South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg joins Dan in the studio for a conversation about his presidential campaign, how Democrats can win back the Midwest and what he’s bringing to the table as the youngest candidate in the race.
Interview: Dan Pfeiffer and Pete Buttigieg
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:00:00] All right. Let’s start with the question of running for president. I’m always fascinated by how people come to the decision to run. What went into your thinking to do that?
Pete Buttigieg: [00:00:11] I mean the way I see it you look at the office and what it calls for, any office, and then you look at what you bring to the table and you see if there’s a match and that’s over the course of my life. That’s a process that’s led me to run for office several times and it’s a process that’s led me to not run for office several times. But when I look at the presidency now, and I get at the age of 37 as a mayor in the Midwest, this is not an obvious move. But what I see is a moment where there is tectonic change going on in the country, to the extent that even now we’re probably underreacting. And I also see a moment when people want something entirely new. I see my party struggling to connect with places like the industrial Midwest where I’m from. I see a moment that’s kind of crying out for generational change at a moment when three out of the last four presidents were born within a few weeks of each other in the summer of 1946. And I see an appetite for bold ideas and structural ideas that I think maybe come more naturally to a mayor. Somebody who has a kind of problem-solving mentality. We need different kinds of voices in the mix right now and I think, you know, belonging to the generation as a millennial – I think I made the cut by a few weeks, being a millennial. But I do feel like I belong to the school shooting generation. You know, I was in high school when Columbine happened. The generation that is going to be dealing with things like climate change for the rest of our lives. And I think we need to be putting forward leaders and that includes at the highest levels of U.S. politics.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:01:35] Is there a particular part of your life experience, whether it’s service in the military or your time as mayor or in business and all that, everything you’ve done, that you think best prepares you for that role?
Pete Buttigieg: [00:01:47] Any number of those things. I mean you always bring your experience and all the combinations of things that have happened in your life to the table, right? But I think in particular there are several experiences in my life, not just political but personal, that helped me understand what’s at stake in politics today. Because I think part of the problem with politics is it’s become this this game, this kind of horror show that’s playing out on cable, on Twitter. We’re mesmerized by this Washington thing that’s happening that actually decouples it from the reason why politics actually matters. The reason we have politics, the reason we care about it, which is that it impacts our everyday life in the most intimate ways. So my experience as a mayor tunes me to that because I know that decisions we make on everything from policing policy to wastewater affects how everyone’s life in the city, including me, will go. I understand it as somebody whose marriage exists b y the grace of a single vote on the U.S. Supreme Court, what’s at stake in the most important parts of our lives as a consequence of political decisions. I understand it as somebody who was sent to war on the orders of a U.S. president, that these things are not theoretical, they are personal, they are intimate. I think all politics is local especially national politics. But more than that all politics is personal.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:03:03] And, I mean, president is a job. It is a incredibly difficult job, right? There is a lot about, like, the moment in time and the person. But at the end of the day, and I was very fortunate to spend six years working in that building, you have to manage a government, make incredibly complicated, pretty shitty decisions on an hourly basis and, you know, I presume when you went through the process of deciding to run, it wasn’t just like, can I win? You looked yourself in the mirror and said, if I were to win, can I do the job?
[00:03:36] Right. And again, especially sitting with somebody who worked in that building, I’m mindful of the audacity of frankly anybody thinking they can just walk in there and do it. I mean I think there is some extent to which any of us needs to be humbled by the dimmest understanding of the demands of that role. And yet every person who’s walked into that job has been a mortal with some set of life experiences. And I think the experiences that I have, and I get also that as the youngest guy in the mix it’s kind of cheeky to be talking about experience, but the experience of a mayor of a city of any size, but especially a strong mayor system like we have where there’s no city manager. I get the call on anything. It could be an economic development issue that’s playing out in slow motion or it could be a racially explosive officer involved shooting. And I’ve got to get on television in a matter of hours and bring people together. In the theory of executive government that I’ve landed on as a mayor is that there’s three parts to this job. One is to pass and implement good policies. Two is to capably run an administration and three, the most intangible but maybe the most important, is to call people to their highest values and bring people together when they’re being torn apart or when the community is coming under some kind of strain. And I actually think that maps rather naturally. I mean I get that there is a radical difference in scale but it maps fairly naturally from being a mayor of a city that’s going through a lot of struggle to this office compared to let’s say the legislative roles. And I don’t mean any disrespect for the U.S. Congress but you look…
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:05:06] It’s OK, it’s a very popular position of disrespect for the U.S…
Pete Buttigieg: [00:05:09] I mean I do think we’d be better off if Congress started looking more like the community of American mayors, instead of the other way around. I also think that look, you could be a senior member of the Senate and have never in your life managed more than 100 people, never had that experience of alternating between, you know, policy development and incident command in a matter of minutes. Or of having the final frontline responsibility for bringing people together in tense and difficult moments.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:05:36] You know I’ve heard you talk about sort of your preparation for president and the context of Donald Trump, right? Which I totally get. Like, the dogs you’ve seen running around this office are as prepared to be president as Donald Trump. But when you, like, I kind of want to get to the question of…I worked for Barack Obama when he was running for president against Hillary Clinton and all these people with, you know, including his vice president Joe Biden, who had a lot more experience than him and I do agree with you in the sense that serving in the Congress is about as useful to being president as your political science degree is for going into politics, like on the first day you’re like, oh. But there is still this, I am curious about how hard a decision was it to decide that you were ready for this. Like, did you have to wrestle with that in a long way, both running for president, given as you point out the audacity of it, but also the hope and perhaps fear that you could win.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:06:37] Yeah I mean, you know, every really major decision you make, I think, is a decision, if you’re given enough time to make it properly, that is kind of iterative. You take your time thinking through it, you picture a lot of different worlds and this is a world where if you do win, you basically become the property of the United States for the rest of your life. It’s not a small thing for me or for Chasten to think about. But I also think that, you know, in the same way that as a mayor, by definition you’re a resident of your city and you’re dealing with the consequences of the decisions you make as a citizen. I have so much on the line in the future of this country. And again I think my entire generation does. And you can’t just sit by and watch these things happen. I get the gravity of it. I get the intensity of it, at least to the extent that you can without having actually done it. And I also think that one of the reasons we seem to have hit a nerve, that the the rooms that even in our first few weeks of doing this in Iowa and New Hampshire are full of people more than we had expected is that we’ve hit a nerve with a message that is substantively I think a little different and certainly a different vocabulary than what the others offer.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:07:51] Is the substance and the vocabulary a product of the age difference, do you think, the generational difference?
