Pete Buttigieg, a naval reservist, Afghanistan War veteran, and the current mayor of South Bend, Indiana, announced today with a launch video and a Washington press conference that he’s forming an exploratory committee and running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.
It would obviously be unprecedented for the mayor of a small city (or, indeed, even the mayor of a big one) to be elected president. But until Donald Trump pulled it off, it was also completely unprecedented for a celebrity with no experience in public affairs to be elected president, so why not give it a try?
Buttigieg’s launch is relatively light on policy specifics but leans hard into the idea that as a 37-year-old he’s an appropriate leader for the rising “millennial” generation who can counter Trump’s brand of nostalgia politics.
When Buttigieg talks about national politics, he tends to make two big points.
One is the contrast between the dysfunction of Congress and the somewhat less polarized, more pragmatic view of public affairs that one sees at the local level.
The other is that while the specific details of policy issues facing the town of South Bend are probably not of enormous interest to the wider world, they actually illustrate a set of issues impacting a much broader range of communities. South Bend was the former home of the Oliver Plow Equipment Company and the automaker Studebaker, both of which went belly-up in the mid-1960s. Consequently, South Bend entered the cycle of post-industrial decline a generation earlier than many other former industrial centers — and, Buttigieg says, entered the recovery cycle faster.
While South Bend’s population declined steadily from 1970 to 2010, in the years since Buttigieg took over as mayor, it’s been growing again. That’s been powered by admitting that the old factories are not going to reopen and refocusing the economic model on higher education, health care, technology, and services.
Buttigieg has the kind of résumé — Harvard, Rhodes Scholar, a little work in Washington, service in Afghanistan, small-city mayor — that would normally garner you a “rising star” label and get you recruited for a run for higher office. That the higher office he’s after is president rather than member of Congress or governor is a sign not only of how Trump has disrupted political expectations but of how geographic polarization and gerrymandering is changing American politics.
South Bend is located in an R+11 House district that Democrats would almost certainly lose even in a huge wave year. Early in the 2016 cycle, Democrats had high hopes of winning a Senate race there by tempting former Sen. Evan Bayh to try to get back into politics, but he got crushed by 10 points. Then in 2018, incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly lost badly despite an enormously favorable national environment for Democrats. And while the decision to launch a long-shot presidential campaign is individually rational for lots of red-state Democrats, especially because the field is already so big, the party as a whole probably needs more down-ballot recruits rather than more presidential candidates.
A long shot like Buttigieg — especially a young long-shot — will also naturally attract speculation that the real game here is to audition for a Cabinet spot or the vice presidency rather than to launch a real-deal presidential campaign.
But hope springs eternal in the 2020 cycle, and Buttigieg has already made several trips to Iowa — a state where he’s hoping South Bend style and retail politics will play well, letting him do well enough to get attention and spark a positive cycle of momentum. It seems unlikely to work, but the reality is that four years ago, we assigned the politics and policy intern to cover the Trump campaign because it was such a ridiculous long shot and Buttigieg has far more relevant experience and policy knowledge than the incumbent. Stranger things have happened.
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