The flurry of media interest in Pete Buttigieg, largely because of his recent eye-popping Iowa poll numbers, caused me to think about several things. Perhaps the most important was that Buttigieg supporters may want to control their Butti-giddiness. Around this time, fifteen years ago, then-Vermont governor Howard Dean led the polling in Iowa with 31% (his nearest competitors were polling at around 10%); and by January 5, Dean was still leading, with 22% of the vote. Two weeks later, when Iowa voters actually caucused, Dean came in a grisly third, behind John Kerry, the eventual nominee, and Richard Gephardt.
Many remember this loss because of Dean’s cowboy moment at the lectern. Masochists and political junkies can watch the famous “scream” that provoked endless media mockery here. But the swift collapse of the Dean campaign following Iowa also revealed other weaknesses that early polling had not: the excitement of this first Internet-driven campaign caused Deaniacs to believe that they were doing better than they were. The last minute television and direct mail ad buys in early primary states, necessary because of Dean’s low name recognition, drove the campaign’s burn rate through the roof (Buttigieg was at a prudent 55% in mid-October, but will be higher by the end of the year); and Dean, like Buttigieg today, had abysmally low polling numbers among African Americans in South Carolina.
My other thought was that in nearly every other category, Dean actually looked far better to the discerning caucus voter than Buttigieg does today, mostly because of Mayor Pete’s thin experience, even by the standards of local government. By the time he ran for president, Dean had been governor of Vermont for 12 years, and had chaired the National Governor’s Association; as of today, Buttigieg is in the middle of his second term as Mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Dean gathered an anti-war coalition around him, while Buttigieg, who touts his 6 months of active duty service in intelligence, doesn’t seem to know whether he wants to raise the military budget or not. But he does know, as he told The Military Times, that the United States must “maintain absolute military superiority.” It’s hard to think that this doesn’t mean continuing to spend money on interventionism that could be spent on health care, infrastructure and education.
I came into this campaign wanting to like Mayor Pete, and perhaps that is still possible, but right now I find myself irritable about several aspects of his candidacy. The first is that his rise in the polls seems to have triggered a sigh of relief from the moderate wing of the Democratic Party about the possibility of securing the nomination for candidate who will dial us back to the Clinton administration. The excitement over Buttigieg also reflects the not-so-secret fear that the fate of the Democratic party may not have to depend entirely on Joe Biden being able to speak a complete, grammatical sentence where he remembers all words and says nothing weird about his youthful hairy legs.
In addition to this, a bipartisan alliance of gay, white men have gone all gushy gooey over Pete. It was gay money, much of which came from former Clinton supporters, that put Buttigieg in contention to begin with. White gay men also have some powerful media perches. New York Times opinion writer Frank Bruni has been a Buttigieg fan from the get-go. My colleague, progressive historian Jim Downs, hinting that criticism of Mayor Pete is inherently homophobic, issued an impassioned defense of the candidate as the “type of gay man American doesn’t understand.” (Slate, November 25 2019)
To the right of Bruni and Downs, conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan has called Buttigieg “transformational,” a candidate who is neither “too gay” or “too young,” but, as Goldilocks famously noted, just right. Buttigieg, Sullivan imagines, will be a perfect foil for Trump on the debate stage. “He can say he was man enough to serve his country in uniform, which should be man enough for any president,” Sullivan writes. “The contrast with the aged, spoiled draft-dodger brat could be deadly.” A contrast, of course, that a woman could never draw. And it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the top metro areas Mayor Pete’s donors come from are (in this order) New York, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco; while the top zip code is mine (10011), a heavily white, wealthy, male gay neighborhood that is also home to Google and Twitter.
But isn’t this the gay presidential candidate that all the queer studies folks promised us back in the 1990s, when the gay marriage campaign gathered steam? The homonationalist who, as Jasbir K. Puar (who coined the term) put it, represents “a collusion between homosexuality and American nationalism that is generated both by national rhetorics of patriotic inclusion and by gay and queer subjects themselves?”
Recognizing this about Mayor Pete is not homophobic: rather, it acknowledges that distinct forms of “gayness,” defined by the specific ideological positions a given homosexual has attached themselves to, have emerged across the political spectrum – and probably always existed.
Furthermore, Mayor Pete’s historic gay candidacy serves as a convenient fig leaf to not address the obvious truth: that thousands of people like him have no intention of voting for a true progressive, like Warren or Sanders; or a liberal woman like Amy Klobuchar. What they see in Buttigieg is that not-so-unusual type of gay man who is white, went to Harvard, won all the prizes, is super-smart, super-ambitious, super-calculating, and was so super-closeted for so long (see above, under “ambitious”) that, as Downs puts it, Buttigieg “can come off as strangely circumspect, seemingly distant from gay culture and history.”
But what if Buttigieg isn’t perceived as this person – but actually is a person who is so distanced from gay culture and history that he has learned none of its progressive lessons? What then? As someone who has read his campaign book, Shortest Way Home (2019), I’m here to tell you that he is exactly this person. More telling, perhaps, is that the part about Pete being gay starts about ¾ of the way through the book, and ends in a few pages, except for occasional references to domestic life with Chasten. Buttigieg has absolutely nothing to say about being gay. Furthermore, he and his staff are so untutored about racial politics that he compared the LGBT and Black civil rights movements, truly yesterday’s gaffe.
It’s also important to note that Buttigieg is also running a very traditional campaign, powered by big money, not long-term grassroots organizing and small donations. His Iowa poll bump has come on the heels of huge television ad buys; two days ago, the campaign invested $2 million in South Carolina. Until this week, when latecomer Michael Bloomberg dumped $30 million into TV ads, Buttigieg has consistently been at the top of the chart in media spending, even though it may be accomplishing very little. Despite the flurry in the Iowa, and now the New Hampshire, polls, as of the week of November 26, the Quinnipiac poll had Buttigieg running at 16% nationally: his closest competitor was Biden, at 24%, while Warren had slipped to 14%.
But polling numbers beg what I think is the larger question here about Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy: have we, as Democrats, really come this far, under an inept, inexperienced, and corrupt President, to elect an equally inexperienced President whose history and positions are to the right of Joe Biden? Is going back to the transactional politics of Clintonism, where civil rights became a cultural thing but were traded away in Congress, and McKinsey-like policy proposals put profits over people, really what we have organized around the last three years?
I don’t think so. And all queer people need to ask themselves this question as we approach the primary season.
Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The new School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical.