Rising star? 7 hurdles facing Democrat Pete Buttigieg's 2020 presidential campaign
WASHINGTON – When Pete Buttigieg took initial steps toward running for president earlier this year, he acknowledged he was a long shot.
“At no time in the last 100 years would a 37-year-old Midwestern mayor be even taken slightly seriously in this conversation," he said in February in a discussion of his best-selling memoir. "We’re living in a moment that is calling for newcomers, and it’s calling for underdogs."
Now, as Buttigieg officially kicks of his campaign Sunday, he has gone from largely unknown to a media darling who is seen as a serious contender in the crowded Democratic field to take on President Donald Trump in 2020.
The South Bend mayor has outraised some of his more established rivals. And in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, he has landed in the top tier of polls among the Democratic White House hopefuls.
Buttigieg recently told The Atlantic that he expected at this stage to still be proving he belonged in the race.
"Instead, it’s a phase where we need to consolidate our support," he said.
Still, Buttigieg must show he has staying power if he wants to be the first person to go directly from City Hall to the White House. He would also be the youngest person to take the oath of office and the first openly gay president.
Here’s a look at the main challenges he faces:
Young, new to national stage
At 37, Buttigieg is a little more than half Trump's age. Interviewers have asked why he's in such a hurry to go for the top job.
Rather than viewing his youth as a liability, Buttigieg has cast his millennial status as an asset.
“When you run for office at my age, to some extent your face is your message. And a big part of our message is going to be about generational change,” he said in a CNN interview in February.
Three of the past four presidents were born within a few weeks of one another in the summer of 1946, he likes to point out. When he’s the same age as Trump is now, it will be 2054. Buttigieg says that gives him more of a sense of urgency about dealing with issues like climate change “because they’re not somebody else’s problem. They’re personal.”
Buttigieg says his age cohorts experienced school shootings as the norm, provided a lot of troops for the post-9/11 conflicts and risk being the first generation to be worse off economically than their parents “if nothing is done to change the trajectory of this economy.”
“No one has more at stake right now than someone coming up,” he said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “Why not someone who views this as a personal issue?”
Buttigieg’s retort to the question of why the mayor of a midsized city is ready to be president is also a dig at the current White House occupant.
Buttigieg likes to say he has more years of experience in government than Trump, more years of executive experience than Vice President Mike Pence and more military experience than the two put together. (Buttigieg, a member of the Naval Reserve, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2014.)
He also casts himself as a Washington outsider, saying he is not someone who has spent years "marinating" in the culture of the nation's capital. “I actually think we’d be better off if Washington started looking more like our best-run cities and towns and not the other way around,” Buttigieg says.
During nearly eight years as mayor, Buttigieg says, he has lived the “reality-based world” of local government where he has handled everything from infrastructure and economic development programs to floods and a racially sensitive officer-involved shooting.
“I’d be run out of town on a rail if I couldn’t run a government,” he told CNBC’s John Harwood.
And, as mayor of a blue-collar town in the industrial Midwest that once relied heavily on the auto industry, Buttigieg argues he understands those who feel left behind by economic changes and can offer more than false promises of returning to the past.
South Bend success: Real or hype?
The mayor’s main record of accomplishment is what he has done to turn around his hometown. He regularly points out that South Bend was on Newsweek’s list of dying cities the year he ran for mayor. Today, the unemployment rate is half what it was, and the population is slowly rising after decades of decline.
"I hope the South Bend model is one that can help demonstrate on a much larger scale, but with very similar pressures, how it can be done through good government, tough choices and the right kind of leadership," he told reporters after delivering his final State of the City address in March.
But South Bend’s poverty rate is still more than 25%. The violent crime rate in 2016 was more than double the state and national rates. And the 3.7% unemployment rate is slightly higher than the state’s 3.2% rate.
Buttigieg has responded that while there are still problems, the city has improved under his watch.
“We’ve been able to change the trajectory of the city,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press.
Tensions with black community
Black voters make up about one-fifth of the Democratic electorate, and the party’s nominee will need strong African-American support to beat Trump.
Buttigieg has faced criticism from activists from South Bend’s predominately minority communities that his administration’s redevelopment programs are leading to gentrification and that the city has been too aggressive in fining property owners over code enforcement.
The bigger issue he faced with the approximately one-quarter of the city that is black was his demotion of South Bend’s first African-American police chief after the chief was accused of having illegally recorded his officers’ conversations without their consent. The tapes were rumored to include the officers using racist language to describe the chief.
