Sunday, April 7, 2019

BTRTN: Pete Buttigieg... Jimmy Carter Redux?

So when do we start to take Mayor Pete seriously? Steve is thinking 43 years ago.

A Republican administration is reeling from the stench of unprecedented scandal. The incumbent Republican President is tarnished, widely unpopular, and considered such a buffoon that he is constantly ridiculed and lampooned by late night comedians. Democrats feel they have a clear shot to take back the White House, and a full seventeen candidates announce campaigns for the Presidency.

We are not talking about 2020.

We are describing 1976.

That was the year that a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia stormed out of absolutely nowhere to seize the Democratic Presidential nomination from rivals with far more relevant resumes, overwhelming advantages in name recognition, and vastly more experience in Washington.  Now may be a good time to pull out the history books and understand the dynamics that led the country to elect a man who only a year before was an utter unknown, and who began his Presidential bid with national awareness below one percent. A year later, Jimmy Carter was President of the United States.

There is an eerie echo of 1976 in the nascent ebbs and flows of the 2020 campaign, particularly in the unexpected surge of Pete Buttigieg, mayor of a city that does not even qualify as one of the three most populous cities in Indiana. If past proves prologue, it would be extremely unwise to dismiss the 37 year-old mayor of South Bend. Here’s why.

Let’s start with a twitter-grade synopsis of the 1976 campaign.

When Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace because of the Watergate scandal, Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in as President. Ford had been named Vice President due to the resignation of elected VP Spiro Agnew, himself shamed by tax violations wholly separate from Watergate.

Ford was earnest and well-meaning, and widely viewed to be a man of integrity. However, he made the decision to grant Richard Nixon a full pardon, causing cynics to believe that there had been a quid pro quo.  Nixon, the theory went, would select Ford as VP if Ford promised to pardon Nixon. Ford’s popularity took a nose-dive. No longer the clean new sheriff in town, he was suddenly part of the scandal. The Republicans were on the run.

However, America’s disillusionment with their government in that era was most certainly not solely a Republican issue. In fact, there were two seismic instances in which the government betrayed the public trust in this timeframe… Watergate and Vietnam. While the most horrific carnage to American troops in Vietnam war occurred  in the late sixties, the war did not end until 1975. The Pentagon Papers, published in 1971, had revealed the government’s deceit about the history of the war. Vietnam was still a visceral and bitterly alienating issue in America in 1976, and it was an equal opportunity disaster for Republicans and Democrats. Presidents from both parties had contributed mightily to America’s disaster in Vietnam.

Nevertheless, facing a weak Republican incumbent, Democrats saw a huge opportunity to win back the White House, and the field of candidates quickly swelled to 17. But the biggest names on the list were not very big. The most notable were Walter Mondale, who would become the party’s candidate eight years later, and Jerry Brown, then known as the youthful, enigmatic, and eccentric “Governor Moonbeam” of California. Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana was thought to have a good shot at the nomination until he was revealed to be terminally dull. Other Senators --- Fred Harris of Oklahoma, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington, and Frank Church of Idaho were in the mix, but none were able to break from the field. It’s worth noting that Ted Kennedy had star power the full Richter scale above any of these names, but that he was still rehabilitated his reputation following the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick in 1969.

In short, the Democratic field was not terribly impressive. More important: these candidates were largely viewed to be “of Washington.” They were career politicians at a point in time when Americans were appalled and betrayed by corruption, criminality, deception, stupidity, arrogance, ignorance, and deceit at the pinnacle of their government. The Democrats may have thought that they stood wholly apart from Nixon, but in the minds of voters across America, the issue may have been bigger than Nixon… it may have been alienation from a perceived culture of corruption in Washington. Watergate and Vietnam had made Washington toxic on all sides.

One of the more consequential factors shaping the Democratic race of 1976 was that many changes had been made to the campaign and primary rules following messy conventions in both 1968 and 1972. Those nomination processes has been conducted in the old-fashioned way with party bosses making deals in back rooms, and mediocre candidates had emerged.  There was a call to open the process more directly to voters, and the importance of primary elections in the selection process was elevated.