Pete Buttigieg: [00:07:58] Maybe. I mean part of it, I think is coming from the industrial Midwest and just a different way of talking. Part of it is the vocabulary you’re used to having when when you’re a mayor and you’ve got to make sure you take the most complex things and have a way of rendering them in plain English. But also just a generation, I think, that watched the way that conservatives absolutely dominated American politics to the point where even Democratic presidents were doing basically conservative things because they understood the need to fight at the level of values and win a values and ideas argument. And on our side of the aisle, as much as we like to think of ourselves as the intellectual party, the truth is I think our policies were less connected to our values and our philosophies than theirs were. We developed a vocabulary of policy. We explained who we were and candidates and races kind of fought to impress each other through a policy arms race without ever really engaging on the values issue. And that’s how I think we lost the debate over freedom and what freedom means in this country, you know, to the point that I think that for years it was viewed as kind of pro-freedom to be anti-government as though freedom from government was the only one that mattered. When you know in my life, you know, my freedom was enhanced by a lot of things that happened in the Obama administration that were the consequences of good policy. I’m freer because of the freedom to marry and if you take it back over a 50-year period, my family experienced a lot of freedom because Medicare exists. And when my parents were having health issues we were free to think about what was right for them medically, not who’s going to pay for it. So big arguments like that that we just for some reason sort of stopped having sometime in the 90s when we figured that the way to win was to just check on their policies and see if our policies could be halfway there versus thinking about how our policies linked up to our core values and what we believed in.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:09:39] I think that’s a good transition to sort of a conversation about what you would do as president, right? And so, like, it is easy in a presidential camp…easy is not the right word, but in a presidential campaign, people are going to ask you like ‘Are you for X, are you for Y, are you for Z?’ And you answer that question, you fill out a questionnaire, you put out a white paper. But if you were to win, right, the question, there’s a huge question about prioritization. The easiest bill you will ever pass, and it may not be that easy, will be the first one. That is when you have the most political capital, you have the most wind at your back. Have you thought about what the first thing you would, the first legislative endeavor you would take as president would be?
Pete Buttigieg: [00:10:19] I think the first thing you have to do is move on democratic reform. It’s kind of the way this Congress decided rightly to start in the House side on H.R. 1. And it’s not because I have any illusion that that’s one of the easier things to do or even that some of the things we need to do can happen quickly. I mean we’re talking about building a cathedral on some of these reforms when it comes to what it might take to reverse Citizens United or to do away with the electoral college or to have more depoliticized Supreme Court. But I think you launch that on day one as a signal that we’re living in a time when we’ve got to fix the engine of our democracy because every other issue that I care about, from gun violence to climate change, isn’t going to get better as long as our democracy is this warped. And I think our country has lost the muscle memory of how to handle structural reforms, which is odd because 40 years ago, you had people like Senator Birch Bayh from Indiana. You know, not exactly a far out kind of guy, but authoring constitutional amendments right and left. The 25th Amendment, which might come in handy one day, changing the voting age. Also things that didn’t make it through like electoral college reform, which I’m still for. Like the Equal Rights Amendment. But they were doing these things because they knew that we needed to work on the very basics, the kind of bones of our democracy in order to make anything else go well. And I think we need to remind people that that level of intellectual ambition needs to be part of our agenda so we can talk about any number of issues. I mean to me, you know within the certain traidtional issue buckets, climate is the one that demands immediate urgent national emergency level attention. But I think the first thing you do coming out of the gate is a package of reforms to make our democratic republic more democratic.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:11:51] And I take it from the way you describe that that some of those things would be things that could happen right now, like similar to the package the House Democrats have been working on around voting rights, etc. And some of it is also an argument around bolder ideas that may not…may require constitutional amendment, may not be able to happen right now. What would be the sort of things that you would try to, like they can happen right in this moment, right? Like what are the priorities of that package?
Pete Buttigieg: [00:12:16] Yeah I mean again a lot of this we have a template in H.R. 1, right? And then things like automatic voter registration I think is a no brainer. Things like making it, anything that makes it easier for U.S. citizens to vote if only so that we don’t wind up also being one of those rare generations that would see the U.S. become less democratic on our watch. And I think we have a responsibility to prevent that. It’s why we have to have a discussion about Election Day being a day off. We have to have easier access to early voting, right? Some of this stuff is pretty basic and, by the way, pretty popular. The other thing that I think is really a signal of how warped our democracy is is the number of things where Americans get it and Congress can’t do it. And that’s where I do think leadership from the Oval Office, just the moral leadership of reminding everybody that these things are OK to talk about, that it’s OK to ask whether we have the right setup on the Supreme Court or whether the House has the right number of representatives or whether the U.S. has the right number of states, which by the way it doesn’t.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:13:13] Then I think you, do you mean D.C. and Puerto Rico, or…
Pete Buttigieg: [00:13:16] D.C. for sure. Puerto Rico, look the Puerto Ricans have some decisions to make but even there, I think on day one, I would make the case that they should at least have a voice in the electoral process for the presidency.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:13:27] You have sort of raised, these…you talked about court packing. You raised that prospect. What do you specifically, like do you have a specific proposal of how you would do that and what would your response be to the people who argue that we’re sort of headed down this inexorable path of like the decline of governing norms?
