A month before the Iowa caucuses, Pete Buttigieg has surged to the top of the polls in the Midwestern state that kicks off the 2020 Democratic primary season. That has made him, rather than national front-runner Joe Biden, the prime target of just about everyone else in the race.
For Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who needs a strong showing in Iowa to remain in the race, 37-year-old Mr. Buttigieg’s limited experience and failure to win office beyond his hometown of South Bend, Ind., (population 102,000) are proof he’s not ready to be president.
For Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign has lost some of its momentum in recent weeks, the man known colloquially as Mayor Pete is too chummy with the very billionaires she blames for most of what’s wrong in the United States.
For Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who thinks the path to beating Republican President Donald Trump involves a massive turnout among young and progressive voters, Mr. Buttigieg’s cautiously centrist platform would turn off those very constituencies.
For Mr. Biden, who holds a huge lead among African-American voters as Barack Obama’s former vice-president, Mr. Buttigieg’s unpopularity in South Carolina (where black people make up a majority of Democratic primary voters) is proof of his inability to rebuild the Obama coalition.
Those are all valid criticisms. But they might not matter in Iowa, where the electorate is overwhelmingly white and ideologically middle-of-the-road. And a win in Iowa would vault Mr. Buttigieg to the front of the pack, facing three rivals who are all twice his age.
As the Democratic Party has moved resoundingly to the left, Mr. Buttigieg is something of a heretic. He unapologetically courts “Republicans of conscience” who feel betrayed by the ballooning federal budget deficit under Mr. Trump. And he talks constantly of the “future former Republicans” who will push him over the top to win the White House.
Those are fighting words for Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, tantamount to cavorting with the enemy. Their main promises – universal health care, free college tuition, higher taxes on the wealthy – would likely not be possible without progressive Democratic majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Indeed, many progressive Democrats see Mr. Buttigieg as downright dangerous. A Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar, he has relied on a network of former schoolmates to serve as campaign “bundlers,” raising millions in donations from the wealthy and connected.
Ms. Warren, who has refused big-money donations, has accused him of offering access to those who pay up, saying: “When a candidate brags about how beholden he feels to a group of wealthy investors, our democracy is in serious trouble.”
His critics see him as overly calculating, with a résumé that appears to have been built with an eye on power. After completing his studies at Oxford, he joined McKinsey & Co., the highly secretive global consulting firm that has worked to advance the business and political goals of a roster of rich and powerful clients, including several governments.
Toronto-based Loblaws was one of Mr. Buttigieg’s clients at McKinsey, although hardly his most influential. That would have been the U.S. Defense Department, for which he worked on an economic-development project in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009.
He also did a seven-month stint in Afghanistan in 2014 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
His military service, for which he took a leave of absence from his job as South Bend mayor, was completed before he came out as gay during his 2015 re-election campaign, the same month the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state bans on gay marriage were unconstitutional.
On the policy front, he has rejected the universal health-care systems promised by Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, offering instead to allow Americans to buy private or public insurance through an expanded Medicare program. He also pooh-poohs the idea of making tuition free for everyone who attends a public university or college, preferring a means-tested plan that would ensure that the “children of millionaires and billionaires” are not subsidized.
Mr. Buttigieg is clearly not after the progressive vote. He appears to be the favourite among wealthy Democrats on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley who want to rid their country of Mr. Trump, but fear that Mr. Biden may no longer be up to the job. They aren’t looking for a revolution, especially not one that undoes their privileges. And they’re terrified of a Warren or Sanders presidency.
And that could make Mr. Buttigieg the one to watch in 2020.
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