James Earl Carter, Jr., a one-term Governor of Georgia, was the one candidate who shrewdly realized the significance of the rule changes. He made an audacious bet, calculating that strong finishes in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary would generate broad media coverage and give him the air of a winner and the momentum that would accompany it. While many traditional candidates did not even bother make an effort in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Carter won both.

But the most brilliant tactic Carter employed was to market himself precisely on his lack of association with Washington and traditional politics. Carter was so unknown that the newspaper in the biggest city in the state where he has served as governor – the Atlanta Constitution -- ran this headline: “Jimmy Who is Running for What?” Carter intuited that a candidate wholly insulated from the industrial grade waste Americans saw in Washington, D.C. was best positioned to win in 1976. 
He understood that the country was disgraced by Nixon, but also torn and wounded by Vietnam, and that what was needed was a powerful cleansing agent of change, pristine integrity, and the restoration of values and ethics in government. “I will never lie to you” was the central promise of his candidacy. Jimmy Carter was deeply religious, and made no secret of his faith and the manner in which it informed his world view. 

Carter parlayed his wins in the early primaries to quickly become the front-runner, and he kept the momentum all the way to the nominating convention. His Presidential campaign was notable for some rookie mistakes (giving a too-candid interview to Playboy magazine was far off-brand), but Gerald Ford proved to be an incompetent candidate, declaring that Communist bloc countries in Eastern Europe were “not under Soviet influence.”

Jimmy Carter was elected the 39th President of the United States in November, 1976.

There sure are shades of 1976 in the spring air of 2019. 

The parallels between these two moments in history are striking. Yet another Republican administration is filthy with corruption, scandal, deceit, and arrogance. And yet the popular sentiment does not appear to perceive the other side as particularly virtuous. The anger aimed at Washington is equal opportunity loathing: citizens think that government does not work, and that the polarization and extremities of the parties has created nothing but gridlock.

Still – as in 1976 – the unpopularity of the Republicans seems to exceed the unpopularity of Democrats, and so an identical number of candidates have lined up to take a swing at the Presidency at a moment when the Republican incumbent appears vulnerable.

And – as in 1976 – the vast majority of the Democratic candidates are elected officials in the Federal government, aggressive partisans who are party to polarization and gridlock. They may well be perceived as a part of the problem and therefore ill-equipped to be the solution. As in 1976, none of the Democratic candidates stand head and shoulders above the others in the early going. None of these traditional candidates are generating a real buzz.

Compared to prior Presidents, Donald Trump’s approval ratings may be in the toilet, but approval ratings of Congress are down in the septic tank. As low as Donald Trump’s approval ratings may be, attitudes toward Congress are lower still.  Trump’s approval seems frozen in the low 40s… but the approval rating of Congress is in the mid-20s.

Perhaps this partially explains why the Senators in the field are struggling to gain traction. Warren, Booker, Klobuchar, and Sanders are well-established Senators at this point. Experience in Washington may not be a good thing. Revisit the 2016 election through this lens: precisely because Hillary Clinton was viewed to have such a wealth of relevant experience for the Presidency, she was also perceived to be deeply embedded in the Washington establishment. She lost to perhaps the most unprepared and least qualified candidate in U.S. history. 

Even worse than the guilt by association with Washington, many of the major Democratic candidates have already seen their reputations pulled down by past behaviors. Presumed front-runner Joe Biden, himself a Washington insider since the 1980s, is fumbling as he tries to deal with me-too explosions in a party that is exceedingly sensitive on this point. 

Yes, the table seems set for a fresh, young, telegenic charismatic new face: Beto

But a funny thing has happened on the way to Beto-mania. The RFK doeppleganger and monster fund raiser has been considerably eclipsed a totally different young white guy who has burst upon on the Democratic Presidential race with such a surprising impact that he is making Beto O’Rourke seem soooooo 2018.

In the last month, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has generating more buzz than O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar combined.

37 years old? Mayor of South Bend, Indiana? Pete who is running for what?

But we look at this guy, and all of a sudden we feel that we just may be back on a peanut farm in 1976.

If Jimmy Carter was the ultimate outsider at a moment that Americans loathed insiders, then Pete Buttigieg may simply be a startling re-incarnation.

