Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s performance in the Fox News town hall on Sunday shows why he came out of nowhere to become a real force in the 2020 elections—while Elizabeth Warren stumbled out of the gate.
In case you missed it, Warren declined an invitation to speak at a Fox News town hall and chose, instead, to try to score points by attacking the network. Conversely, Buttigieg said yes and delivered a solid performance at his own Fox News town hall, buttressing his image as a thoughtful and likeable candidate, while simultaneously taking Fox News to task.
"A lot of people in my party were critical of me doing this, and I get where that's coming from, especially when you see what goes on with some of the opinion hosts on this network," Buttigieg told Fox News’ Chris Wallace.
“Tucker Carlson saying immigrants make America dirty,” he continued. "Laura Ingraham comparing detention centers with children in cages to summer camps."
Then he doubled down and twisted the knife by including his “good cop” and “bad cop” personas in a single paragraph.
"There's a reason anybody has to swallow hard and think twice before participating in this media ecosystem," Buttigieg said. "But I also believe that even though some of those hosts are not always there in good faith, I think a lot of people [who] tune into this network… do it in good faith."
To put a finer point on it, Buttigieg is simultaneously attacking Fox News personalities to their face (in their house) while giving permission to the millions of voters who watch Fox News to view themselves as operating in “good faith.”
Whereas Warren snubbed Fox News (and its viewers) calling them a “hate-for-profit racket”—which presumably makes Fox News viewers either dupes or deplorables―Mayor Pete has chosen a more Obama-esque strategy: to have his cake and eat it, too.
Buttigieg and Warren are, in many ways, opposites. Both share liberal views, but Buttigieg comes across as moderate, open-minded, and likeable, while simultaneously coming down consistently on the side of liberal policies. Warren, who wears her progressive politics on her sleeve, stumbled early but has clawed her way back into contention on the strength of her policy expertise and white papers. Unfortunately for Warren, though, her handling of Fox’s invitation only serves to reinforce her original “Pocahontas” problems. Democrats are desperately searching for someone who can beat Trump in 2020, and that includes the ability to handle Donald Trump and Fox News.
If Warren wants to demonstrate her ability to handle Trump’s taunts, one obvious step might include going into the lion’s den. Imagine if Warren had gone on Fox News and stood up to the hosts, the network, and the president. I’m not saying it would have completely redeemed her botched campaign rollout, but it could have added to her momentum.
And now that Buttigieg has pulled off this exact maneuver, it only rubs salt in Warren’s wound.
It takes courage to stand up to someone in person. Instead, Warren skipped the awkward confrontation and hid behind tweets, videos, and press releases. The irony is that Warren bills herself as a fighter, while Buttigeig seems to be playing up his “uniter, not a divider” credentials. As such, Warren’s decision wasn’t just a missed opportunity—it was also discordant.
Another irony is that this opportunity was ripe for the taking. Even the most risk-averse politician who fears confrontation couldn’t have found a more receptive environment. Fox News clearly does have an agenda, but it’s one that 2020 Democrats should be giddy about. Their goal is to appear fair and balanced—to show the DNC that they made a mistake by not allowing them to host any debates. In a way, this is the best possible environment for a Democrat who wants to gain exposure and simultaneously come across as willing to speak truth to power.
Buttigieg’s strategy was much better, shrewder, and—daresay—likeable.
And this, I think, is telling. There’s a reason we run campaigns and why winners win and losers lose. Sure, luck and environmental factors play a role, but candidates have agency. The decisions they make tell us something about them—their personality, judgment, and temperament. And their ability to navigate murky waters.
These are skills that might not perfectly comport with being president, but they certainly do correlate.