Buttigieg brings buzz to Boston
Young presidential candidate rallies millennials to get involved
PETE BUTTIGIEG brought his wonky, faith-flavored brand of Midwestern progressive politics to Boston on Wednesday afternoon, and was met with an enthusiastic reception.
More than 1,000 people packed a Northeastern University auditorium to hear the 37-year-old openly gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, whose exploratory campaign for president has taken off over the past month.
While prominent Democratic candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have issued fiery calls to raise taxes on the wealthy and take on powerful financial institutions and internet behemoths, Buttigieg talks more about claiming a hopeful stake in the future by aggressively confronting climate change and embracing the progressive promise of religion to lift up the poor and the prisoner.
He makes his way to the issues of economic inequality that are animating the campaigns of all the Democratic candidates, but Buttigieg is more inclined to call out flaws in economic policy than vilify greedy Wall Street titans who’ve gotten away with wealth-amassing murder.
“So I think our generation is a little skeptical of this idea that kind of began with Reagan — it was kind of a consensus idea that Democrats and Republicans bought into — that as long the economy is growing everything else will take care of itself,” he said. “It turns out it doesn’t work that way.”
Having been let down by this “neoliberal consensus,” he said, Americans became skeptical of expertise. “That, I think, in a very perverse way led to the Trump presidency, even though he and his policies are part of the problem.”
Largely unknown before a CNN town hall last month, the boyish Buttigieg has been racking up favorable media attention (and some unfavorable treatment) since then, and claims to have raised $7 million in the first quarter of 2019. Buttigieg is still clearly a long shot for the Democratic nomination, but not quite as much of one as he was a month ago. A recent Emerson College poll put him in third place, with 11 percent, among Iowa Democrats, though that’s an outlier at this point.
A Rhodes Scholar who speaks half a dozen languages, Buttigieg has charmed Democratic crowds with his earnest appeals to unite the country and his argument for liberals to lay claim to progressive visions of faith and freedom, ground that he says has been unnecessarily ceded to conservatives.
Buttigieg, who was questioned by WBUR reporter Kimberly Atkins as part of a Northeastern series on millennials in politics, was asked why he thinks surveys showing Americans becoming less religious find younger adults doing so at a particularly fast rate.
“Well, first impressions matter,” said Buttigieg, citing the ways that religion’s voice in the public square has been “designed to constrain our freedom, whether it is around the issue of choice or whether it is around the issue of LGBTQ equality.”
On climate change, Buttigieg said the contrast between the two major parties could not be more stark. “We’re not even having a debate between whether our plan for climate is better than their plan for climate,” he said. “It’s a plan versus no plan, because one side’s committed to the idea we don’t even need a plan, which is nuts.”
Buttigieg said young people have to get involved and vote if they want to see more urgent action on the issue. “If you care about that, you have to hold elected officials accountable,” he said. “The reason they don’t respond to the policy preferences of young people is because they’re not afraid of young people. They will be if you fire them,” he said, drawing applause from the crowd.
Buttigieg offered several ideas for lessening the burden of college costs, including boosting the reach of Pell grants, but did not endorse free four-year public higher education, an idea that has gained traction with some other Democratic candidates.
“Let me tell you why I’m stopping short of what I’m sure is probably the right answer politically in this room, which is to say do away with those costs,” he said. “It’s not because I don’t know how we’re going to pay for it; it’s because I do know how we’re going to pay for it.”
Buttigieg said degree-earning adults, who make up the minority of Americans, have much higher incomes than those without college education. “As a progressive, I have a hard time getting my head around the idea that a majority who earn less because they didn’t go to college would subsidize a minority who earn more because they did — all the way to 100 percent,” he said.
Sam Mundorff, vice president of Northeastern University College Democrats, said Buttigieg spoke to lots of millennial concerns. She even saw his reluctance to back free public higher education as a plus. “That it makes it seem more legitimate — that he’ll actually take concrete steps rather than just trying to make big promises he won’t keep,” she said of his ideas for easing college affordability.
Though he has told the story many times of coming out during his 2015 mayoral reelection campaign, Buttigieg, who got married last year, framed the decision in a very personal way as he spoke to the Northeastern audience.
It “took me a long time to get there,” he said of coming out at age 33. But he said he realized his life could end in his early 30s, “and I could be a reasonably accomplished person, mayor of a city, grown man, a homeowner, and have no idea what it was like to be in love.”
Buttigieg has faced criticism for a lack of policy specifics and for comments suggesting Democrats are out of touch with the industrial heartland. Others have found him wanting because, on the campaign trail, the Navy veteran who served seven months in Afghanistan is more congenial than combative at a time when Democratic activists are eager for candidates to take a more pugilistic posture.
But his more even-keeled tenor is why some of those who came to hear Buttigieg say they are drawn to him.“I like that he’s very future looking,” said Nathan Shuster, an Olin College sophomore, following Buttigieg’s appearance. “He wants to take the country in a new direction, but he also speaks in a way that appeals to those who have been feeling like the current political discourse has gone off the rails.”