Pete Buttigieg: [00:13:49] Well that’s exactly what we’ve got to do something about. So to me, the question is less, you know, do we in February 2019 have the right flavor of Supreme Court reform figured out, more that we should in the course of this 2020 campaign have a debate over this central objective that is to prevent the Supreme Court from continuing on this trajectory to become basically ruined by being a nakedly political institution. So to me, this idea of adding justices is one way to do it. It may actually not be the most compelling way to do it. I mean I’m interested in a policy where you would have five appointees of Republicans and five of Democrats on a 15 member court. And where you get the other five from is a consensus of the other 10 which has to be unanimous. That’s one way to reduce the political stakes. Another way to do it is to rotate people up from the appellate bench. By the way some of these things could probably be done statutorily. I’m not a constitutional scholar, but I’m told that some of these things would not require a change to the Constitution just like you know the number of justices today is not set in the Constitution. The point is not do we court packed, do we not court pack. The point is what do we do to stop this from becoming a political institution where every time there’s a vacancy you have this apocalyptic ideological battle that makes the court and the country as a whole worse off.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:15:08] Even under the most optimistic electoral scenario, the next Democratic president, yourself, for instance, is going to have a Democratic House with a majority, maybe similar to the one we currently have, and a Senate majority of one or two votes, right? And which as long as the filibuster is still in place means that besides the one bill a year you can do under arcane rules under budget conciliation, you’re going to need 60 votes to do anything. Would you urge the Senate Democratic leader to get rid of the filibuster?
Pete Buttigieg: [00:15:44] I think we have to have that on the table. I mean I think that’s a conversation you definitely want to have with the Senate leadership. But look, our sense of fair play as a party has come back to bite us so many times. And at the same time we can’t become the thing that we’re fighting, we can’t emulate the current majority leadership which I think views all of what’s going on in politics strictly as an exercise of power. It’s one of the reasons why what I’m trying to do is return the focus of our political debate to everyday life and the impacts on it. And I think we can see very clearly the effectiveness of that strategy in what happened with the ACA. You know I was running for statewide office in Indiana in 2010. That sucked because we were getting absolutely destroyed over the ACA, right? Why? Because it was a theoretical thing. And so they could have these town halls and talk about death panels and all this crazy, crazy stuff without a lot of accountability. So eight years later, ACA goes from a toxic issue for us to the winning issue for us and I think what changed the politics on that was that people actually experienced it. And so at that round of town halls, you had ordinary people talking about their lives and getting in the faces of these Republican members of Congress saying, ‘Hey this is how I get insurance. This is why my life got better. And you can’t take this away from me.’ And it turns out it’s very hard to lie to somebody about their actual real everyday life. So I think that provides a template for how we need to talk and think, how we need to create pressure on senators no matter what party they’re from or what state they’re from to do the right thing. Because if we’re at a moment where we’re about to see this again with universal background checks, right? Moves through the House, likely to die in the Senate even though 90 percent of Americans, I think, something like 80 percent of Republicans, like actual people not Republican congressmen, think it’s a good idea. At a certain point, you can bring that to a breaking point where people can only be so far out of step with the consensus of the American people. Now some of it’s reinforced by things like redistricting but some of it also I think can be used by skillful politics from the Oval Office to create healthy pressures on, if not on the conscience, than at least on the self-preservation instincts of Republican members of the Senate and the Congress.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:17:55] I mean that, as someone who saw this, like take guns for instance. I was in the White House when the Senate failed to get the 60 votes necessary to pass background checks after Newtown. And the issue has never been, had more wide support than it did then. And while I’m sure the president and his staff at the time, you know probably could have made…there were things we could have done differently, but there is a sort of structural problem with polarization with just the general way in which Republican states are getting more Republican as you know as someone from Indiana. And so like how do you specifically do that? Is it like, that’s the thing that I’m curious to hear presidential candidates talk about which is how do you either break that cycle or find some extra legislative or extraordinary way to get beyond it because the usual political incentives that worked decades ago don’t work?
Pete Buttigieg: [00:18:55] Yeah but again I don’t think the solution to this is tactical. I think this is where we need to think about winning not just one legislative fight or for that matter one election. How do we win the era? A 40-year conservative era has come to an end and what’s about to happen next, we don’t know yet. It could be anything from an enlightened era of social democracy to this kind of protofascism that we’re starting to see evolve in a lot of ways. What happens in the next probably five years I think decides what happens in the next 40. But I think everything we do, including just the conduct of the presidential election in 2020 irrespective of the outcome which is obviously extremely important. But even the conduct begins to lay the playbook for how America moves. And this is why I’m always harping on ideas like a progressive ground of freedom or a 21st century account of security. Because what you saw happen in the 60s was Republicans and conservatives who were absolutely just on the edge began to say and do things that changed the terms of the debate. Not right away, right? People like Goldwater got clobbered but they paved the way for people like Reagan. And if we want to be smarter on our side about this it can’t just be about how we figure out our tactical laydown for an individual legislative fight. It’s how do we make sure that the center in America moves closer to where it actually ought to be. And the classic test case for this is this whole debate over socialism, right? So we reached the point where even a conservative invention like the ACA, cooked up at the Heritage Foundation and piloted by a Republican governor, came to be characterized as socialism which was the moment when I think the word really did lose all meaning. Once that happened, some people came out actually talking about socialism in favorable terms and it just changed the range of motion of the debate that we were having. So you didn’t have to embrace what, you know, Bernie was talking about to appreciate the fact that he reminded everybody of what a true left-left position actually is. And I think that’s the project that you know in the middle of all the, what the tacticians are doing to get through this or that legislative gunfight. That’s what we actually have to have our eyes on and that should filter through into how a president behaves how every single one of the 2020 candidates behaves and what kind of conversation we’re having in the media space too.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:21:16] And when you say the 40-year conservative era is coming to an end, like what brings it to the end? Is it…
Pete Buttigieg: [00:21:24] It’s ended. I think what brings it to an end is a hostile takeover of the Republican Party by a president who does not even have an ideology, who literally does not care. I mean I think you know the only question now is the extent to which he’s in on the joke or not. But that doesn’t mean that the conservative era gives way to a progressive era. It just means that our politics right now is totally scrambled. The U.S. doesn’t have a foreign policy. It’s not even clear whether there are terms for a foreign policy debate and on the domestic side, anything goes. I mean you have people who narrow down ideologically their choices for president Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, right? We’re at a moment where it is just completely beyond what the old left-center-right map or the Democratic-Republican tradition can explain. And we’ve got to recognize the seriousness as well as the sort of fertility of that moment to craft a new politics that’s actually going to make sense for the next 50 years.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:22:17] And how do you…I had a whole list of policy questions which I think I will get to but this is a very interesting conversation about where politics is going. And how do you how do you fit into that, right? Like what, how will your, like, I completely get what you’re saying. I think you’re exactly right that the next five years are gonna determine the next 50 years if not basically the actual future of American democracy as we currently understand it.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:22:45] Yeah, I think that’s what’s at stake.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:22:46] And how do you run your campaign differently? Like what does that look like that makes it different to respond to that moment?
