In America, we’ve always loved the fresh new thing.
It’s true in music, TV, film, fashion, sports, social media — and politics.
Which is another way of saying that it’s good these days to be Mayor Pete.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is on a roll — straight up in the polls of the Democratic presidential primary field. He’s now third in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two voting states, behind two guys named Biden and Bernie. If you’re saying to yourself, I know them but not him — well, that’s the point.
Now, let’s quickly get some disclaimers out of the way. After 2016, we have to look at polling with a bit of a jaundiced eye. In New Hampshire, pollsters interviewed all of 698 registered voters. The Iowa sample was a total of 351. The Iowa caucuses are still 295 days away. Not a single debate has been held. There’s oceans of time for goofs and exposés.
Still, Buttigieg went from virtually unknown a couple of months ago to an in-demand TV guest who just announced he raised a healthy $7 million in the first quarter. And there’s this: Voters already know what they need to know about Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Buttigieg is for many a blank slate. How that picture gets filled in is everything, of course, and that will depend on the mayor’s second and third times around the block.
But his connect-the-dots portrait is unlike anyone else’s in this race, or any other presidential race.
Buttigieg is 37, which if he wins would make him the youngest president in history by a long shot.
He’s a Harvard grad, a Rhodes scholar, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, a mayor at 29. He speaks eight languages (including Arabic, Spanish and Norwegian), plays concert piano, is the son of an immigrant from Malta — and is openly gay with a husband named Chasten who is a campaign surrogate with a warm Twitter feed.
It would be difficult to invent a starker contrast to President Donald Trump.
If you’ve seen any of his TV appearances, you know Buttigieg is young but mature, smart but unpretentious, and seemingly unflappable. He’s eschewed the far left positions of many of his competitors, and so far has handled everything with grace, including a ridiculous concern among some on the left that he might not be gay enough, whatever that means.
He’s also making his mark with his faith. The left has ceded religion to the right for a while now. Mayor Pete quietly is busting that monopoly.
He says matter-of-factly that his marriage to another man brought him closer to God. He questions, rightly, how Trump’s behavior can be reconciled with the president’s supposed belief in God. He uses religion as a vehicle for inclusion, not exclusion. He criticizes how some on the right use the Bible, as when they make false claims about things Jesus supposedly said to defend their stands on issues, while Buttigieg channels directly the biblical message about helping poor people, immigrants and outcasts as a way to inform public policy.
You don’t have to be religious, and I am not, to see how this changes the left.
Buttigieg’s smackdown of Vice President Mike Pence and his anti-LGBTQ stances — Buttigieg said that, “if you have a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me — your quarrel, sir, is with my creator” — was epic. But Democrats who thrilled to that are going to have to decide whether their admirable refusal to make religion a litmus test allows them to embrace a man who says his faith is a guide to making progressive policy.
Mayor Pete is set to officially announce his candidacy Sunday, in an old Studebaker factory in the midst of a rebirth as a high-tech center, in the old Midwestern city whose resurgence Buttigieg has overseen.
More dots in the most intriguing portrait of 2020.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.