With Kamala Harris having dropped out, Amy Klobuchar unable to get above 3% in the polls and Joe Biden producing gaffes at an ever-accelerating rate, the corporatist wing of the U.S. Democratic Party has seemed desperate to find a presidential candidate who will protect the status quo in 2020. While some of these insiders still hope that former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg will be able to buy his way to the front of the pack, many centrists have pinned their hopes on the mayor of Indiana’s 4th largest city, Pete Buttigieg.
At 37 years of age, much has been made by the candidate and in the media about ‘Mayor Pete’s’ youth but, listening to him talk about his policy ideas, he sounds like a politician from a much earlier era. At first, the candidate presented as a progressive but, as the field has narrowed, his talking points have become positively Clintonian.
Although almost every candidate, including most of the centrists, have tried to be transparent in terms of their donors and most have refused corporate and PAC money, Buttigieg has been unwilling to reveal them or open up his fundraisers to the press. Reason enough for American progressives to be suspicious of him but this, unfortunately, is one of the least troubling things about Mayor Pete.
One argument in the Democratic primaries over the past year or so has been between the universal programs favored by Bernie Sanders and, to a lesser extent, Elizabeth Warren, and the centrist obsession of candidates like Buttigieg with ‘means-tested’ ones. The latter is a clever ruse, as it allows candidates beholden to big donor interests to play the populist by saying they don’t want to pay for (insert program here) for the children of the rich.
In an ad running in Iowa about free college tuition at state universities, Buttigieg, who is the son of two professors at Notre Dame, made this exact point and added that a university education isn’t for everyone. He also implied, both in the ad and in a campaign stop in South Carolina, that the most comprehensive policy on offer, Senator Sanders’, wouldn’t provide for those who want to learn a trade, something the Vermont senator has pushed back forcefully against, as this type of education is also covered by his plan.
Buttigieg’s campaign’s communications advisor, Lis Smith, went further with this critique, calling both Sanders’ and Warren’s plans, “elitist”.
Replying to Buttigieg’s views via Twitter, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez summed up the progressive view on the issue of means-testing with her usual aplomb, “Universal public systems are designed to benefit EVERYBODY! Everyone contributes and everyone enjoys. We don’t ban the rich from public schools, firefighters, or libraries because they are public goods. Universal systems that benefit everyone are stronger because everyone’s invested!”
On the issue that polling tells us Democratic voters care most about, healthcare, Mayor Pete has become a champion of a means tested ‘public option’, calling his plan ‘Medicare for all who want it’. Such a plan would actually be a gift to insurance companies, who could reduce their risk pool by forcing those with preexisting conditions or the likelihood of developing health issues into the public option, making it more expensive over time and likely ensuring that the program, if enacted, would eventually face cuts, if not outright elimination.
Despite the criticism coming from the progressive left, Buttigieg has doubled down on his opposition to both Medicare for All and free university telling David Axelrod in an interview on CNN last week, “I do think that we should be realistic about what’s going to work. And just flipping a switch and saying we’re instantly going to have everybody on Medicare just like that — isn’t realistic. I think that when it comes to a lot of these policies that we’re being pushed to do — say that we can pay down the last penny of tuition for any student including the child of a billionaire. These are things that are questionable on their merits and of course also pretty far out … from where Americans are.”
What is actually ‘pretty far out’ for most of the rest of the world is that a country as rich as the United States doesn’t guarantee healthcare as a human right to all its citizens and that so many of its young people are burdened with excessive debt before they’ve even had a chance to get a start in life.
Another big problem that the South Bend mayor faces electorally if he were to be the Democratic nominee are his numbers with the African-American community both in the key primary state of South Carolina and throughout the country as a whole (not to mention younger voters who, despite his age, don’t really seem to see his appeal). The unwillingness of many in these communities to throw their support to Buttigieg is at least in part due to ongoing scandals from his time as South Bend mayor.
When he first became mayor in 2012, Buttigieg demanded the resignation of and then, after a public outcry ensued, demoted the city’s first African American police chief, Darryl Boykins, who has since received a $50,000 settlement from the city for racial discrimination.
The explanation given by the mayor and his subordinates in the time since is that some communications by police were being recorded and that this was the subject of a federal investigation, with prosecutors pressuring the mayor to deal with Boykins. Unfortunately for them, no charges were ever brought and the recording began long before Boykins was chief. The recordings also allegedly show widespread racism in the department,
And as further proof of discriminatory practices in South Bend under Mayor Pete, the only three senior African Americans in the civil service, including Boykins, the Chief of the city’s Fire Department and Mayor’s Assistant, all, “Within three months of Buttigieg taking office… had either retired, been asked to leave, or been demoted, and none was replaced by another African American or other minority leader,” according to the former police chief’s federal lawsuit.
Seeking to win over African American voters with a proposal called “The Douglass Plan for Black America”, Buttigieg’s campaign only made it worse when it claimed the plan, and by association, the South Bend mayor, had the support of 400 prominent black South Carolinians. There was just one problem with this: it was far from the truth.
Besides the fact that almost half of those said to support the plan are white, many of those on the list have endorsed neither the candidate or his plan.
As one of those featured most prominently on the list, State Representative Ivory Thigpen, told Ryan Grim of the Intercept, “How it was rolled out was not an accurate representation of where I stand. I didn’t know about its rolling out. Somebody brought it to my attention, and it was alarming to me, because even though I had had conversations with the campaign, it was clear to me, or at least I thought I made it clear to them, that I was a strong Bernie Sanders supporter — actually co-chair of the state, and I was not seeking to endorse their candidate or the plan. But what I had talked about was potentially giving them a quote of support in continuing the conversation, because I do think it’s a very important conversation.”
With his abysmal poll numbers with the African Americans voters who are crucial to any Democratic nominee, it’s hard to imagine that Mayor Pete, with all the baggage he brings, including his time as a consultant with high powered consulting firm Mckinsey, could win the primaries, but you wouldn’t know this from the glowing coverage he’s been receiving in the mainstream U.S. press.
The South Bend mayor is often portrayed by his fans in the media as a reborn Barack Obama but, at least from what we’ve seen so far, he’s missing the former president’s seeming empathy, charisma and ability to inspire. However, he does seem to share a willingness, although most didn’t see it until after Obama’s election in 2008, to play ball not only with the corporatists in his own party but with the Republicans who despised the former president and seem unlikely to feel any better about Mayor Pete.
Footage of Mayor Peter praising the Tea Party at a 2010 conference and calling for more bipartisanship is not a good look for the millions of Americans hoping to chart a more progressive course post 2020.