Pete Buttigieg: [00:22:54] Well part of it, candidly, when you’re running at my age, is that your face is your message. And this is true when I was running in South Bend, right? We were a post-industrial community. Newsweek had just call us one of America’s dying cities. We’d never fully recovered from the loss of Studebaker auto manufacturing company even though it happened 50 years ago and just the act of running was an act of hope at my age. And the act of voting for me was a kind of mandate for something completely new. And so part of it is this is why I’m making an explicitly generational appeal. Not only a generational appeal to try to get people my age and younger to buy in, to see themselves represented, but also to get people my parents age and older thinking about the possibilities of really investing in the future of people they love and people they care about. It’s why I talk a lot about what the world is going to look like in 2054. That’s the year I get to the current age of the current president because it situates our thinking on a longer term plane. In many ways I think the most important debates of our time aren’t so much left-right as long-term versus short-term, right? So there’s a short-term gain for some in these tax cuts, there’s a short-term benefit or at least ease to pretending climate change will take care of itself. But these are things you would never, even on foreign policy. There’s things that we’re doing now that you would just never do if you viewed the state of the world in 2054 as your problem and not somebody else’s. And so before we get to the guts of the policy proposals, even before we get to the kind of settling on our political rhetoric for the next few years, I think we need to get to that project of asking people to think about decisions through the lifetime of those decisions and pointing out that this is going to affect our lives, our lives ourselves in ways that are beginning to show themselves even now.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:24:43] Do you think the older Democrats who are running, you know, people I think we all like, like Bernie Sanders and potentially Joe Biden. Did they…incapable of thinking that way, or like what…?
Pete Buttigieg: [00:25:01] Not necessarily. I mean I think, you know, anybody at any age can think long term or can think short term. I do think that somebody from a younger generation has a certain kind of standing, just like the fact that I served overseas and in a war gives me certain standing to talk about a lot of veterans issues and military issues that helps bring these issues to the surface. But one of the things that’s really been interesting in you know, the living rooms and the venues that I’ve been speaking in in Iowa and New Hampshire, is the interest that older voters are taking in the idea of a younger candidate. In the same way that in 2016, a lot of very young voters gravitating toward one of the oldest candidates. So I don’t think it’s as simple as kind of, candidate this age for voter this age. But I do think that my presence invites people to think about those longer term issues especially since that’s also a big part of the message that I’m trying to bring forward.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:25:53] So, you know, you talk about climate change. And I think it’s a very compelling part of your message and an argument for someone who’s going to have to live on this planet. You’d like it to be here long after some other folks won’t. So a couple questions on that fact. What is your reaction to the Green New Deal proposal put out by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:26:19] So here’s what I think the Green New Deal gets right and why I think it’s good that it’s been put forward. There’s two really important pillars to this, I think. The first is it correctly situates this as a major national emergency. It identifies this as a problem whose destructive powers is comparable to a Great Depression or World War except this time we see it coming. So shame on us if we don’t do something. And that’s how I view it, right? As a mayor, and frankly in the political process, part of what I’m trying to do is just change the mental B-roll that people have when we say a word like climate and get it away from, you know, hunks of ice breaking off the Antarctic and polar bears and move what your mind’s eye pictures to things like parts of California catching on fire or my own city, where we had, you know, twice I’ve had to activate the emergency operations center of our city for a flood, for a historic flood. One of them was a 500-year flood. And one of them was a thousand-year flood and they happened 18 months apart. So this is an emergency of world historic proportions. And the Green New Deal gets that. The second thing it gets, and the reason the New Deal metaphor is kind of elegant, is it shows this idea that there’s also economic opportunity from rising to meet that challenge. So you know, part of how we ended the Great Depression was mobilizing to deal with World War II. But it shouldn’t take a war to mount that kind of national effort. So look, I get that it’s ultimately right now, is more of a set of goals than it is an actual plan, right. And we haven’t figured out some of the things that it would take to meet those goals. But for those who are saying, you know, is 2030 the right year or not to achieve some of these things, I mean the answer is, that’s not up to us. Like that’s pretty much in the science. The answer isn’t can we, it’s we have to. And then we figure it out. By the way, America has a great tradition of figuring out how to do things, from ending the Great Depression to beating Hitler to going to the moon. And I don’t know why this can’t be taken seriously at that level.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:28:18] Do you have political concern about it? You’re from Indiana, conservative state. Trump won it by 19 points. You have Trump out every day and Republicans saying that the Green New Deal is going to end plane travel, we’re going to take your car away, we’re gonna get rid of cows. Is there any political concerns or, so do you have political concerns about it or is there anything, you said here’s what it gets right. Are there things the Green New Deal gets wrong?
Pete Buttigieg: [00:28:44] Yeah I mean it’s vulnerable to being caricatured and again this is very similar. I mean you know the elimination of cows is very similar to, you know, death panels. It’s these things that are being thrown out there and what we need to do is concretize this and talk about what’s actually happening. I enjoy going down to get a cheeseburger in South Bend. I just want to not have the city flooded while I’m on my way there, right. And there’s a common sense way of talking about this that I think people regardless of ideology, at least most people, can get. You know it’s not written in stone that the middle of the country has to be conservative. I mean much of the best American progressive tradition comes from the middle of the country. It goes all the way to back to John Brown in Kansas. You can think about William Jennings Bryan from the middle of the country. Eugene Debs, outright socialist from Indiana. So it’s not that a certain part of the country has to be right or has to be left, it’s that we have to explain these things in terms that remind everybody what’s at stake. I would argue that in agricultural areas, you know my part of the country we’ve got a lot of corn and soy. We have a whole lot at stake in these issues and we need to have the vocabulary and the argument be about that, not about farting cows.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:30:01] OK that’s fair. You say it doesn’t have to be conservative, it doesn’t have to be liberal. Indiana has probably moved as much in one direction as any state over the last 11 years. Barack Obama wins in 2008. Don Trump won it by 19 points I believe in 2016. Do you have a theory about what happened there? The same people, right?
