Pete Buttigieg shows why the democrats must unite progressives and moderates in the leadership primaries

Sam Honey is a TPN columnist and an undergraduate student at the University of Manchester.

The late entries of Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick into the democratic primaries have further widened the diverse ideological spectrum and crisis of consensus over who is best placed to contest next November’s presidential election. The additions of Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York City, and Patrick, a two-term governor of Massachusetts, add two more high-profile candidates to the primary race, yet whether their campaigns will take off at all remains to be seen.

Both candidates’ names have been thrown around as possible contenders ever since Hilary Clinton’s shocking defeat in 2016, and the party’s panic-induced rush to identify the heir to Obama’s legacy has led to the stuttering of senior party figures’ campaigns. Cory Booker, as Senator from New Jersey, was tipped as a serious contender for the 2020 nomination in the early days of the Trump presidency, but is now struggling to even reach the necessary poll ratings for the next debate.

Julian Castro, another ethnic minority candidate, was also painted by major commentators with the same brush of exceptionalism that propelled Obama to usurp Clinton as the front-runner and eventual victor of the 2008 contest. However, Obama’s former Secretary of Labor has now stepped aside, having failed to locate any sort of springboard for his nascent presidential aspirations.

When attempting to locate future presidents, both major parties naturally look to prestige, standing, and rank of office. If Joe Biden does clinch the nomination, he will become the third former vice-president, along with Walter Mondale and Al Gore, to contest the election for the Democrats in 36 years. 

Additionally, the campaigns of some of the early 2020 front-runners were launched merely by discussion of their seniority. Gillbrand, Warren and Harris represent three of the Democrats’ safest senate seats in New York, Massachusetts and California respectively. Even before all three announced their candidacies, there was a press buzz over whether representatives in these ‘solid blue’ areas would disclose presidential ambitions. 

But the early dropouts of Gillbrand and Castro, who both would have been considered likely to stay until close to the Democratic National Convention, perhaps suggest that the race to the top for the Democrats does not start on Capitol Hill, or indeed with promoting the efforts of prominent moderates from the Obama years.

According to the latest Real Clear Politics polls (Nov 27), Warren and Sanders remain the two candidates closest to Biden, holding 17.2% and 18.2% averages respectively. During their time on Capitol Hill, the two Senators have gained more recognition for their radical and progressive agendas than they have for falling into party line. Sanders himself was elected as an Independent, and while closely aligned with the party, is not listed as a Democrat in the Senate.

While Biden’s campaign has focused on promoting the presidential competency he developed as Vice President, he has been keen not to over-emphasise or celebrate the policies of the Obama administration. There appears to be a wariness among candidates of the undercurrents that helped pave the way for Trump’s election three years ago; Clearly populist sentiment is still ingrained in American political culture. Candidates must strive to be as distinct from Obama and Clinton as they are from the Bushes.

In this way, the race is increasingly being conceptualised as one run along the Progressive-Moderate divide. As expectations build that some of the long-shots will drop out in the coming months, there are now voices calling for a progressive alliance, whereby Warren or Sanders concedes in favour of the other taking on Biden in a head-on race to the convention. The pair are ideologically homogeneous, and the transfer of even half of one’s supporters to the other would make the race uncomfortably tight for the Delawarean.

Yet, Democrats must also ask if this Progressive Vs. Moderate debate is a misconception of the true dividing lines among the electorate. The most intriguing interventions in the race thus far have come not from those deliberating on policy issues, but those offering unique approaches entirely. Andrew Yang has proposed a technology-led revolution, Tom Steyer has taken a platform of elitist remorse, and Pete Buttigieg has offered a unique vision of reforming the presidential method and how the White House is run.

Of the fringe candidates, Buttigieg has been the most successful. He has consistently topped the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire – states that have often been considered trendsetters in past primary contests. While Real Clear Politics numbers appear to show the resilience of Biden, Warren, and Sanders as the top three, a new poll from Quinnipiac University places Buttigieg as the nearest challenger to Joe Biden among Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters.

An Afghanistan veteran and quickly rising political figure and having been elected to the mayoralty of his home town at just 29, Buttigieg’s vision is clear. The stagnation of American politics and the Presidency is driven by outdated perceptions of how things are run in DC. Buttigieg wants to bring his experience of the pragmatic revitalisation of the South Bend  to heal the wounds of a divided country.

Cowen analyst Jaret Seiberg has captured Buttigieg’s distinctiveness well in Markets Insider, arguing that, “As a mayor, his experience is solving problems rather than partisan brawling.”

This represents one of the main selling points of ‘Mayor Pete’, he is more concerned about pragmatism in policy solutions than he is in becoming unnecessarily implicated in harsh debates over what area of the party’s ideological spectrum he represents.

In many ways Buttigieg could be classed as a progressive. He supports radical action on climate change, including a ‘Green New Deal’, holds an incredibly reformist stance on gun ownership for a southern politician, and in aiming to become the first ever LGBT President, wants to pass the Federal Equality Act as soon as he takes office.

Yet, Buttigieg has also distanced himself from the likes of Sanders and Warren. He has countered their proposals for the elimination of private insurance with a plan that allows individuals to hold private healthcare plans, while introducing a government-funded public healthcare program to bring an incentive for better options in the private sector. 

He has also successfully integrated his religious identity into his campaign, arguing explicitly for the embracing of a religious left in the United States and criticising the association of Christian values with Republican party affiliation. This open-ended use of faith on the campaign trail is another element of Buttigieg’s persona that sets him aside from his fellow challengers. 

The key dividing lines and boundaries of policy debate for next year’s election are still far from set. Democrats still do not know how they will attempt to unseat Donald Trump or Mike Pence, and a clearer idea of who will be handed the nomination at next summer’s Democratic National Convention is needed before the party can organise how to critique the President throughout the national campaign. 

At this stage, the polls appear to suggest that the individual to challenge Trump will be Joe Biden. Yet, as the party is consumed by debates over progressive and moderate policy debates, little attention is being paid to how fundamental the change needed in DC is. It goes beyond merely how the healthcare question is answered and beyond believing that deploring Trump’s record will be enough to remove the Republicans from office. Just like Bill Clinton’s emergence from relative obscurity to overcome Jerry Brown in 1992, Buttigieg has risen from total outsider status to offer a unique perspective on how to utilise the Presidency. Now a serious contender in the early primaries, the Democrats should value the fact that ‘Mayor Pete’ has never touched base with Capitol Hill. It may be the most important factor in the formative contributions he is making to the party and this primary race. 


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