The controversy became the city's costliest court battle ever, and Buttigieg has said it affected his relationship with the black community for years.
He has also had to address his comment in a 2015 speech that “all lives matter,” telling reporters recently that he had not been aware at the time that the phrase was coming to be viewed as a counter-slogan to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Speaking this month at the National Action Network, the civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, Buttigieg also said he would support legislation to study reparations for descendants of slaves.
“I believe an agenda for black Americans needs to include five things that all of us care about,” he said. “Homeownership, entrepreneurship, education, health and justice.”
Lack of policy specifics
In contrast with Elizabeth Warren, who has offered a series of detailed policy proposals, Buttigieg talks of broad themes.
He told VICE News that it’s “a little bit dishonest to think you have it all figured out on Day One.”
“Part of where the left and the center-left have gone wrong is that we’ve been so policy-led that we haven’t been as philosophical,” he said. “Right now, I think we need to articulate the values, lay out our philosophical commitments and then develop policies off of that. And I’m working very hard not to put the cart before the horse.”
He has said the top values Democrats should preach fit on a bumper sticker: freedom, democracy, security.
In particular, he has argued that Democrats should reclaim the word “freedom” and accuses Republicans of emphasizing “freedom from” over "freedom to." Democrats, he said, should talk about the freedom to start a small business without worrying about losing health care, to sue a credit card company that has ripped you off, to marry the person you love.
Buttigieg has also promised to pursue changes to the political system, such as scrapping the Electoral College, and said they must come first before tackling such issues as climate change, health care, the minimum wage and other problems.
“None of our ability to deal with any of those issues is going to get any better until we fix our democracy,” he said in an MSNBC interview in March.
Mixed electoral record
Buttigieg’s record of winning elections is mixed. When he became South Bend’s mayor at 29, he was the youngest leader of a city of 100,000 or more. He won a second term in the heavily Democratic city with 80% of the vote.
But before he ran for mayor in 2011, he got clobbered in a 2010 race against Indiana’s Republican state treasurer. If he couldn’t get more than 36% of the vote in a red state, does that undercut his argument that he knows how to talk to Trump voters?
Buttigieg says the down-ballot race would have been an uphill battle for any unknown Democrat even before a backlash to President Barack Obama and the rise of the Tea Party made it a banner GOP year. He has also said the race taught him the fundamentals of campaigning – fundraising, putting a message together and selling yourself one-on-one to voters.
In 2017, Buttigieg was a late entrant to the contest to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Although he won the most endorsements of past DNC chairs, he withdrew before the vote when it was clear he was not going to beat Tom Perez for the job. Buttigieg wrote in his memoir that the support he received for his message “wasn’t enough to override years-long friendships, institutional commitments, favors called in, and countless other reasons to support one of the more recognizable and established candidates.”
Running as a white male
The amount of media attention that Buttigieg has gotten has prompted grumblings that he and other men running for the Democratic nomination are being treated more favorably. And there’s a concern that the increasingly diverse party should nominate a woman or someone of color.
Buttigieg has said he agrees that there are advantages in society and politics to being male. But, he told Vox’s Zack Beauchamp, that if anyone thinks he has had any easy time, “I would invite them to join the military and enter Indiana politics in 2010 as a gay person.”
"See how easy they find it,” he said.
If he wins the nomination, Buttigieg said he would consider choosing a woman as his running mate.
“I think it would presumptuous now for me to rule anybody in and out since I haven’t you know, got the nomination,” he recently said on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. “But I will say that gender balance and diversity in general is going to be extremely important, and that starts with the ticket.”
Can an openly gay man win?
Democrats are putting a priority on picking the candidate they think can best beat Trump. In a recent Monmouth University poll, registered Democratic voters were asked if they would prefer a candidate they agree with on most issues or one who would be stronger against Trump. Nearly two-thirds preferred the latter.
Some Democrats may be wary of nominating Buttigieg if they fear the country isn’t ready to elect an openly gay man.
In response, Buttigieg told USA TODAY that when his party has focused on who is viewed as having the best chance of winning, rather than “someone we believed in, we wound up generating somebody who was less electable.”
“Next time a reporter asks me if America is ready for a gay president, I’m going to tell the truth,” Buttigieg said this month in a speech to a group that supports LGBTQ candidates. “I trust my fellow Americans. But at the end of the day, there is exactly one way to find out for sure.”
Contributing: Chris Sikich, USA TODAY Network
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rising star? 7 hurdles facing Democrat Pete Buttigieg's 2020 presidential campaign