INDIANAPOLIS — President Pete. I mean, President Peter Buttigieg. That’s a pipe dream, right?
The gay mayor of South Bend who announced he wouldn’t seek a third term earlier this month and who will likely make a Democratic White House bid doesn’t have a chance. Right?
Remember all those columns I wrote in 2015 and 2016 that ended with the phrase, “Anything can happen. Anything?” Well, 2020 could be a year that takes that new axiom and cubes it in historic fashion.
We’ve never had a mayor make the straight jump to the White House, or even the national ticket. Mayors John Lindsey and Sam Yorty couldn’t make it happen. Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Grover Cleveland and Andrew Johnson were mayors in the earlier parts of their political careers, but got to the White House from higher stations.
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Buttigieg announced he won’t seek a third term. There’s not a realistic path in Indiana for him. He’s not interested in Congress, and with Gov. Eric Holcomb’s current popularity and the Indiana Democratic Party’s shattered foundation, a 2020 challenge there doesn’t appear to be in the cards.
Instead, the mayor is using a failed run for Democratic National Committee chair to become one of up to three dozen Democrats seeking to challenge President Trump (or, perhaps, “President Pence”).
Buttigieg said, “For most of the decade now, I have given everything that I can to helping this city get to a new future. And I love this job. And I’m mindful that it may well be the best job that I will ever have. But it’s also not the kind of job you do forever.”
Buttigieg has been doing the things a potential POTUS hopeful does. He’s given speeches in Iowa and other early primary states. His addresses channel President Kennedy’s “pass the torch” oratory, saying about the March for Our Lives last winter, “Go ahead, dismiss this generation. I dare you. But I do think that people are looking for something new. They’re looking for something fresh and different. And I think that, as a party, we can’t just — first of all, we can’t only trot out people who go to work in Washington every day, as representatives of the party.”
Does Buttigieg have a ghost of a chance? Did Jimmy Carter in 1974? Bill Clinton in 1990? Barack Obama in 2006? Or Donald Trump in 2014? The big difference was they were governors and senators (and a billionaire). This, however, is an era of broken molds.
In 2006, Hillary Clinton was in such a commanding position over Barack Obama and John Edwards that our Sen. Evan Bayh folded his campaign just as it was getting started. In 2014, Jeb Bush had 23 percent in an early CNN poll, some 10 percent ahead of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, with Ben Carson, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee in the next tier. Trump was a joke.
But two observations this past week jumped out at me. First, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, watching the 75-year-old western order crumble on the riotous streets of Paris while Britain is roiled over Brexit and President Trump gnaws at the post-World War II construct, wrote about an anxious middle class on both sides of the pond: “I don’t think there are national solutions to this problem — simply cut taxes or raise taxes — in the way there were in the past. I think the countries that will thrive in this era are the ones that have the most nimble cities, with the most nimble local leaders.”
And Purdue President Mitch Daniels told me that Americans have a tendency after years of rule by a person or party to select a vastly different president than the one before, who portrays strengths in the areas where the predecessor had weakness. Think JFK following Ike, Reagan after Carter, Trump after Obama.
I cannot think of a more vivid contrast to President Trump than Pete Buttigieg. Trump speaks in mob boss parlance; Buttigieg is a cerebral Rhodes Scholar. Trump embodies an aggressive masculinity; the mayor is softer spoken and gay. Trump had five military draft deferments; Buttigieg volunteered for the Navy and served in the Afghanistan war. Trump goes by the gut; Buttigieg is analytical by nature. Trump is skeptical of intelligence assessments; the mayor is a military intelligence analyst who devours the information.
Am I predicting that Pete Buttigieg has a chance in 2020? Could there really be a “President Buttigieg?” It’s a bet I wouldn’t be inclined to make at this point, but virtually no one was wagering on a President Trump in December 2014. I also won’t be laying any money down on Biden, Bernie or Beto at this point.
What I will be watching is how Buttigieg staffs up, should he take the plunge. During his run for DNC chair, he had the ear and guidance from people like David Axelrod, Ed Rendell and Howard Dean. If you see that caliber of talent gravitate toward his campaign, then get out the Drudge siren.
What I do know is that in this era of unpredictability, with conventional wisdom on its heels and a raging bull preening and lashing out in the White House china shop, well, you know what can happen.
Brian A. Howey of Nashville is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol. Send comments to [email protected].