Pete Buttigieg is on a roll, and even conservatives are cheering.
To get a sense of why, I talked to Michael B. Murphy, a former Republican state representative who grew up in South Bend, Indiana.
“I think his rhetoric has been brilliant,” Murphy tells me. “Even people who disagree with him on the issues walk away thinking, ‘Well, I disagree with him, but he’s not a bad guy.’”
Buttigieg hails from what Murphy describes as a very conservative working-class town—with a very liberal Catholic university (Notre Dame). Surviving in this mixed environment required learning how to navigate politics in a way that a congressman representing a deep blue district might not do.
Just as Bill Clinton’s background as governor of Arkansas helped the Democratic candidate appeal to middle American Reagan-Bush voters, Buttigieg’s likable style is, at least, partly a product of his culture and environment.
But it’s not just a folksy style that makes him formidable. “I think he’s the best mayor South Bend has had in 60 years,” Murphy tells me. “He’s done some things that other mayors could have done and never did.”
He’s referring to Buttigieg’s work revitalizing parts of South Bend that had gone underutilized as a blight on the city for decades. One such project involved restoring an old Studebaker factory that had lain fallow for 50 years and turning it into a “center of high-tech innovation.” Another initiative involved the acquisition and demolition of abandoned homes that had become havens for drugs and prostitution.
Murphy isn’t the only conservative who is impressed by Buttigieg. “There is a solid case to be made that the Democrat most likely to beat Trump would be [Buttigieg],” tweeted Ben Shapiro. “Really. He’s not crazy, he’s from the Rust Belt, he served in Afghanistan. Naturally that means Democrats will almost certainly select someone else.”
Others are comparing him favorably to Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat some thought would occupy the sane, likable lane in the 2020 race. “One of them is a Rhodes scholar and former Navy lieutenant who served in Afghanistan, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, speaks eight languages, and references Faulkner offhand with as much ease as he does Eminem,” wrote Tiana Lowe, a commentary writer at the Washington Examiner. “The other is an unemployed trust fund baby whose billionaire father-in-law bankrolled his onion-thin congressional career, culminating in a public mid-life crisis.”
To be sure, some of the praise is due to Buttigieg’s recent handling of a question about Chick-fil-A. (Back in 2012, Chick-fil-A came under fire because its late founder had donated to groups that oppose gay marriage.)
"I do not approve of their politics. I kind of approve of their chicken,” Buttigieg said of the franchise, admitting what everyone else thinks about the fabulous fowl. “Maybe if nothing else, I can build that bridge,” he continued. “Maybe I'll be in a position to broker that peace deal.”
“This guy is calm, sane, and funny in a sea of performative-anger posers and we should be able to appreciate that regardless of politics,” noted Seth Mandel, executive editor of the Washington Examiner magazine.
Frank Purdue used to say, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.” The 21st century version may be, “It takes a tough progressive to admit to liking Chick-fil-A.” And that’s just what Pete Buttigieg (the first openly gay Democratic presidential hopeful) is demonstrating.
If only Nixon could go to China, then maybe only the first openly gay president can go to Chick-fil-A?
Of course, this kind of conservative praise could be damning, but it’s not just conservatives who are taking a liking to him. Far from it, in fact. A new Quinnipiac poll suggests Pete Buttigieg isn’t just a flash in the pan, and that his 15 minutes is likely to continue. He’s tied with Elizabeth Warren at 4 percent, and he is beating Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar.
That’s nothing to sneeze at. In fact, to put it in perspective, CNN notes, “…the current mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is polling in the same area as a number of candidates who are regarded as having a legitimate chance of winning the Democratic nomination.” (One poll has him in third place in Iowa at 11 percent.)
Appealing to national conservatives may seem like a relatively pointless accomplishment, but the result may be what has been referred to in the past as a “ricochet pander.” Despite all the buzz and attention generated by controversial candidates on the left, the Democratic Party is still a place where the rank-and-file favor a more moderate party. Indeed, as liberal Bill Scher notes, “…the political home where most moderates presently feel most comfortable is the Democratic Party.”
Labeling Buttigieg as a moderate (in an ideological sense) is overly simplistic and inaccurate. Buttigieg says he wants to abolish the Electoral College and pack the Supreme Court. These progressive stances are a big part of his early buzz.
The brilliant thing is that he is blending a moderate temperament and tone with a notion of being a young outsider unbeholden to establishment norms—all the while making those ideas feel like “common sense.”
If you ask me, it might be time for conservatives to stop cheering him and start fearing him.