigieg has since quietly dropped them from his stump speech.”

Buttigieg did discuss his court reform proposal, cautiously, in a recent interview with Cosmopolitan—while also praising conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who ruled in favor of Trump’s Muslim ban as well as the Janus decision that weakened public sector unions from the bench. On antitrust, Buttigieg has spoken about the failures of the existing enforcement regimes and said that his administration would fight anti-competitive mergers and consider the break-up of overly large firms. But he has also criticized Warren’s open declarations of her intent to break up tech companies like Facebook and Amazon. ”I don’t think that that should be declared in advance by a politician,” he said at a New Hampshire event last week.

Another group Buttigieg was involved with after graduation and the Kerry campaign was the Truman National Security Project, a think tank where he would become a fellow. Founded in 2005, Truman describes itself today as a “nationwide membership of diverse leaders inspired to serve in the aftermath of 9/11 and committed to shaping and advocating for tough, smart national security solutions.” In a 2005 piece, the Forward’s E.J. Kessler referred to the Truman Project as “a new generation of hawkish Democrats rethinking security questions in a post-9/11 world.”

This part of Buttigieg’s background seemed to inform his opening remarks at September’s debate, in which he invoked 9/11. “[F]or a moment,” he said, “we came together as a country. Imagine if we had been able to sustain that unity. Imagine what would be possible right now with ideas that are bold enough to meet the challenges of our time but big enough, as well, that they could unify the American people. That’s what presidential leadership can do.”

The unity that followed 9/11, of course, brought us into wars that spread death and chaos abroad and eventually deepened our paranoia and political divisions at home. Buttigieg served in one of those wars and has been keen on reminding us about it. One of his odder invocations of his experience in Afghanistan came in the following debate, where he took an uncharacteristically sharp and discordant jab at Beto O’Rourke, who had praised his military service, during a back and forth about O’Rourke’s mandatory buyback proposal, which O’Rourke insisted Democrats should support regardless of polling and the advice of political consultants.

“I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal,” Buttigieg said. “Everyone on this stage is determined to get something done.”

What does Buttigieg want to get done? He explained his brand of progressivism to Vox in March. “I think of myself as progressive,” he said. “But I also believe in capitalism, but it has to be democratic capitalism.” He went on to argue that capitalism can become unmoored from democratic values: “When you have capitalism without democracy, you get crony capitalism and eventually oligarchy.”

The phrase “democratic capitalism” seems particularly important to Buttigieg. He repeated it the following month in an appearance on Meet the Press—“Look, America is a capitalist society. But it’s got to be democratic capitalism”—and in another interview on CNN. Burgin thinks the phrase might reference the Progressive Era commitments that Warren and her backers like Sitaraman share. “My guess is that that it’s his attempt to say, ‘Okay. I embraced many of the beneficial aspects of the market economy, but I want to emphasize that it should be subject to democracy rather than have democracy, subject to capitalism,” he says. But Burgin also notes that the phrase “democratic capitalism” was also briefly popularized in the 1980s by the 1982 book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism by philosopher and theologian Michael Novak. Novak revisited the topic in a 2015 article for the conservative Catholic magazine First Things. “Democratic capitalism means a system of natural liberty, incorporating both political liberty and economic liberty,” he wrote. “Prior to those two is a particular moral and cultural system, constituted by civic institutions and well-ordered personal habits.”

Novak was also the author of the 2013 book Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative, a memoir of his political conversion in the 1970s, which he summarized for Crisis Magazine in 2007. “Many of us once thought that socialism was basically a good idea, but socialists had not found a practical way to implement it successfully,” he said. “Then we actually started to examine the many different national experiments in socialism—almost 70. None of them worked. So, socialism cannot be a good idea. Now, if you are on the Left and you cease being a socialist, what are you? If you do not take the state as the main engine of progress, where do you turn?”

This question, which vexed left-liberals throughout the Cold War, was asked more urgently following the defeat of progressive George McGovern in 1972’s presidential election, a result most read as backlash to left-wing radicalism. Some, like Novak, answered it by leaving left-wing politics behind. Others would go on to advance those ideas within the Democratic Party. In the immediate wake of McGovern’s defeat, some in both camps were briefly united by the group Coalition for a Democratic Majority, on whose board Novak served. The Coalition’s 1972 manifesto charted a path forward for Democrats—recommitting to American global leadership, rejecting identity politics, and, in words that recall Buttigieg’s announcement speech, returning the party “to its rightful place as the party of progress, freedom, and security for all.”

In 1980, neoconservative Irving Kristol described the supply-side economics that would come to define the Reagan administration as “the last best hope of democratic capitalism in America.” The term was also a pet phrase of Republican congressman and 1988 presidential candidate Jack Kemp, who invoked it in a 1990 column, among other occasions. “The ideas of democratic capitalism have triumphed the world over,” he wrote, “but the struggle to turn those ideas into political reality everywhere has not been completed.”