Being the telegenic and media savvy 37-year-old gay mayor of a modest midwestern city alone is a package that seems a million miles from the crusty old farts club in Washington, D.C. If America craves an outsider, Pete Buttigieg is not just outside of geographic proximity of the nation’s capital, he is outside of the typical candidate resume, outside the age norm, and outside of sexual orientation norm. Pete Buttigieg is turning the Democratic party inside out.

But Buttigieg has that martial arts gift of being able to grab your biggest criticism, use it to effortlessly flip you at the elbow, and recast it as his greatest strength. His razor thin resume? He will calmly point out that he has had more executive experience in government than that current President and Vice-President combined. He will point out that as commander-in-chief, he will bring more military experience to the job than any president since George H.W. Bush in 1988. And that’s just the start of his resume… which includes Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, a Rhodes Scholarship, a stint at McKinsey, command of seven languages, and an appearance as a piano soloist with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra. 

What’s particularly fascinating is where Buttigieg fits – or chooses not to fit -- in the raging party controversy between the far left ideologues, who passionately favor an aggressively progressive policy agenda, and the practical centrists who feel victory is better pursued by softening extreme partisanship and polarization. There is an implicit electoral college strategy in each: progressives feel the path to victory lies in flipping states in the southeast by turning out the progressive vote, while centrists believe that the more certain victory lies in winning back the Trump-regretting centrists in the rust belt states that Hillary neglected.

Buttigieg seems more in the centrist space. He made that clear in declaring that he is a “Democratic Capitalist,” pointedly refusing to play along with the Bernie Babies and AOC advocates who seem to have a litmus test for ideological commitment in publicly identifying with “Democratic Socialism.” Pete is clearly not signing on to that suicide pact. Moreover, his entire demeanor and tonality is not that of a firebrand. He appears earnest, thoughtful, and preternaturally reasonable.  At a point in time when we don’t really need any more rage in our politics, Buttigieg stands out from a field of Democrats determined to prove they can out-Trump Trump. 

The entire effect is to make Buttigieg seem, well, more mature than everybody else in the race. Go figure. 

Interestingly, some of the big-name candidates who would seem best positioned to compete in the “centrist” space are failing to impress. Amy Klobuchar – the only candidate other than Mayor Pete who actually from the Midwest -- is nowhere in the polls and very slow to announce her first quarter fundraising totals… a bad sign. Joe Biden, whose candidacy would be premised on Rust Belt appeal, has not even formally announced yet, and has spent the last two weeks inelegantly fighting off a reputation as being just a little too “hands on.” Beto O’Rourke is raising a ton of money, but he is off to a wobbly start due to a lack of policy specifics.

In short, the “centrist” lane currently appears less crowded than the “ideologue” lane, where Sanders, Warren, and Booker are already in a full throated battle.
By getting out early and aggressively, Buttigieg is taking advantage of the relative quiet in the centrist lane, and he is being rewarded with coverage and sharp upticks in early polling. 

Yep… exactly what Jimmy Carter did. 

Most important of all, Pete Buttigieg is creating a stir. Joe Scarborough had his “I saw rock and roll future” moment when he sent this tweet:

“Mika and I have been overwhelmed by the reaction @PeteButtigieg got after being on the show. The only other time in twelve years that we heard from as many people about a guest was after @BarackObama appeared on the show.”

Yeah, it’s early. Long way to go. Lots of ups and downs and bumps in the road ahead.

But it feels like we’ve seen a lot of those bumps before. A corrupt Republican administration. A broad field of underwhelming Democratic candidates. Wide revulsion across America at the scandal, polarization, gridlock, ineffectiveness of government. A need for a new broom to sweep clean.

If you are a Democrat, a liberal, a progressive, or just a patriot who knows that the future of our democracy, the rule of law, our country, and perhaps our planet rests on finding the person who can defeat Donald Trump in 2020, you have a choice.

You can either be terrified that the boyish mayor of South Bend, Indiana is generating more excitement than any of the far more traditional candidates.

Or you find out a bit more about him. 

Perhaps start with a look back to 1976.

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