Six months ago, I would never have imagined that on a July Tuesday night I would feel compelled to write what was for me a sizeable check to snag hor d’oeuvres skewers from a passing tray and join a couple of hundred people on a lake front lawn in Seattle to listen to the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana. What would be my reaction to Pete Buttigieg unfiltered?
Simple outcome. I was blown away. Twenty minutes of house party stump speech was even better than I had any reason to guess I would come away with. Answers to questions were even better. I should have taken notes to annotate my reaction with the way he builds a policy point on topic after topic like a good musician. He chooses words like notes that shape a phrase, that then form a melody and suddenly you realize the melodic line is accompanied with harmony.
This is a person who joins impressive intellect with wonderful use of language. But the music never carelessly meanders, because he makes clear as soon as he sits down (or, in this case, steps forward) to play, that this entire piece is tied together in a single structure of reference to values. He never fails to bring a theme back to its grounding in values that matter, and he frames them with great cogency that I admire because he states them as I would wish to speak my own values. I found myself saying every thirty seconds to myself, “Yes.”
In the after-questions chit-chat, a local elected official friend of mine offered what I thought was a telling observation: “He’s just as smart as Obama, but doesn’t seem to be so lofty.” For me, that hit another wholly visceral litmus as I survey the Democratic field. From politicians, I am weary of didactic instruction. I am tired of shrill exhortation. I am done with loud conviction. For me, a huge part of Buttigieg’s appeal is that I think I hear him talking as if with a crowd rather than at a crowd.
I think it is a mistake at this point in this Democratic run-up to focus on the overarching need to elect a different President, to over-handicap the field, and to prematurely put matters solely as if a lens now could somehow be ground finely enough to divine who best can take on Trump. As favorably impressed as I now am with Mayor Pete, I don’t know that he can assemble delegates in so splintered and anxiety-gripped a political party. Anyway, right now I’d rather continue in my delusional wishful world that sense will somehow finally and firmly descend on our American selves and any of the Democrats will beat Trump.
In any event, make no mistake: Pete is now sufficiently on the radar of the Republican National Committee that Seattle news outlets on Monday all received from the RNC this statement to dropkick his Seattle fundraisers:
“With a questionable record as mayor of South Bend along with his support of sanctuary cities and free healthcare for illegal immigrants, Pete Buttigieg would be disastrous for Washington State and the rest of America. Meanwhile, President Trump has delivered for the Evergreen State with job creation, higher wages, and record low unemployment.”
A friend of mine retorted thus: “What President Trump has delivered for the state of Washington is a lot of fear, anxiety, anger, and depression.”
There you have the sum of it. We desperately must find a way out of our national quagmire. The highest urgency to my mind is that the Democratic Party shape itself above and around its eventual candidate so that the Party can beat Trump with a message that lifts our voters above my friend’s characterization of where Trump has thrown us. The essential role Buttigieg can play as long as he can press his campaign forward is to help shape and elevate a voice of the Party as a whole. It’s not about a platform. It’s about the positive tone and the frame the Party offers as the backdrop to its ticket.
His voice, and the manner of his voice, is very important. More of his kind of voice, in my view, needs to be woven in as a part of every Democratic candidate’s Party persona. His voice enriches the discussion. It is the natural tonic to help unify Democrats. It is the organic antidote to the Trump venom. Those attributes are even bigger than his own aspiration for the brass ring. That larger play is why, for me, Monday night brought me away redoubled for “Go, Pete.”
And yes, I did shake his hand. He was just standing near the edge patio before his talk, chatting pleasantly with a circle of people like just another of the guests; no one seemed to feel the need for selfies, and it was the most natural thing in the world to shake hands, comment on his vision of the invitation’s instruction to guests for “business casual” (for him, same white shirt and geeky narrow black tie) and wish him well. An Important One was nowhere to be observed. I liked that.