Pete Buttigieg: [00:30:28] I mean part of it is the kind of, in my view, sort of abandonment of the middle of the country by our party. And I think that’s got to be reversed. I think we learned the hard way what happens when you do that and you know, to his credit, the Obama campaign did not do that. And it’s really interesting, especially for those who think of Indiana as sort of irretrievably deep red to think that the only time we voted Democratic since LBJ was not for Bill Clinton, not for Al Gore, it was for Barack Obama. So you know, investing time and resources matters. But look, I mean there is a conservative drift and a lot of it is because of the stories that have been told. A lot of it, by the way, is also mistakes that were made on our side of the aisle especially the condescension that I think has happened in a lot of how frankly people in our party, especially from the coasts, addressed the interests or the values of people from the middle of the country who, you know, in many cases voted for the current president not because they have any illusions about his character, not because they think he’s a great guy but because with eyes wide open, knowing that the system had failed them and believing we were saying the system was just fine, they walked into that booth and voted to burn the house down. And until we get that I think we’re really going to struggle to be heard in parts of the country like where I come from.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:31:56] I hear the condescension thing all the time. We’re sitting here on the coast. Is there an example of that?
Pete Buttigieg: [00:32:03] Oh sure, yeah. I mean, you know, a liberal lawyer from Los Angeles walks up to a guy in Indiana who’s a working class guy and says you’re voting against your economic interests. You know what that guy’s gonna say back? ‘So are you, fuck off.’ You know, I mean, yeah. People understand that there’s more to their vote than economics. And there’s a lot of different reasons why people make those choices. So, you know, telling people that they’re voting against their own interests, thinking that we will reach across the aisle to defeat Trump by informing voters who supported him that they were complicit in a crime is not a very convincing way to reach people. Look, politics much more than we realize is about how people feel about themselves and they look at you based on how supporting or opposing you makes them feel about themselves. This is, I thought about this a lot when we were having this whole dust-up over so-called religious freedom. So, you know, actually right around the time I was coming out in South Bend, Mike Pence was governor and we had this horribly embarrassing episode where this basically anti-LGBT discrimination bill passed and it made our state into a laughingstock until they finally took it back. Part of what I noticed there was a lot of people who were more conservative in terms of their general orientation. A lot of business conservatives, just a lot of kind of friends and neighbors, began to come on board with the idea of equality and feel good about themselves doing it. And it was really important to kind of beckon them onto the right side of history, not kind of, for whatever impurities they had or awkwardness they had. You know people who talk to me about meeting my friend, not understanding that there’s a difference between a friend and a partner, but meaning to be nice, right. If we push them into the corner, this is how radicalization works. They have nowhere to go but the far right. If we beckon them to our side and invite them to, basically invite them to the kind of party you want to get into, not because it’s exclusive but because it’s fun and because it makes you feel good. But also at a substantive level because it makes you kind of bigger-hearted and more secure as opposed to the politics of making people fearful and backward-looking which is frankly easier to do through political rhetoric than making people feel secure and open and generous. But if we enlist everybody in that project then I think that you can transcend a lot of this ideology. I know it can be done because mathematically there are an awful lot of people in St. Joseph County, Indiana who must have voted for Barack Obama and Donald Trump and Mike Pence and me.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:34:47] To get those voters back, right, you make very good points about not being condescending, about reaching out, about trying to understand what brings them sort of decisions in a way that is empathetic not dismissive. Are there policy choices the Democratic Party should make, or if there are changes we should make in what we advocate for that could help us do better in the Midwest or get better back within the interior of the country?
Pete Buttigieg: [00:35:15] Well I think ironically, we psyched ourselves out thinking we couldn’t talk about things like raising the minimum wage because it would be too far left and in the course of doing that, lost a lot of Republicans and center-right people who would have benefited from that, right. So you have all these issues that are centrist in a kind of sense of this is where the majority of the American people are. But centrism kind of did away with them on our side of the aisle. And it is true about, you know, some flavors of universal health care. So I don’t know that it’s about changing our values or changing our policies. I mean, in many ways I think the original sin of the 90s was we thought we could win in the short term. Well, we correctly thought we could win in the short term by, you know, aping some policies from the right. But what it left us was this kind of skewed world where we were arguing everything on their terms. So it hasn’t aged well. But I think again a lot of it is just a matter of emphasis. That’s why I’m constantly talking about freedom, to remind people that, you know, the freedom to sue your credit card company after they rip you off is just as important or more important than you know the freedom some business has to pollute a river. And also, I think talking about security in a really smart way that brings it home. Look, we shouldn’t look like we’re indifferent to things that conservatives talk about we’re not indifferent to borders and border security. We’re not indifferent to faith, something that we’ve weirdly become almost completely unable to talk about, which is weird for me because, you know, the scripture I read points me in a pretty clear direction when it comes to taking care of immigrants and prisoners and the poor. And, you know, finding that vocabulary in a way that’s authentic and true to ourselves, I think has to be the project of this generation now coming up in the political space, not only because it helps cement our values within the left but I actually think that when we have done that we become more convincing to independent-minded and thinking conservatives.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:37:03] When you think about, you know you talk about like, we should be for raising minimum wage and these things that did sort of lose their currency with the Democratic Party in the 90s and then in the early 2000s. They did not lose their currency in the last 10 years. Right. And the ACA was an aggressively progressive, was the most progressive health care bill that could pass at the time.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:37:24] By the standards of the time, yeah.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:37:25] Yeah for sure. And yet we still, there was still this drift here. As you think about what the next set of policies, let’s take health care for instance, right, because as you said you were running in 2010. It was not a great year to be running as a Democrat. Both because the state of the economy but also because the Affordable Care Act was being demagogued up and down the ballot. Sort of the almost table stakes for Democrats is some positions somewhere on Medicare for All. Where are you on that and how do you think about it in the context of, you know, winning back these voters you’re talking about?
