The Democrats have a habit of falling in love with saintly new faces as potential nation-rescuers.
After Richard Nixon, along came the pious Jimmy Carter. “I will never lie to you,” he solemnly vowed. He won the Democratic nomination, then the presidency.
In 1988, Michael Dukakis, another virtuous type, became the nominee and was promptly walloped by George H.W. Bush. After Mr. Bush’s son W. and his warmongering vice-president, Dick Cheney, came the noble and high-minded Barack Obama.
Now, another do-gooder threatens to claim the country’s saviour mantle. That would be the brainiac wonder boy Pete Buttigieg. Less than a year ago, he was the totally unknown 37-year-old gay mayor of South Bend, Ind.
Now, he’s the candidate on the move. He’s only fourth in national polls, far behind the three old warhorses – Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – all of whom are no less than two generations older than him.
But national polls aren’t the key barometer. Where to look is where the candidates stand in the first two primaries, Iowa and New Hampshire. Mr. Buttigieg is right there with the front-runners in Iowa and on the rise in the Granite State.
Mayor Pete is touting the Obama comparison. In a recent fundraising letter (I’m somehow on his mailing list), he made the point that this campaign was 2008 all over again, that he is rekindling the same excitement in today’s hyper-divided country as happened that year.
What gives Mr. Buttigieg distinction in the field is that he is a religious Democrat. At a time when the country’s moral standards are being shredded, he comes across as a young man of moral stature and authority well capable of leading an ethical renaissance.
A devout Espicopalian who cites Scripture, Mayor Pete uses the language of faith in his campaign, something Democrats have always shied away from and something that is normally the domain of Republicans. He confronts religious conservatives, calling out the Christian right for its shameful charade in supporting an immoral President such as Donald Trump.
It’s hypocrisy on stilts – and he is right to do so. “The Republican party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” Mr. Buttigieg says. “We should call out hypocrisy when we see it.”
He has taken on Vice-President Mike Pence for his opposition to same-sex marriage. On immigration, he says any party that thinks “God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”
Mr. Buttigieg has the three leading candidates looking over their shoulders. He is a moderate from the Rust Belt. He isn’t saddled with the yesterday’s-man foibles of Mr. Biden or with a radical medicare-for-all policy such as Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren. Given that tens of millions of Americans would have to relinquish their private health-insurance plans, it’s a high-risk issue. National medicare, the critics say, equals national nightmare.
It was expected that Mr. Buttigieg’s being gay might be a handicap. But so far, there are few signs. If the United States could elect a black president, it could elect a gay one, too.
Mr. Buttigieg’s military background (he served in Afghanistan) gives him credibility on the right. Intellectually, he’s second to none – a Rhodes scholar with a working knowledge of no less than eight languages.
Weaknesses are his inexperience and his lack of traction thus far with minority voters, a big handicap.
It’s presumptuous for him to think of becoming president at such a tender age; he would be the youngest ever. But the more people see of him, his composure, his broad perspective, his balance of mind, the more they’re convinced he is exceptional. That’s why he’s gone from an unknown with an unwieldy name to the candidate with the Big Mo.
He could have waited to go for the top job until he has more seasoning, but because Mr. Trump is in power, the timing is right. In many ways, he is the perfect counter to this President.
Mayor Pete is doing so well that he said the other day that the Democratic race is getting to be a two-person fight between himself and Ms. Warren.
It isn’t. In fact, he walked the comment back. But it’s well within the realm of possibility that the Democrats – and the country, too – will turn to the long-shot morality candidate the way they did for Mr. Carter and Mr. Obama.
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