At last week’s Democratic Debate, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg finally turned in a performance that attracted a whole lot of buzz. There’s even been talk amongst media pundits and Buttigieg fans of a “Pete Wave” that’s finally about to wash over the country.
Meanwhile here in Southern Nevada, Buttigieg is back in town to rally his local supporters and convince more Democratic voters to join his team. We caught up with him at a Henderson union office today to see for ourselves how that’s working out.
“Patriotism lies in speaking up for our beliefs, not telling those who dissent to go back to where they came from. You cannot love your country if you hate half the people in it.”
– Pete Buttigieg, at last night’s Celebrate Progress dinner
Just a week ago, we were assessing the fallout from the CNN-New York Times Democratic Debate and whether it resulted in a massive “game change” here in Nevada or elsewhere. Spoiler alert: I doubt it changed the core dynamics of the 2020 Democratic race, but it did provide some confirmation to hunches I had already developed, such as U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) becoming a real frontrunner (at least one of three), former Vice President Joe Biden holding an increasingly vulnerable position as one of those three frontrunners, and Pete Buttigieg emerging as a viable alternative to those Democratic voters looking for a “Goldilocks candidate” who offers more dramatic generational change than Biden but not the kind of “big, structural change” that Warren champions.
When I first saw Buttigieg in person in Las Vegas this past April, he spoke plenty about general values while keeping light on policy details. While delivering the keynote address at Battle Born Progress’ Celebrate Progress awards dinner last night, he gave another “values talk”. But this time, he used his “values talk” to defend the policy platform he’s been developing since April.
“Patriotism lies in speaking up for our beliefs, not telling those who dissent to go back to where they came from. You cannot love your country if you hate half the people in it,” Buttigieg declared last night. He continued, “No Scripture I’ve ever read condones a budget that cuts food for the hungry or tearing families apart at the border. Whatever happened to, ‘I was hungry and you fed me. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me?’”
“For the greatest economy in the world, to be told to spend down all your income so you can qualify for Medicaid, we can’t function like that. The greatest economy in the world can’t function like this.”
– Pete Buttigieg
Just before Pete Buttigieg’s own campaign rally and the Celebrate Progress dinner, the Nevada Current’s Dana Gentry asked him nearly everything short of a direct question on whether The New York Times’ Reid Epstein is correct in assessing that Buttigieg is angling to supplant Joe Biden as the leading centrist alternative to Elizabeth Warren and fellow progressive Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). Today, Buttigieg came to the Nevada AFL-CIO office in Henderson to speak with an intimate group of retired union workers with the Nevada Alliance for Retired Americans. And today, this question that’s risen from Gentry’s interview and Epstein’s report seemed to linger in the room as these retired workers asked Buttigieg their own questions.
On one end, when retired non-profit health care worker Sue Bird told Buttigieg about the impending financial crush she and her spouse are facing over his health care needs and her lack of a pension to pay for everything he needs, Buttigieg sympathized as he remembered what his own family faced when his father faced complications during his later years.
“For the greatest economy in the world, to be told to spend down all your income so you can qualify for Medicaid, we can’t function like that. The greatest economy in the world can’t function like this,” Buttigieg exclaimed. He then promised, “We will be rolling out a long-term care insurance plan for everyone.”
“I’m worried about debt and deficits. That’s something Democrats don’t talk about enough.”
– Pete Buttigieg
Yet on the other end, when someone else asked about interest rates and inflation, Buttigieg went in a starkly different direction, a direction reminiscent of then President Barack Obama’s ill-fated attempt to strike a “grand bargain” budget deal with Congressional Republicans in 2011. On this question, Buttigieg flatly responded, “I’m worried about debt and deficits. That’s something Democrats don’t talk about enough.”
He then tried to contrast himself with Warren and Sanders without naming them. “We’ve got to act responsibly now. Every proposal our campaign releases, we show how we’re going to pay for it. We will not promise something unless we have a way to pay for it,” Buttigieg proclaimed, even as he’s facing his own questions on how he’ll pay for his proposals.
Now to be fair, Buttigieg responded to earlier questions on Social Security and pensions by promising not to cut social safety net programs and instead consider raising the payroll tax threshold to $250,000 a year or higher to fix any future deficit for Social Security and Medicare, seemingly ruling out the widely panned “grand bargain” of benefit cuts tied to tax increases that Obama and then House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) attempted to strike. Still, this kind of “values talk” on fiscal policy helps explain why some in the progressive wing in the party fear Buttigieg is repackaging a “Third Way” centrist platform in a progressive-looking cover.
“The good news for me is that the things I’m proposing are things that the majority of Americans support.”
– Pete Buttigieg
Regardless of how other progressive activists and rival campaigns sneer at Buttigieg and his increasingly confrontational “values talks”, many in the NARA meeting were impressed with his ability to talk with ease about everything from military veterans’ care to his larger prescription drug plan and “Medicare for All Who Want It” plan.
When asked how he’ll overcome Republican obstruction on Capitol Hill to get any of his agenda passed into law, Buttigieg again sought to contrast his approach with those promising “big, structural change” and/or “political revolution”. According to Buttigieg, “The good news for me is that the things I’m proposing are things that the majority of Americans support.”
He then promised to criss-cross the country and make his case directly with the people before and after the election. “That means a good use of my time and the big airplane that comes with the office is […] remind the voters of the difference between what they want to do and the obstruction their elected leaders are doing,” Buttigieg promised… Which, interestingly enough, doesn’t sound far off from Sanders’ and Warren’s own respective promises to turn their campaigns into lasting movements for progressive change.
Buttigieg also suggested, “The other solution is for folks like [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell [R-Kentucky] to not be in the majority any more. I hope to deliver enough coattails to make that happen.” This is the kind of promise that Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) makes when she suggests her more modest, moderate approach will result in a bigger Democratic victory next year.
“I seek to be a president who will lead with our values. We need to base all our actions on our values.”
– Pete Buttigieg
As the conversation continued at Nevada AFL-CIO headquarters, Buttigieg answered additional questions on climate change, foreign policy, and inequities in federal tax policy. Yet in all his answer, Buttigieg stuck to a very familiar theme. Along the lines of what we’ve heard from him before, he said again, “I seek to be a president who will lead with our values. We need to base all our actions on our values.”
Yet at this same event, Buttigieg also touched upon the kind of language we usually hear from Biden on how to govern. “We need a president who can pick up the pieces when so much of our country is broken, and unify a country that’s been divided,” Buttigieg declared.
When I first saw Pete Buttigieg here in Nevada back in April, I was awestruck by the ebullience of the large crowd and his own presentation, and by his starkly moral language that seemingly turned the tables on what we typically expect from Democratic campaigns. Since then, he’s rode this remarkable wave to political stardom. But with stardom comes scrutiny, and it’s now up to Buttigieg to prove to Nevada voters that his values are truly worth it.