Pete Buttigieg: [00:38:04] Yeah I mean again I think voters [1.8] I know just want to know that they can get health care, right. And Medicare for all is the right direction to move in because it represents a more efficient system. I mean countries that do this or more efficient than we are. So it’s not just because it’s not because we just intrinsically like the idea of this being handled by by a public effort instead of by corporate America it’s that we believe it works better that you would pay less on bureaucracy and more dollars would go to patient care. You know the reality is people say ‘How are you going to pay for that.’ How do you think you’re paying for health care right now. If you’re uninsured you’re paying too much. If you’re insured you’re paying too much because way too much of theU.S. health care dollar goes into ‘administratitivia,’ not into patient care. Now honestly not all of that is fixed by Medicare for all there are a bunch of problems in Medicare right now that are more technical that need to get sorted out like the number of times some of these authorizations have to get touched by a human which should be zero. But but that’s not the answer right now. There’s a cost to that. Now I also think anybody, anybody in the 2020 conversation who lets the phrase Medicare for All escape their lips has a responsibility to talk about a pathway there that makes people better off along the way and not worse off and to me the way you come at this is what I would call Medicare for All Who Want It. So the idea here is you need you take some flavor of Medicare, you make it available to buy in on the exchange as a public option. And then if people like me are right that this is a more efficient system it will be preferred. I mean it will give you better care at a lower cost and more and more people will want to buy into it. So I guess it gives the corporate players one last chance to somehow come up with something better. But if they fail to do so as I expect that they will then what’ll happen is it’ll be a very natural glide path to a single payer environment. And by the way even in a single payer environment there can still be a role for the private sector. I mean just think about how actual Medicare has private supplements alongside it. Even in countries like the UK that are outright nationalized which is a step beyond a big step beyond something like single payer. Even there is a kind of ancillary private market for free care. But in the end I think we need to create that glide path and I think it will work.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:40:15] Do you worry – You know you’ve talked a little bit about sort of starting at the halfway point and under this myth that you’re going to sort of win over this sort of mythical centrist voters, right?
[00:40:25] Well this is really important. I’m not for this because I think it’ll help with centrist voters. I’m for this because I think it’s the right thing to do. And I think we’ve lost the muscle memory in our party to just say what we think is right and then try to pull the center toward us. And instead we psych ourselves out with things that are designed to appeal to this middle that we’re trying to get in the heads of.
[00:40:41] Well I I’m not. I’m not suggesting that it’s not a sincere belief but it is like there. Let’s first let stipulate that we’re everyone’s having a conversation about a path to single payer which is a massive progressive achievement that that’s even the conversation is happening in the Democratic party.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:40:59] Although in broader historical terms, it’s a down the middle compromise right between the right wing solution which is all corporate kind of wild west Medicare or health care and the left wing solution which is national medicine. So I just want to correctly situate this. I know it doesn’t read that way right now but I want to correctly situate this in the middle of the debate where it belongs.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:41:15] Right. But like your proposal is in the is in the middle of the Democratic debate on it.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:41:20] Right. Between where Bernie Sanders is and I think Kamala Harris is and maybe Elizabeth Warren the people who’ve endorsed the Sanders bill.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:41:28] Yeah and then there’s the buy-in person. There’s been a couple of Democrats who’ve said that that’s the best way to start including yourself. I think Sherrod Brown were he to run and few others have started there. But do you worry that if you start there you end up somewhere short of that right? Like if your negotiating position is the ideal position or the fallback position that it gets harder to achieve that. The argument that I think a lot of the senators who endorsed the Sanders bill is let’s start there and see what we can get right and we’re going to finish that that’s a matter of legislative tactics and I’m all for that.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:42:01] You know I’m I’m sitting in office and we’re thinking about what draft one of the bill looks like maybe we’ll make it as far out as possible so we can have a healthy negotiation. But again I think we outsmart ourselves as Democrats by being way too tactical when we forget that you know a five minute conversation with my in-laws who are intelligent people with a mom and pop business in northern Michigan who do not follow the blow by blow of policy debate.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:42:24] There’s one or they get health care. They will find a lot of this reasonable if we discuss it in the right way. But we’re so preoccupied with finding the center of the American policy elite that we forget that the center of the American people is often further left than we think – “A.” And “B” can be moved and the project of candidates not to mention presidents should be not only to win but to move it.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:42:55] Switching to the economy for a sec. You’re from Indiana. You’re from South Bend, you talk about Studebaker. I worked for Evan Bayh back in the day. So I spent some time in Indiana visiting a lot of plants that were in the process of closing down and certainly many of those plants that I visited back in the early 2000s were not around post 2008.
