As the number of candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination grows exponentially, the early assessments (as they always have) are focusing on their resumes and experiences. Probing candidates’ “qualifications” has become only more justified, especially since the least qualified president in history continues to make a persuasive case for also being the shabbiest one ever. Joe Biden’s opening pitch for the nomination was along exactly these lines: “I’m the most qualified person in the country to be president.”
Some competency in governance and a grounding in American history and values would, by themselves, be a welcome change. I join those who say, on principle, no person lacking either should be given even a moment’s consideration. I also join those who believe finding a highly qualified candidate to run against Trump is a sound strategic decision; a majority of the country is almost certainly exhausted from a president whose on-the-job civics education is serialized in the daily news.
But there is one other requirement that must be included as we consider the field. If there’s one lesson, one lesson at all, that can be drawn from 2016, it’s that there is no going back to the politics of old. The Democratic Party can’t return to its prior form, which was molded by the Democratic Leadership Council led by then-Governor Bill Clinton. It adopted the premises set forth by the Reagan Revolution, mainly that government should merely exist to enable unfettered capitalism–and that government cannot and should not address large structural problems. This narrowing of the political spectrum reduced the aspiration of Democratic politics to “progress” via unwaveringly “market-oriented” technocratic managerialism.
Barack Obama was supposed to finally break this mold. The one-term senator won the 2008 Democratic nomination on the votes of Democrats who wanted to break the Clintons’ control of the party. Obama betrayed those aspirations when he hired a bevy of Clintonites and appointed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. The Trump presidency is the price of America’s first black president, but that price was exacted via the defeat of the literal embodiment of the kind of Democrat Obama should have made obsolete.
If you don’t understand that history and operate with its lessons firmly in mind then you have no business running for the 2020 Democratic nomination.
So, with that additional requirement, a question mark suddenly appears around the self-described “most qualified” candidate, a question mark not found around the candidate every pundit insinuates as being the least qualified: Pete Buttigieg. (It’s pronounced boot-edge-edge, or buddha-judge, depending on your regional accent. He’s ok with just Pete.)
Pete is best known as Mayor Pete of South Bend, Indiana. If you Google his name and 2020, you’re going to find a bunch of stories that sound something like this: He’s only 37 years old! He’s a millennial! And, oh my god, he’s GAY! Could he be America’s first gay millennial president?! And look at that poise, he talks really well! And he already has an impressive resume for someone so young–graduated from Harvard and Oxford, served in Afghanistan, worked for McKinsey)! You get the idea.
That cheery condescension, though, obscures what appears to be a hard-edged understanding that Clintonism is past its expiration and that it must be ejected from the party. Mayor Pete’s youth is, actually, an enormous asset: he’s too young to have been compromised by any contact with Clintonoid tentacles. He did not attract their patronage and thus owes them nothing. His resume, which checks every box of an ideal Democratic technocrat, makes him palatable to Democratic funders and even old-guard Democrats who would probably feel more comfortable yielding control to someone of their milieu.
So, why not Pete?