Pete Buttigieg’s best chance to become president will be in 2028, and I think he knows it.
The articulate, scholarly and charismatic mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who also happens to be gay, has only been in the 2020 race for a few weeks. Though the 37-year-old is the youngest Democratic contender, with no experience on the national stage, he has made a remarkable splash. Most polls place him in the top five among 23 announced candidates.
Back in March, I wrote in this space that Buttigieg is special. I said he triggered emotions in a way I hadn’t felt since Barack Obama announced his historic presidential candidacy in 2007. I believed Mayor Pete could be elected president and I still do — but not right now.
Buttigieg doesn’t flaunt his homosexuality, but he doesn’t make much effort to mask it, either. That’s not an accident; it’s a strategy. It makes him heroic, and it makes me even more determined to support him. But it’s not the game plan that will get him the 2020 nomination.
I believe the first “tell” in Buttigieg’s thinking came even as he formally declared his candidacy. When he concluded his eloquent speech at the former Studebaker factory in South Bend last month, the crowd roared its approval. Then his husband, Chasten, 29, walked out on stage and the couple kissed.
The story from the ultraconservative Breitbart news service was headlined, “Supporters cheer Pete Buttigieg kissing husband Chasten at 2020 campaign kick off.” A few days later when Buttigieg appeared on “Late Night,” host Seth Meyers held up a photo of The Kiss. Shortly after that, CBS “Sunday Morning” profiled Buttigieg and included not one but two images of the Buttigiegs kissing. How will Buttigieg handle his next high-profile event? It’s a Fox News town hall Sunday, and it’s bound to draw a conservative audience.
‘Is it OK for Pete to kiss his husband?’
In an interview this month with “The Advocate,” a publication devoted to gay issues, podcast host Jeffrey Masters told Buttigieg: “If I was working for your staff, I would have to question, is it OK for Pete to kiss his husband at this campaign rally?”
Masters was talking strategy. Implicit in his comment was the fear that by pushing gay imagery too hard, too soon, Buttigieg would hurt his chances with voters who are more socially conservative than his early supporters, particularly regarding LGBTQ issues.
“I just realized that I had to be who I was,” Buttigieg replied. “It’s too much work to try to be someone else, and so we trusted people. And the amazing thing is for the most part that trust was vindicated.”
Indeed, when the mayor came out gay during his reelection campaign in South Bend, he trusted his instincts and won with a remarkable 80% of the vote. The same candor while campaigning for president has been widely publicized, notably on a Time magazine cover featuring the Buttigiegs and the headline, “First Family.”
Making the long play on gay pride
But to some marketing strategists, that’s the wrong play on the national stage. When Buttigieg was interviewed recently on MSNBC, the first question from advertising expert Donny Deutsch was whether being gay should be among several of Buttigieg’s core principles, or the singular, defining element of his campaign.
“It’s something you think about as you’re presenting yourself to a broader public,” Buttigieg said, without actually explaining his strategy. He quickly added that the diverse elements in his background — military veteran, Rhodes scholar, Midwesterner of Episcopalian faith plus, of course, his marriage — are all parts of his story. Yet it was clear to me that, seemingly wise beyond his 37 years, Mayor Pete is making the long play.
If Buttigieg thought he had a real chance of winning the nomination in this cycle, he would be following the advice of Jeffrey Masters and Donny Deutsch. He would be prideful, but more restrained in projecting his sexual orientation. On the other hand, if he realized that his real chance will come in eight years, it would be smart, even shrewd, to emphasize gay pride now, because it will prime the public for next time.
Hillary Clinton came close in 2008. Although she lost to Barack Obama, she spoke proudly of making 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling that keep women from the White House. Eight years later, she was the odds-on favorite to win. Only a perfect storm of bad luck and poor judgment — not to mention the Electoral College system — caused her defeat. But the fact is she came within a whisker of being the first woman president, just as Pete Buttigieg has an excellent chance, eventually, of becoming the first openly gay president.
Nine more chances before he’s Trump’s age
Democrats have an unprecedented roster of qualified candidates, including six women. The early front-runners with high name recognition are laying out detailed policy positions while newcomers like Buttigieg are still in the get-to-know-me stage. His website has long had a “Meet Pete” tab but just added an issues sectionThursday.
Whether by chance or remarkable foresight, Buttigieg’s life story reads like a presidential résumé — from Harvard, to Oxford to McKinsey & Co. to the front lines in Afghanistan. Running without winning right now doesn’t hurt that narrative; it embellishes it.
On the stump, Buttigieg often says he’s worried about what the world will be like in 2054, the year when he will reach the age of the current president. What he doesn’t mention is that there will be nine presidential elections between now and then — nine chances to elect a gay chief executive. Even if the 2020 odds are against him, he’s a good bet to someday become the most prideful winner of all.