[00:43:15] There is very specific solutions that a mayor can do to help or a governor can do or running wanted to help a specific situation in this town. Right we’re going to set a new employer document or whatever else. But ultimately we’re dealing with these forces of automation and globalization that are fundamentally changing our economy for eyes. And there is not a piecemeal solution to that. Right. And so have you, and I recognize you’ve been in this race for like two months now, but have you thought about like what the big picture idea is to not just help with the transition between where we are now we’re going to be but how we get to where the American economy needs to be. Understanding that automation goals are only gonna get worse. Right.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:43:59] So yeah our city was on the business end of this. I mean we you know we lost something like 30,000 people when when the auto jobs disappeared and a big part of what I had to do when I started running for mayor in 2011 was have a really honest conversation because there’s this pressure.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:44:14] Even then like some of the old timers are saying we’ve got to get some version of Studebaker back. And every mayor comes under huge pressure to put together the incentives that will land the big factory that’s going to solve everything. And you know it’s pretty clear looking around us that that wasn’t going to solve all our problems. I mean we did. You know sometimes use incentives to get individual deals to go through as a kind of a tiebreaker. But that was going to solve the bigger issue of automation and globalization. By the way this is why you can’t have an honest politics that revolves around the word again. You’ve got prepare people for what’s changing. And most of all you got to allow people to see a picture of a world that has changed where they’re winning and if they don’t see that then of course they’re going to be very responsive to a message saying you don’t have to change. Nothing’s going to change we’re just gonna change it back. Even if that’s that’s clearly a promise that can’t be kept. So I think the thing that we miss a lot policy wise on our side of the aisle is we have these these retraining programs that are designed to help people who get disrupted – and don’t get me wrong there. It’s good to do training. I’ve supported a lot of training efforts in South Bend – it’s definitely part of the picture, but it completely misses why people are so harmed and so disrupted by this change. He completely misses why for example we had a so-called economic anxiety election in 2016 under conditions that most economists would describe as full employment. And what it misses is that even if we can find you another job with a similar income we haven’t really accounted for what happened to your identity. Peoples’ identity is wrapped up in this lifelong relationship with a single employer. By the way this is true for white collar workers and law firms and CPAs who are increasingly vulnerable to automation just as it is for blue collar workers in auto factories in Indiana for example. So what we’ve got to do is not only on kind of the technical and economic side be investing way more in R and D on A.I. and making sure that you know productivity growth increases in the U.S. so that overall wealth can grow but also something that is much more intangible project of helping people understand where they fit in the world. When you know anybody my on average my age or younger will change professions more frequently than my parents change job titles. And that’s something that can’t be solved by economic policy alone. I think there are some solutions. In my view, the solutions include things like community itself. So a lot of people who have found a sense of meaning even as jobs come and go. They found a sense of meaning based on the role they play in the city in the recovery of the city. They become sort of militantly attached to the mission of bringing our city back from the so-called Rust Belt doldrums. But that sense of community identity and purpose can come from a lot of places. It can come from faith. I mean at risk of sounding conservative – it can come from faith or family. And if we’re not speaking to that then I think we’re missing, we’re allowing this void to open up and I think by the way that void is being filled by some hideous things, medically hideous things like like opioids or morally hideous things like like white nationalism, which will rush in to fill that void. So this is about a lot more. I mean I a lot of views on how we can modernize you know e-citizenship and figure out you know how to tune up our A.I. strategy so that’s at least keeping pace with some of our Asian competitors and so forth. But there’s something deeper going on that we got to pay attention to and that is something that both the policy tools but even more than that the kind of moral authority if something like the presidency can help with.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:47:49] Have you thought about the idea of universal basic income as of one thing that might be the policy mix to deal with the rapid transition.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:47:56] Yeah I mean obviously this is less responsive to that kind of spiritual I’m talking about but the income problem won’t go away. And so we’ve got to look at that. I think that it’s worth taking seriously there is an experiment underway now in Stockton to see what it does. I know there are many times that we’ve been sitting around the table working on some kind of elaborate policy contraption to do something like boost third grade reading levels when a lot of evidence would suggest that by far the simplest and most effective and cost efficient way to do it is just give the family a little more cash because turns out not being poor is one of the best things that can help you make it to third grade reading level because a nutrition or stability or whatever it is.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:48:31] There are different ways you can structure it. I’m attracted to structures that connect it to work but also have an expansive version of what work is especially if some of the physical repeatable tasks of manufacturing are being automated away. Let’s give a little more regard to things like caregiving and you know raising children that are absolutely work they’re just not in the formal kind of economy the way that they’re traditionally being compensated. So I think with a richer and thicker understanding what work is some kind of relationship between a guaranteed income and work and some kind of structure that makes it equitable but which might be along the lines of expanded tax credit or even the negative income tax idea that first got floated in the 70s. I think that I don’t know that anybody can say now that they have a fully informed considered opinion on this but I think it’s the right moment to have that conversation because it is something that’s responsive partly to this this issue of automation which is as you say only going to accelerate. There’s no you can’t get the the horse back into the barn on this one. And we shouldn’t want to read if we get it right. I mean if we get distribution right if we get a society right. This should be a really good thing. Mean it means that society can make all the goods services it needs with all of us working less. The problem of course is that as that’s accelerated we haven’t all been made better off. And it’s one of the reasons why even though there’s a lot more – This is a lot more related to automation than it is to trade – It is one of the recent reasons why there’s such hostility to trade in my part of the country because we were promised that the rising tide would rise and it did. And we were promised that it would lift all boats and it didn’t especially where we live.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:50:11] All right let’s let’s transition to the kind of campaign you’d run right. And one of the biggest decisions that any candidate has to make, particularly when running against Trump, is what what’s the case you’re going to prosecute?
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:50:25] The challenge we had in 2016, at least in my interpretation, is there are a hundred arguments against Trump. All very true and damning. But if you tell 100 stories you tell zero stories. Have you thought about, like if you are in there making making the case for votes, what is your argument for why you not Trump?
