Fact can be more interesting than fiction. In 2000, a high school senior won the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library’s annual Profiles in Courage essay contest by extolling the virtues of the country’s only independent member of Congress, Bernie Sanders of Vermont. To the student, the self-described socialist was an “inspiring example” of a political leader willing to “eschew political and personal comfort and convenience because they believe they can make a difference.” Nineteen years later, Peter Buttigieg found himself standing next to now-Senator Sanders in a Democratic presidential debate. But the South Bend mayor wasn’t there to praise his high school idol but to upstage him. When asked whether voters should take age into account when deciding whom to support given the forty-year gap between the two men, Buttigieg graciously allowed that “I don’t care how old you are. I care about your vision.” He then added, “I do think it matters that we have a new generation of leaders stepping up around the world.” If Buttigieg wins next November, he will be the youngest person ever to become president, and at thirty-nine years and one day the first thirty-something to take the oath of office.
Name: Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg
Date of Birth: January 19, 1982
Place of Birth: South Bend, Indiana
Political Party: Democratic Party
Marital Status: Married (Chasten Glezman)
Alma Mater: Harvard (BA), Pembroke College of the University of Oxford (MA)
Career: Naval intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve (2009-2014), Mayor of South Bend (2012-present)
Campaign Website: https://www.peteforamerica.com/
Twitter Handle: @PeteButtigieg
Buttigieg officially kicked off his campaign in South Bend, Indiana, on April 15. He did so in what was once a Studebaker car factory and now a tech hub. That was a fitting setting for a speech that plugged the potential for America’s economic revival. Buttigieg said that he is offering “something totally different” than those who use “resentment and nostalgia” to reach communities like South Bend and sell “an impossible promise of returning to a bygone era that was never as great as advertised.” Buttigieg calls for forward thinking and innovation to replace the “politics of the past.”
He didn’t suggest what a Buttigieg foreign policy doctrine might look like.
Buttigieg is the son of two University of Notre Dame professors. His father, an immigrant from Malta who died this past January, was a literary critic. His mother is a linguist. Buttigieg inherited their academic abilities. He was his high-school valedictorian, went to Harvard, and then was named a Rhodes Scholar. Oh, and he speaks eight languages. (He taught himself Norwegian so he could read a favorite writer without having to rely on an English translation.)
After graduating from Oxford, Buttigieg worked as a consultant for McKinsey and Company from 2007 to 2010. He joined the U.S. Navy Reserves in 2009, served until 2017, and reached the rank of lieutenant. He was summoned to active duty in 2014 and spent six months in Afghanistan. He worked on efforts to disrupt Taliban and al-Qaeda financial support networks in the country.
Buttigieg took an unpaid leave from his day job, being the mayor of South Bend, to serve on active duty. He was first elected to that post in 2011. He was just twenty-nine at the time and the youngest mayor of any city with at least 100,000 people. He was re-elected in 2015. To put the size of Buttigieg’s constituency in perspective, he won roughly 19,500 votes in his two elections combined, or less than one quarter of the seats in Notre Dame Stadium. In comparison, Bill De Blasio won more than 725,000 votes when he won re-election as New York’s mayor in 2017.
In May 2015, Buttigieg wrote an essay for the South Bend Tribune announcing that he is gay. He says he decided to come out because he wanted “to have a personal life” and because Mike Pence, who was Indiana’s governor at the time, had signed a bill to give businesses the ability to discriminate against gays and lesbians based on religious grounds. In 2018, Buttigieg married Chasten Glezman.
Buttigieg stresses three core principles: freedom, security, and democracy. He argues that there is more to freedom than “freedom from” government; there is also “freedom from” corporations and “freedom to” live one’s full life. When he discusses security he stresses cybersecurity and what he considers the “great security issue of our time,” climate change. And he wants to reinvigorate America’s democracy by tackling electoral reform, voting rights, money in politics, and gerrymandering.
But Buttigieg’s talk about freedom, security, and democracy comes with a second message: he is young and “it’s time for a new generation of American leadership.” While he said at the July Democratic presidential debate that he doesn’t care how old the candidates are, he deftly finds ways to make the case that his generation didn’t create the problems that America faces but it is the one that can fix them. He is calling for “a fresh start for America” and says he will carry out generational change. He says he is driven “by the awareness that we face not just another presidential election, but a transition between one era and another, a fact of which the current presidency is as much as symptom as a cause. I believe that the next three or four years will determine the next thirty or forty for our country and our world.”
Buttigieg’s Foreign Policy Views
Back in June, Buttigieg gave a major foreign policy speech at Indiana University. He took pains near the start of the nearly hour-long address to lower expectations by insisting, “I do not aspire to deliver a full Buttigieg Doctrine today.” The mayor was good to his word. The well-crafted, occasionally inspirational speech hit mostly broad themes and generally avoided specific policy questions, such as how he would respond to the threat he says China poses or whether he would seek to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The thrust of the speech was to make the case for revitalizing American global leadership and the liberal international order, though he didn’t use that phrase. He instead put it this way: “My central purpose is to argue that the world today needs America more than ever—but only if America can be at her best.”
If Buttigieg didn’t provide an exact accounting of how America can be at its best or what sacrifices Americans need to make that happen, he did mention a few specifics. He said he would fight to “repeal and replace” the 2001 congressional authorization of the war in Afghanistan that successive presidents, both Democratic and Republican, have used to justify U.S. military counterterrorism operations around the world. (He didn’t say, however, what he would replace it with.) He also vowed to recommit the United States to the Iran nuclear deal, saying that “whatever is imperfections, this was perhaps as close to a true ‘art of the deal’ as it gets.” He likewise vowed to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, noting that he was one of more than four hundred U.S. mayors who had committed their cities to honor the agreement’s goals.
