2020 Democratic Candidates Wage Escalating Fight (on the Merits of Fighting)

Mark Leibovich
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., campaigns in Storm Lake, Iowa, Nov. 26, 2019. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)

WALPOLE, N.H. — 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. Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, 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 Buttigieg enjoys a polling surge in Iowa and New Hampshire, he is trying to prevent a rebound by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has leveled off in the polls after a strong summer, and contain Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose support has proved durable.

Both are explicit fighters, while Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden 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 Donald Trump presidency and restoring the country to some semblance of normalcy.

As 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. Biden, too, has combined cantankerous language about beating Trump “like a drum” with more uplifting rhetoric about “restoring the soul of America.”

As Buttigieg spoke, Warren and 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.

Sanders touted himself as the candidate who would “fight to raise wages” and was “leading the fight to guarantee health care” and “fight against corporate greed.” Warren (fighting a cold) explained “why I got into this fight, will stay in this fight and why I am asking others to join the fight.”

Every politician wants to be known as a “fighter,” even the placid young mayor who has promised to “change the channel” on Trump’s reality show presidency and all the rancor that has accompanied it. But 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,” Buttigieg said.

At a basic level, this is a debate over word choice. Candidates have been selling themselves as “fighters” for centuries, ostensibly on behalf of the proverbial “you.” It goes back at least to 1828, when Andrew Jackson bludgeoned John Quincy Adams, his erudite opponent, with the slogan “Adams can write but Jackson can fight.” Populists of various stripes have been claiming for decades to “fight for you,” “fight the power,” “fight the good fight” and whatnot, all in the name of framing their enterprises as some cause that transcends their mere career advancement.

In a broader sense, though, it goes to a stylistic divide that has been playing out for nearly a year in the battle for the Democratic nomination. The split is most acute among the top four polling candidates: you could classify Warren and Sanders as the pugilists in the field, whereas Buttigieg, he of the earnest manner and Midwestern zest for consensus, fashions himself a peacemaker. Biden would also sit in the latter camp, with his constant promises to “unite the country” and continued insistence — oft-derided — that his old Republican friends would be so chastened by Trump’s defeat that they would suddenly want to work in sweet bipartisan harmony with President Joe.

For all the emphasis placed on the identity and generational partitions between the candidates, the question of “to fight or not to fight” might represent a more meaningful contrast. “This has been a long-standing intramural debate,” said David Axelrod, the Democratic media and message strategist, who served as a top campaign and White House aide to former President Barack Obama. “It’s what Elizabeth Warren would call ‘big structural change’ versus what critics would call ‘incremental change.’”

He believes the energy and size of the former camp has been exaggerated by the attention it receives. “I think sometimes the populist left is overrepresented in places where reporters sometimes spend a lot of time,” Axelrod said. “Like on Twitter.”

The gap does not always follow ideological lines. In the 2008 Democratic primaries, Obama was seen as more progressive than Hillary Clinton was, though Clinton was always proclaiming herself to be the proven warrior in the field — toughened up and battle-scarred from decades of waging fights against Republicans. She signed boxing gloves presented to her at rallies. By the same token, 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 Buttigieg is attempting 12 years later.

Buttigieg’s jump in recent polls, along with Biden’s staying power, could suggest a persistent appetite for more unifying voices. Pundits and party leaders have long pushed the notion that the Democratic base skewed to the progressive tastes of its most vocal activists, especially in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. This mirrored what had been a sustained rise by Warren over several months, along with the ongoing struggles of more consensus-themed candidates like Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado and a host of others who are no longer in the race.

Polls released in recent weeks, however, indicate the appeal of a more moderate, less combative Democratic message has been perhaps undervalued. A New York Times/Siena College survey of primary voters in battleground states showed a preference for a candidate who would seek common ground with Republicans, rather than one who would push a bolder and less compromising progressive agenda. Warren appears to have lost ground, both in national surveys and in Iowa, while Buttigieg has become increasingly less shy with his criticism.

“It’s definitely not unifying,” he said aboard his campaign bus in Iowa when asked about Warren’s and Sanders’ approaches. If nothing else, 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.

“The fighting is not about being at people’s throats,” countered Warren in an interview after a rally in Exeter, New Hampshire. Emphasizing a willingness to “fight,” she said, demonstrates commitment. “Fighting is about throwing your whole self into making the changes,” she said. “The big fights define who we are. The big fights inspire people to come out. The big fights signal just how important this is.”

“Fighting,” she added, is a proxy for the “big structural change” her campaign is promising, as opposed to what she calls the “nibbling around the edges” philosophy. This is essentially Warren’s critique against what she considers the small-bore mindset some in her party embrace.

Other progressives have joined her in this criticism, often directed at Buttigieg. He has been attacked over his past employment at McKinsey & Company, the international consulting firm, and his ties to Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the luminary freshman from New York and a supporter of Sanders, castigated Buttigieg for adopting a “GOP talking point” in his dismissal of tuition-free public college proposals.

Both styles invite well-worn critiques that have popped up in various forms over the years. In 2002, for instance, Joe Klein, writing in Slate, argued that “a victorious Democratic model” — as practiced by Bill Clinton and Franklin D. Roosevelt — should include patriotic support for individual initiative and a demand for corporate responsibility. “Formulations that use the word ‘against,’ as in ‘the people against the powerful,’ just aren’t very successful in America,” Klein wrote.

Likewise, the slap against the self-styled “pragmatists” has been consistent over many decades: that they are too cautious, naive and quick to assume goodwill from Republicans. This tends to track with the skepticism Buttigieg has drawn, especially in light of the revulsion so many Democrats reserve for Trump and his so-called GOP enablers.

“You believe that all it takes for every American to coexist in harmony is for a swell guy like Mayor Pete to come along and tell them all to be nice,” progressive journalist Drew Magary wrote in an essay for Medium titled “The Hater’s Guide to Mayor Pete.” He accused Buttigieg — “and the media that fetes him” — of subscribing to the mistaken notion “that the path to defeating Donald Trump lies in a form of corrupt passivity.”

At the end of her interview, Warren was asked if certain elements of her party, including some opponents, were too content to “nibble around the edges.” She has been steadfast in drawing this contrast but loath to single out fellow Democrats. In response, Warren flattened her voice and assumed a performative deadpan.

“I’m a Democrat, and I’m very happy for all the wonderful things we’ve accomplished,” she said, smiling tightly to accentuate the obvious — that this was not a fight she was looking for.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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