Pete Buttigieg: [00:50:47] I think the less about him the better. So I think when he lies, we’ve got to correct it. And when he does something wrong we’ve got to confront it and we got to say I think we can all agree this isn’t working out, I’ve got something better. But I think it pretty much ends there. I think the more attention we pay to him in any form the more he just kind of absorbs it and grows. So this is going to take a lot of discipline. Like every one in Democratic politics has, whether they’ll admit it or not, has fantasized about the moment there on the debate stage and the zingers they’re going to serve something are just going to knock him flat. Right. We all have those. I’ll share something with you because I would never actually use them. It would satisfy some deep itch to be able to say look the difference between me and this guy is you know I’m faithful to my spouse. When it was my turn to serve I did not fake a disability in order to get out. I went. And I look people in the eye when I’m hiring or firing them.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:51:41] But that’s actually not what we need to be doing because the moment you’re you’re playing that game you’re playing his game. And it all it creates this framework where it’s almost as if he’s the one we’re trying to impress and we need to get out of that. We need to get back into a world and another one of the reasons why I talk so much about what the world will be like in 2054 because he said himself of like when for example his tax policy, the bills on that come due – He literally said I won’t be here. And we need to prepare people for a world where this president in this presidency has come and gone but also be responsive for the problems in our economy and the problems in our democracy that made this presidency possible because I’m starting to think if it wasn’t him it would be somebody else. This is a symptom of much deeper problem. And I know he cheated, the popular vote, whatever – but somebody like this does not get anywhere close to the highest office in the land unless there are profound issues in our democracy and in our economy. We’ve got to be responsive to those and talk about them in a long term picture where frankly people like him are going to get left behind and the sooner we’re talking about that world and the less we’re talking about him the better off we’re going to be.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:52:50] You wrote – this is sort of an amazing thing although the other day but – at a young age you wrote an essay about a politician you had to pick one – and you picked Bernie Sanders, which is amazing on many levels, one of which being just at the moment when you wrote that Bernie Sanders was not a famous person. But now you are running against Bernie Sanders. I’m curious about what drew you to Bernie Sanders. I think a lot of people at that time would have written about someone like Paul Wellstone. You made a very specific decision to pick this lesser known independent Democrat who identified as a democratic socialist and now you’ve made a decision knowing that he was likely going to run to run against that same person. So I’m curious about how that all came about and what you think about it now.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:53:37] Yeah I mean the fascination to me when I was 18 and entering that that essay contest was that here was somebody at this moment when everybody else seemed like they were able to kind of outgrow their values in order to win – Here was somebody who really just said what he was for and he didn’t seem to care as much about the politics of it. And you know you had this word socialism which even more than now, much more than now, 20 years ago was a pretty much a kill switch on a policy or a career if it got credibly thrown at you. And he was just running with it. He just owned it. And so I felt like you didn’t have to agree with him on everything to to really admire the straightforwardness and the courage and then the other really interesting thing about him was you know he’s from a state that was not you know the left most state and it was actually somewhat effective in the House at working with with Republicans. And it showed that there’s more to working with Republicans than ideological centrism. So all of those things were appealing then all of those things I think are still appealing now. I think they’re part of his appeal. So it is a strange thing that I absolutely would not have pictured that I’d wind up you potentially competing with him. First of all, I’m glad he’s in the picture. I think it represents a real important way to establish kind of what the terms of the debate are. But I also think in the end I have a somewhat different message and obviously a very very different messenger.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:55:04] I wonder if you had done odds on what was more likely when you read that essay that Bernie Sanders would be a front runner for the presidency or you’d be running for the presidency. They probably would have about the same.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:55:15] There’s no way I would guessed that I’d be in this situation.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:55:19] Are you having fun out there campaigning.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:55:21] I am. It’s really fun. I mean it’s hard. It’s very demanding very difficult but getting to know people and it’s hard to say this without sounding like I’m just bathed in cliches but really it’s true that I like getting to know people in their living rooms and going to different communities and understanding what they care about. It really kind of helps you grow really extends you. And I feel like Chaston and I are making friends everywhere we go but also really expanding our life experience to understand you know how other people are affected by politics. And it just kind of enriches this. You know my whole account of why politics is important is because of what it does to us in the everyday. And so you get to peek into all these people’s every days and understand why they care. You know the travel is exhilarating as well as exhausting. And I also think that this particular moment is a really really important. It’s a formative moment – as you say the future of the Republic might hang on some of the decisions that are being made and it’s not just the election outcomes it’s the conduct of these campaigns. This is the most important conversation in the world right now.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:56:25] And I’ve got this enormous privilege of being in the middle of it. And how can that not be compelling and inspiring.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:56:34] We’ll close on this. You have mentioned your husband a number of times. You mentioned your ability to get married due to a Supreme Court decision that happened when Barack Obama was president. And we’ve had a number of groundbreaking campaigns on the Democratic side at least in the last few years.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:56:50] You know obviously Barack Obama’s first African-American president. Hillary Clinton is our first female nominee. But we shouldn’t go without noting the historic nature of our first openly gay presidential candidate. And have you thought about what that would mean to the country? To LGBTQ youth around the country? Just A- the fact you’re running. And B – if you were to win. How do you think about where you fit in? I know this is sort of a daunting task and Barack Obama had to wrestle with it too – but where you fit in the civil rights history here.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:57:29] Yeah I mean I’ve actually drawn a lot of lessons from the way that Barack Obama handled the historic nature of his candidacy. And I’m conscious – I’m a bit torn because part of me thinks what success looks like is a world where it never comes up and it’s not newsworthy. Right. I thought about this when I was coming out and I was thinking how straight people don’t have to come out. Why do I? Shouldn’t it just be that I like show up at some event my date’s a dude and everybody puts it together and nobody cares. And in some parts of the country I think we’re probably there but that was not the case in Indiana under Mike Pence obviously. So I think that’s the destination. But I know that we’re not there yet. And when I think about or frankly when I hear about or meet people who let me know, usually young people, who who let me know what it means to them or older people who never could have pictured this and being right in the middle of that generationally. I’m young enough to to know that there is a world, a possible world, where it’s not even a thing. But I’m old enough you know when I got into elected office, which is not that long ago, it was a given in my mind that you could either be out or you could be in office – not both. Just as when I joined the military it was law that you could be an officer in the military or you could be out, but not both. And so to see that change and to think about what it means for young people who are really struggling with their sexuality or their gender identity, which is is not something I’ve experienced but I think you can also relate in some ways, that I’m aware of of the responsibility that comes with that and also the potential to really do a lot of good.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:59:10] I always think back to the day after Barack Obama won in 2008 – a note we got at the campaign from an older African-American gentleman who was related to one of our staffers who said never again will an African-American child be born in America without believing they can be president. You are right that America would be best if it was not historic – that it was normal. But the mere fact of your campaign I think means a lot to a lot of people.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:59:48] So Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Thank you for being here on Pod Save America. Thank you for being so generous with your time.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:59:54] Sure thing. Thanks For having me.
Dan Pfeiffer: [00:59:55] Good luck on the trail. And we will see you again.
Pete Buttigieg: [00:59:57] Sounds good.