A funny debate has been roiling the online left: Do young liberals hate Pete Buttigieg too little or too much?
In the past few months, Buttigieg, the presidential candidate and young mayor of tiny South Bend, Indiana, has enjoyed a steady, unlikely rise in early state polls. But with success has come a backlash, and then a backlash to the backlash.
On paper, Buttigieg ticks a lot of presidential-candidate boxes; you can’t write about Mayor Pete without mentioning he’s a Rhodes scholar, he’s a veteran, and he has an articulate, cool-tempered decency reminiscent of Barack Obama. And yet the mayor has drawn the ire of the plugged-in progressive left. There’s something curious about the disdain, notes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. In a field of many other milquetoast moderates — including front-runner Joe Biden — why has Mayor Pete been singled out for special skewering by young radicals?
I am not so young, but I am one of those crazy radicals who have been concerned about the intractable domination of our society by a small band of wealthy interests. So I’ll tell you why I don’t like Buttigieg. It’s not because I think he’d be an especially bad president. Like Biden, the mayor seems to possess the baseline capacity to run America in a way that isn’t an embarrassment or a disgrace, which would certainly be a step up from the current administration. He has also articulated some interesting policy ideas, and he has managed to win a lot of hearts online — a talent, of a sort, in an election measured in cheesy viral hits.
Yet every time I hear him speak, I get the sense that he’s trying too hard to please everyone and that — in a way that recalls some of Obama’s worst tendencies toward misguided centrism — he’ll end up pleasing no one in the process. Ultimately, I worry Buttigieg will easily lose to Trump because he is ill suited to make the simplest and most powerful argument against the current administration’s apparent economic successes.
That argument goes like this: Though the economic stats look pretty good, the Trump boom is a mirage and a moral disgrace. Today’s seemingly rosy climate is the culmination of a political economy that consistently rewards the already wealthy at the expense of everyone else. The only way to reverse the trend toward inequality is to reform the way America does business. A politician who pushes for these reforms needs courage because the forces arrayed against structural change are powerful.
But while Mayor Pete has outlined several progressive-sounding ideas for overhauling Americans’ economic lives — including a call for universal health care (that will still include a hefty role for private corporations), an idea for lowering student debt (but not making college free), a promise to strengthen regulations against monopolies (but a reluctance to break up Big Tech) — he lacks authenticity. Rather than fundamental reform, many of his proposals end up sounding like opportunistic incrementalism, as if he wants to be seen to be doing something without really doing much at all, for fear of arousing the forces arrayed against reform. Even Biden, who has built his brand on common-man folksisms, seems more believable, and he has explicitly promised billionaires that nothing much will change for them.
My fears about Mayor Pete’s easy way with the wealthy were confirmed this week, when he convened a group of big-money donors on a tour through Silicon Valley. I wasn’t surprised that he has proved so attractive to the tech set. With his slick, easy optimism, Mayor Pete reminds me of so many techies who promise big, disruptive change while refusing to accept the full costs of achieving their idealism. For them, there’s always an easy, slapdash, cost-free revolution: Just use the right hashtag on Instagram and you, too, can spark regime change in the Arab world.
I suspect we’ll need a bolder candidate to take on Trumpism and corporate control. The Mayor from McKinsey is the wrong man to make the case.
The Democrat who meets Trump in 2020 will face a big challenge: countering the idea that Trump’s economic policies are “working,” at least according to the traditional way we measure this stuff.
The American economy, we are told, is resplendent and aglow. Thanks to a tax cut that swelled corporate coffers and a frenzy of deregulation that unleashed long-term dangers in exchange for short-term profits, the hits just keep coming: We’re now in the longest expansion in history, with little sign of abating. Job growth regularly defies naysayers. The stock market seems to set a record more often than people stream Mariah Carey Christmas hits.
On CNBC the other day, anchor Jim Cramer, reflecting the mood of Wall Street, said, “These are the best numbers of our lives."
For the president, the political argument here is straightforward. Like Bill Clinton in 1996 or Ronald Reagan in 1984, Trump is planning to point to an economy doing its best George Costanza: We’re back, baby, we’re back! Every week on Twitter, Trump chef-kisses new economic stats as if he’d personally assembled the national dish.
That’s one way to put it. Here’s another way: This economy is stupid.
As my colleague David Leonhardt writes, headline economic stats are increasingly divorced from more substantive metrics on American well-being. This is a country in which prosperity rains on the rich while hundreds of thousands of people go bankrupt every year for getting sick. This is a country in which it is not unusual to encounter developing-world misery alongside the most obscene collections of wealth ever recorded. There’s a lot of job growth, but a lot of the jobs are low-wage, high-toil jobs. It’s a country in which every nearly every economic sector trends toward monopoly and oligarchy, and in which regulators let companies call the shots — see the FAA and Boeing or the FTC and Google.
Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have turned these dismal realities into the central pillars of their campaigns. Both are calling for policies that fundamentally overhaul corporate control of the economy. As their detractors note, it’s unlikely that they will be able to achieve many of those goals in our polarized political climate. But what matters to me is that they are making the case. They have articulated both far-reaching, structural policy goals and political strategies that mesh with the spirit of those goals. Not only are they calling for fundamental change that will alter vast sectors of the economy, but they are also committed to undoing the influence of corporations and the wealthy in their own path to the White House, underscoring their commitment to their goals.
I don’t see how Mayor Pete can make a similarly compelling case. I don’t see how he can take on Trump’s economy without at least attempting to fight the CEOs who championed the corporate cash-grab that made it so hot. And I don’t see how he can take on those CEOs while holding fundraisers in Napa Valley “wine caves.”
Mayor Pete seems like a lovely man. That’s the problem. He’ll get eaten alive by the corporate machine that now runs the world.
Farhad Manjoo is an opinion columnist for The New York Times with a background of reporting and writing about technology.