Pete Buttigieg is running for president. Also, he's gay.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: Jose Luis Magana/AP, Getty Images

The term “identity politics” seems to have become a redundancy all of a sudden, like “restful nap” or “talking movies” or “race-baiting Ann Coulter.” The modifier is unnecessary.

The resurgence of identity started, I guess, with Donald Trump and his overt affinity for white, male grievance and ethnic pride. The effect of his presidency, along with the #MeToo uprising and the simplifying effect of social media, has been to bifurcate the culture, with white men assumed to be on one side and most everyone else on the other.

And now the left has re-embraced identity — race, gender, sexuality — as its chief organizing principle, too.

Rebutting the political theorist Francis Fukuyama in Foreign Affairs (an odd place for this debate, but such is the state of our politics), Stacey Abrams, the almost-governor of Georgia, offered an eloquent and much-praised defense of identity politics, arguing that the Democratic Party ought to mainly be a place where marginalized groups can amplify their collective power.

This first wave of presidential hopefuls has heard the call, too. Kamala Harris announced her candidacy on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, in case anyone missed the significance of her candidacy. Kirsten Gillibrand has put feminism front and center as a rationale.

Elizabeth Warren has experienced the hard road of the Native American. Or at least she once drove a Cherokee Sport.

But then you have the unlikely candidacy of 37-year-old Pete Buttigieg, who would rather talk about his record as the two-term mayor of South Bend, Ind., or about his résumé as a Rhodes scholar and a combat veteran, than about his identity as the first openly gay man to seek the Democratic nomination.

At a moment when other candidates are talking endlessly about the historical resonance of their candidacies, Buttigieg seems bent on relegating his to a subtext. Which makes his campaign intriguing — and, if you ask me, underestimated.

If you’re assuming that Buttigieg is only de-emphasizing his personal identity now because he wants to seem more electable to the masses, then you don’t know much about Buttigieg (and, really, there’s no reason you should).

As it happens, Buttigieg was an undergraduate at Harvard when I taught a seminar there about 17 years ago. I knew him then, but I got to know him much better later, when he was embarking on a political career, and we had some long conversations about how to handle those jackals in the press corps.

Buttigieg was in his 30s and already serving as mayor when he came to terms with his own sexuality and met the man he would marry. What he struggled with then wasn’t whether to come out publicly (he never had any intention of hiding and felt the voters should hear it directly from him) but rather how to keep his sexuality from defining him as a politician.

Buttigieg had no interest in becoming known as “the gay mayor in Indiana,” or in transforming himself into a spokesman for the cause. He wanted to be the rising Democratic star who, by the way, happened also to be gay.

We talked then about President Obama — about how he had eschewed the politics of racial resentment, how he had been secure enough to discuss the political novelty of being black without letting it become the only thing he was. It was much the same way that John Kennedy, nearly 50 years earlier, had made Catholic identity a part of his political identity, but not the only thing people saw.

Buttigieg understood, even then, that the time was coming when being gay wouldn’t be any different from being Catholic or being black in each of those moments. Some people might hold identity against you, sure, but even more of them would admire you for pushing past it and focusing on commonalities instead.

Now Buttigieg is holding firm to that ideal, even if the moment has come back around to a place where it might seem more advantageous, in a Democratic primary, to lead with his own sense of alienation from the power structure. He leads, instead, with his experience as mayor.

That may seem like a stretch for the presidency, but to this point, other than Cory Booker, Buttigieg is only one of a few candidates who have run anything as large as a midsize Midwestern city.

“I think we want Washington to begin to look more like our best-run cities and towns, and not the other way around,” he told me this week. “It’s less personality-based, more results-based. And I think that’s how politics should be.”

That’s certainly not how politics is right now.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Buttigieg did a lot better in the coming campaign than people think, outperforming some of the candidates who are more widely considered now to be in the party’s top tier.

Just as Obama’s race gave him automatic credibility with the left, so too may Buttigieg’s status as the first plausible gay candidate liberate him from the ideological litmus tests that might doom another candidate with sensible ideas. In other words, his identity may guarantee him a hearing, even if it’s not the basis of his pitch.

His appeal for a younger generation of leadership, coupled with a quiet authenticity and a pragmatic approach, may strike a lot of Democrats as a refreshing alternative to the somewhat older, Washington-based candidates who already are competing to see who can grovel the most on calls for social justice — especially if some of the better-known and less ideological candidates, like Joe Biden, stay out of the race.

But whether or not he hangs around past Iowa and New Hampshire, Buttigieg seems likely to stick in the upper echelon of Democratic politics for a long time to come. And he’s bound to do something more historically important, in terms of identity, than most of the candidates who would like to surround their campaigns now with historical symbolism.

Like Obama or Hillary Clinton (both the 2008 and 2016 versions), Buttigieg is set to clear a path for a generation of candidates to come. He’s about to prove, perhaps, that you can be a serious candidate for president who happens to be gay, rather than the gay presidential candidate.

And the truth is, that’s how real progress happens in politics, and how parties almost always win in divisive times. Not by reducing candidates to a single marginalized identity, but by demonstrating — through sheer tenacity — that the best of our leaders can be many things at once.

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