On the Democratic side, rising stars like Bill Bradley and Al Gore used the phrase to describe a kind of shareholder capitalism that would give workers more of a role in economic decision-making. But by mid-decade, the more conservative rendering of the phrase had won out both within both the Republican establishment and the Democratic Party’s insurgent reformers, who took up the cause with new centrist organizations like the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The DLC, the Christian Science Monitor reported in 1986, was “developing a new ‘democratic capitalism’ to address such ills as the nation’s declining productivity. Theirs is an approach, they say, that no party—Democratic or Republican—has attempted.”

In 1991, the DLC sent a few of its leading figures on a multi-state speaking tour titled “Democratic Capitalism: A New Path to Economic Strength.” Its chairman at the time was then–Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who would bring the group’s ideas to the White House after his victory in the following year’s election. A 1992 Washington Post profile of a triumphant DLC founder Al From, noted that the group’s funding came “largely from corporate lobbyists and the financial community who appreciate the DLC’s pragmatic approach of ‘democratic capitalism.’”

Pete Buttigieg is almost Bill Clinton; their personal careers parallel each other eerily. Both Clinton and Buttigieg earned Ivy League degrees—from Yale and Harvard, respectively. Both were Rhodes Scholars. Clinton and his boosters in the late 1980s and early 1990s pitched him as a Democrat whose background and politics could shore up the party in the South. Buttigieg has made the same pitch, but for the Midwest and the Rust Belt.

However, by the time he ran for president in 1992, Bill Clinton had been governor of Arkansas for a decade—having previously served as the state’s attorney general—and the head of the National Governors Association, a perch from which he influenced the national policy conversation. Buttigieg became mayor of South Bend—a town of just over 100,000 residents—less than a decade ago, after losing a race for Indiana treasurer that saw him reportedly describe himself as a “conservative” on financial issues. The central irony of the Buttigieg candidacy is that his array of meritocratic credentials has set him on his way towards becoming one of the least formally qualified presidents in American history.

Like Clinton, Buttigieg has spent much of his young life figuring out how to master language and rhetoric. But his fixation on political language reflects more than just his political ambitions. With his presidential run, he has committed himself more urgently to the task that Democrats who invoke the idea of democratic capitalism have generally had first in mind: slowing the party’s leftward progress. He has run to the right not only of Bernie Sanders, but also Elizabeth Warren, who he has criticized sharply for supporting Medicare for All in recent weeks. On foreign policy, Buttigieg’s background suggests a preoccupation with strength and a confidence that American military power can be wielded responsibly and unashamedly with the right person in charge, that person preferably being Pete Buttigieg.

This is among the many things about Buttigieg—next to the talk about freedom and security, the educational credentials, the military service, and his invocations of religion—that make it seem as though he’s been engineered as a response to Republican Party of 2004. He offers the kind of rhetoric one imagines the Democratic Party might have leaned into if Obama’s rise had never occurred—less soaring and more concerned with countering Republican suggestions of weakness. This is perhaps what made his early talk about not caring what Republicans say about Democrats so short-lived and personally untenable. Buttigieg has spent much of his life caring very deeply about what Republicans say—so deeply, in fact, that he is still doggedly fighting the rhetorical battles of the Bush presidency, a marooned soldier who hasn’t been told the war is over.

Had Buttigieg won his bid to become chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2017, his war might have become our war again. There’s still a chance it will. The Buttigieg project has been to align the trajectory of the Democratic Party with his own personal trajectory. In lieu of the philosophical underpinnings he and his college friends were searching for, Buttigieg is offering Democrats himself and the scaffolding of a dated rhetorical framework.

The task ahead of the Democratic Party is not just the redefining of certain political terms and debates but the remaking of our country and economy. The realization of this has finally brought about a Democratic renaissance—but not the one Buttigieg imagined back in college. As such, it is not clear that he understands the grand and terrifying possibilities before us now—whether the existential questions facing this country and planet are truly appreciable to a man convinced the mayorship of South Bend, Indiana, has prepared him for the presidency of the United States. What is certain is that Pete Buttigieg—the millennial candidate, the candidate of generational change—is a man stuck out of time, a Rip Van Winkle who’s somehow managed to keep both his boyish looks and sense of mission.

Somewhere at this very moment—in Cambridge or Oxford, or New Haven, or Princeton—an undergraduate is furrowing his brow about what the Democratic Party should do in 2020. We will hear from him eventually. He will leave with the right degree and maybe get another. He will do the right nonprofit work and maybe move on to the right consulting job. The necessary introductions will be made. The necessary recommendations will be written. He will then feel something missing—he will hear, suddenly and loudly, a call to something nobler than employment in the private sector. A call to public service. This, at any rate, is what his memoir will say. He will win something. And then he will be everywhere. On television. On NPR. He will appear in newspapers if there are still newspapers to appear in. He will win awards no one has heard of. He will be one of 30 under 30, or 40 under 40, or Someone to Watch. And, dutifully, we will. We will listen to ideas that would have been dubiously useful 15, 20, or 25 years earlier. We will be asked to vote for them. And, if we know what’s good for us, we will not.