Buttigieg has addressed some foreign policy specifics outside of his Indiana University speech. Like pretty much all of his Democratic rivals, he has argued “that there has to be an end to endless war.” Unlike many of his Democratic rivals, however, he hasn’t committed to removing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan before the end of his first term. He says that “the hard part is figuring out whether we can get out well, or whether we’re going to get out poorly.”
Buttigieg thinks it is unrealistic to expect quick denuclearization in North Korea. He favors instead “striking an initial freeze agreement that would have North Korea cease production of fissile material and end nuclear and missile testing, all verified by international inspectors, in exchange for targeted sanctions relief, which could be reversed if the North Koreans did not uphold their end of the bargain.” He hasn’t said what his alternative would be if Pyongyang isn’t interested in what he has to offer.
Buttigieg looks to be seeking middle ground on trade. He opposes rejoining TPP, arguing like most of his Democratic rivals that it “lacks critical trade provisions on labor, environment, and the digital economy, and does not align closely enough with the needs and interests of American workers.” On the other hand, he says it is a “fool’s errand to think that you’re gonna be able to get China to change the fundamentals of their economic model by poking them in the eye with some tariffs.” And he acknowledges that trade can create “good jobs, they pay well” and that it gets blamed for too many of America’s economic woes: “I mean, NAFTA happened a while ago. And a lot of the jobs that were lost then, it would be very hard to bring back no matter what because of automation.” Buttigieg’s solution is to “insist on policies that ensure that working families in cities like mine can play a more appealing role in the story of globalization than the role of victim.” What those policies are remains to be seen.
Given Buttigieg’s relative youth and modest government resume, the question of whether he is ready to be commander in chief has come up. He has a ready-made answer: he has “more military experience than anybody who has arrived in that office on day one since George H.W. Bush.” He adds that the fact he was called to active duty in Afghanistan gives him a unique perspective on foreign policy. “It was one thing to learn about foreign policy when I was a student at Oxford, it’s another thing to learn about foreign policy when sent to a war zone on the orders of a president. You understand at a very deep and personal way what is at stake.” Reporters who press Buttigieg on whether a Midwest mayor is prepared to handle international questions should expect pushback. When The View put that question to him, he responded: “I felt pretty involved in international questions when I was deployed to Afghanistan.”
More on Buttigieg
Buttigieg recently published his first book, Shortest Way Home: One Mayor's Challenge and a Model for America's Future.
The Washington Post noticed Buttigieg back in 2014 when it called him “the most interesting mayor you’ve never heard of.”
The Washington Post Magazine profiled Buttigieg back in January, describing him as “a combination Boy Scout and lovable dork” and labeling him “the longest of 2020 presidential long shots.”
Buttigieg’s appearance at a CNN Town Hall in March helped propel him from unknown small city mayor to the upper half of the Democratic field.
New York Magazine followed Buttigieg as he campaigned in April and concluded that even by the standard of presidential candidates he “is still unusually controlled. Even his modulations are the same from speech to speech and interview to interview. In most of them, he uses the phrase “theory of the case,” meaning his belief that defeating Trump—and Trumpism—is a job for someone who understands the folks who put him in office well enough to convince them that there’s another way.”
Buttigieg sat down with Vox back in May to discuss everything from his qualifications to be president to his economic plans to his belief that America should “play a special role” in world politics.
Politico Magazine analyzed Buttigieg’s transformation from “a virtual unknown with a puzzling last name and a lane to the presidency that most pundits considered notional at best” to top tier candidate. Politico attributes the rise to Buttigieg’s ability to position himself “as both a groundbreaker and traditionalist, a norm-breaker and rule-follower: He’s an openly gay candidate who proclaims the virtues of marriage; the mayor of a midsized Midwestern city and an Afghanistan combat veteran and practicing Episcopalian who is observant enough that he gave up alcohol for Lent.”
The New Yorker explored what it sees as the paradox of the Buttigieg candidacy: “He has placed himself in a performative role, without the benefit of a performative personality.” That is, he comes across “as more prosaic political character—he has a habit of giving answers in numbered sequence, and he uses phrases like ‘pathway to peace.’”
The Atlantic thinks that Buttigieg looks more to Harry Truman than to Barack Obama on foreign policy. (Buttigieg named one of his dogs “Truman.”)
Last month the New York Times asked why Buttigieg waited until he was thirty-three to come out as gay and concluded that “he may have waited far longer than most young gay men today. But ever the overachiever, he made record time in setting a new bar. In less than four years he went from being single and closeted to being married and out as a gay candidate for president.
Buttigieg answered eighteen questions for the New York Times. When he was asked where he would go on his first international trip as president, he answered that he had “probably better become president before finalizing that decision.”
CFR asked Buttigieg twelve foreign policy questions. He believes “America’s greatest foreign policy accomplishment has been our leadership of global efforts to promote the values that animate our own and other great democracies, to the benefit of the security and freedom of our people.” He thinks that America’s greatest foreign policy mistake “has been the failure to use our leadership more vigorously in key areas of international change: to bend the benefits of globalization more equitably to improving the everyday lives of poor and middle-class citizens, especially women and minorities, in our own and other nations; to combat climate change and nuclear proliferation; and to stand strong against the recent surge of anti-democratic forces around the world.”
Corey Cooper, Elizabeth Lordi, and Aliya Medetbekova assisted with the preparation of this post.