In a crowded and confusing field of Democratic presidential candidates, some surprising names have risen to the fore. Perhaps most surprising among these is Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who's currently having a moment. He's raking in the cash and nipping at Joe Biden's heels in a recent poll. Three months ago, he was famous only to residents of the upper Midwest. Suddenly he's a contender.
Buttigieg's rise might seem a bit puzzling, given that the Democrats have several more-experienced candidates (Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar), all of whom come to the table with lengthy voting records and carefully-crafted policy proposals. Why turn to a youngster like Buttigieg? After the chaos of the Trump years, aren't voters ready for a president who knows what he (or she) is doing?
At the end of the day, one burning question dwarfs all other considerations. Who can beat Donald Trump? The bar is low, but not as low as Democrats would like. The electoral college map is still likely to play to Trump's advantage, and, although he is an unpopular president, he hasn't quite lived down to the apocalyptic expectations of his harsher critics. By beginning his term of office being castigated as the new Hitler, he's managed to exceed many people's expectations by merely being offensive, dishonest, and generally incompetent. With the Mueller investigation complete, Republicans are moving into 2020 as the party of the status quo. Democrats need to persuade the voters that they can do better.
It's a simple task, but not easy. As an incumbent, Trump can no longer convincingly sell himself as the outsider who will "drain the swamp." He's obviously not the level-headed mensch who can repair crumbling institutions, update social programs, and knit our fractured nation back together. These are huge negatives in a country that's tired of partisan bickering, congressional gridlock, and high-level corruption. To exploit them to maximum effect, what the Democrats need is a transformative moderate.
"Transformative moderate" may sound like an oxymoron, but it isn't, quite. On the campaign trail at least, a transformative candidate must have vision. He must persuade the voters that he is able and willing to turn a page on an outdated partisan agenda. Moderates, on the other hand, are people who avoid demagogic rhetoric and polarizing policy positions, while signaling that they will avoid drastic and disruptive social shifts. Moderates can still work for change, but they do it gradually, while perpetually working to find common ground and build consensus. Moderates project optimism about bipartisanship, instead of angrily insisting that the other political party is the primary obstacle to salutary reform. In moments like the present one, when political platforms are in flux, this conciliatory ethos may really be the most important trait for a moderate.
What's so magical about the transformative moderate in particular? It's actually fairly straightforward. Life in America isn't all that bad right now, but people are worried about the future. Voters don't like to make large-scale sacrifices unless they're truly miserable. At the same time, anticipating bumps in the road ahead, they'd like to feel that their political leaders are taking reasonable steps to address looming problems. The ideal, then, would be a candidate who wants to take prudent steps towards reform, while avoiding sharp shocks to the current system. That's the sweet spot that the transformative moderate must try to hit.
Enter Buttigieg. Though a few other candidates (such as Beto O'Rourke) have some of the necessary components, he's currently the strongest contender for the "transformative moderate" role. His youth and relative "outsider" status make it possible for him to seem transformative in a way that Harris, Biden, or Klobuchar cannot. His military background, Midwestern address, and religious faith make it easier to position himself as a moderate. This strategy worked well for Barack Obama in 2008.
Now Buttigieg seems to be working hard to fill those shoes. His tone is positive and aspirational. Instead of demonizing his opponents, he's likelier to exaggerate the extent to which everyone agrees with him. He makes conciliatory aisle-crossing gestures, for instance by agreeing to appear on Fox News. He speaks freely about his faith and his military service, and discourses on the upsides of capitalism.
These moves won't win him significant support among committed conservatives, but that's beside the point. The goal is to win back some of the disaffected voters who supported Trump in 2016, while persuading centrists and leftists that he is the man to start a new chapter. Voters like to believe they can get what they want without painful sacrifice or partisan rancor. Maybe if we exchange a profane, bullying blowhard for an urbane, civil intellectual, we'll find that we can live together after all?
Reflecting back on the Obama years might give Buttigieg-curious voters more perspective on the potential of the transformative moderate. A youthful face isn't enough to overcome deep-seated disagreements. Obama tended to view political opponents with a kind of mild-mannered pity, as people who hadn't yet caught up to the modern world. To supporters, that often seemed benevolent and wise. Opponents found it galling, and it would be hard to argue that Obama's approach was ultimately successful from the standpoint of consensus-building. Can Buttigieg really do better? Can anyone?
Buttigieg may or may not be able to execute, but after four years under Trump, Democrats would surely be willing to take that chance. Right now, they're weighing whether it's realistic to vault the mayor of South Bend into the nation's highest office. Is America ready for another "hope and change" moment? If so, they may have found their new transformative moderate.