How Pete Buttigieg mimics Elizabeth Warren

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Whatever Elizabeth Warren does, Pete Buttigieg does less. It’s pretty clever.

Warren famously has a plan for everything, and Buttigieg isn’t far behind. His web site lists the candidate’s positions on 33 discrete issues, ranging from affordable housing to health care to voting rights. But the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, rarely goes as far as Warren does, which is helping Buttigieg brand himself as a wonky centrist wunderkind.

Buttigieg, the mayor of America’s 189th largest city, is now one of four top-tier Democratic presidential contenders, along with Warren, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. A recent Des Moines Register poll shows 25% of Democratic voters in the state say Buttigieg is their first choice, compared with 16% for Warren and 15% for both Biden and Sanders. The 37-year-old Buttigieg is the millennial alternative to Biden, a pragmatist who wants to fix what’s broken instead of tearing down institutions and rebuilding them anew.

Buttigieg began his upstart campaign with few policy prescriptions. But he has followed candidates like Warren by identifying issues various blocs of voters care about and outlining ways to address their concerns. But if Warren is the rabble-rouser instigating revolution, Buttigieg is the efficient company man seeking institutional solutions.

More modest proposals

On higher education, for instance, Warren wants to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt for 95% of Americans who carry any, and allow anyone to attend a public university for free. She says it would cost about $125 billion per year, which she’d pay for with a new wealth tax on multimillionaires.

Buttigieg has a more modest plan to cancel student debt for some students who attended for-profit colleges, and help others pay down debt in more affordable ways. He’d make college free at public institutions for students from families with household income up to $100,000, and offer some aid above that level. The Buttigieg plan would cost $50 billion per year, or less than half of Warren’s. He’d pay for it with higher capital gains taxes on the wealthy.

Campaign buttons are displayed as people wait outside the Rochester Opera House to hear Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg deliver a Veterans Day address, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019, in Rochester, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

On health care, Warren backs the Bernie Sanders “Medicare for all” program, which would replace private insurance with a single-payer government plan. Buttigieg doesn’t. He calls his plan “Medicare for those who want it,” which would be a government plan open to people who can’t get affordable insurance through an employer. It would leave private insurance in place. A Warren-style plan would have a huge price tag: Around $3.4 trillion per year in new government spending. The Buttigieg plan: $150 billion, or 4.4% of Warren’s total.

But wait! Warren also favors a Buttigieg-style public option, a new twist she announced Nov. 15. This would be a “transition” plan that lays the groundwork for Medicare for all, and wouldn’t kill the private insurance market outright. The day Warren announced her backup health-care plan, the Buttigieg campaign derided it as a “transparently political attempt to paper over a very serious policy problem, which is that she wants to force 150 million people off their private insurance.”

On climate policy, Buttigieg is also Warren-lite. Warren has a sweeping plan to greenify manufacturing and displace carbon with renewables, for about $300 billion per year. The Buttigieg plan would spend a lot of money on energy research and new infrastructure, and impose a carbon tax as an incentive to develop alternatives. The cost would be around $150 billion to $200 billion, or one-half to two-thirds of Warren’s expenditure.

Buttigieg’s lighter touch seems to be working. In the Des Moines Register poll, 38% of Democratic voters said Warren is “too liberal,” while 48% said she’s “about right.” Only 7% said Buttigieg is too liberal, while 64% said he’s about right.

Buttigieg’s rise in Iowa doesn’t mean he’s the front-runner nationwide. The Real Clear Politics aggregation shows Biden ahead nationally, followed by Warren, Bernie Sanders and Buttigieg. Still, Buttigieg has rocketed upward from obscurity, while most of the rest have been coasting on fame. He’s doing something right.  

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.

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