Can we take just a moment to acknowledge the historic significance of what happened earlier this week in Iowa? As of this writing, the results indicate that a 38-year-old gay man has narrowly won the Iowa caucuses and emerged as a serious contender for the Democratic nomination for president. Yet the extraordinary news of Pete Buttigieg's exceptional showing in the Hawkeye State has been buried by the two bigger stories of the week: the debacle over Iowa's delayed caucus results thanks to convoluted procedures and a faulty smartphone app and the further debasement of a Republican Party that can find no fault with a lawless president who isn't all that smart.
In different times, a gay man winning the first presidential contest would be headline news. But Buttigieg's almost-ignored achievement in Iowa is in keeping with how the historic nature of his candidacy has been fairly downplayed and often overlooked all along, frequently by the candidate himself. That Buttigieg's sexual identity has been generally treated as unremarkable speaks, in some ways, to how far we have come as a nation on LGBTQ issues in such a short time. In other ways, it may also signal how little road there is left ahead for Buttigieg's presidential prospects.
A year ago, none of this seemed very likely. Among an overcrowded field of more than 20 candidates for the Democratic nomination, the political future of a 30-something mayor of only the fourth largest city in Indiana seemed pretty limited. Facing healthy skepticism over his political experience and legitimate questions about his city's tense race relations and how he mishandled issues with South Bend's police department, Buttigieg could have easily folded early under the pressure of intense scrutiny.
Instead, Buttigieg dug in, using impressive performances in the endless rounds of debates to gain traction in the polls (and with the press) and waging a smart ground game in Iowa that sought to take advantage of the caucuses' bizarre rules. As an unlikely candidate, Buttigieg knew it was Iowa or bust for his candidacy, needing a top-three finish there to have enough fuel — and funding — to carry him to New Hampshire and beyond.
From the start, Buttigieg has been America's first serious openly, if not overtly, gay presidential candidate. Other than occasional nods to that status and to the recent legal changes that made his marriage possible, however, Buttigieg has tended to play it straight on the campaign trail, positioning himself more as the pragmatic unifier who could attract independents and Republicans rather than as a history-making choice whose very biography represents radical change. Neither Buttigieg's politics nor his personality are anything close to radical, of course. Still, it's curious why he's done so little to market his potential presidency as something that would signify a monumental advancement of progress in itself.
Doing so wouldn't only enhance Buttigieg's political identity. LGBTQ Americans could also benefit from a presidential candidate who drew more forceful attention to the very real threats the Trump presidency poses to LGBTQ rights. Since taking office, the Trump administration has carried out a vigorously anti-gay agenda, and a mounting number of states have recently voted in or are considering aggressive anti-gay laws. All of this has gone almost completely unnoticed by a media more focused, understandably, on Trump's egregious lawbreaking and by an American public generally convinced, unfortunately, that the passage of marriage equality has secured the political and legal equality of LGBTQ citizens. But the issue isn't going away, and a second term for Trump could mean an especially perilous future for LGBTQ Americans as the president would likely look to throw redder meat to his emboldened base.
Unfortunately, Buttigieg hasn't said a lot about much of this, something that LGBTQ writers and activists have especially pointed out. That's part of why the executive editors of both Out and the Advocate endorsed Elizabeth Warren last week. “When it comes to her embrace of our community,” the endorsement read, “Warren stands above her Democratic rivals in her consistent support and outreach,” a line that Politico's Adam Wren wrote “amounted to a veiled critique of Buttigieg.”
While Buttigieg's days on the presidential campaign trail may still be numbered — he still trails well behind the frontrunners in national polls, and the FiveThirtyEight forecasting model still considers him a longshot — he's sure to be on the short list for the vice presidential spot and the cabinet of almost anyone who wins the Democratic nomination. Whatever happens for Buttigieg in the future, there's no denying that his mere presence at the center of American politics, for however long, represents a landmark new chapter in our nation's history. In the grim moment of the Trump era, that's a breakthrough that ought to be better acknowledged and celebrated.
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