“Why not?” she asked.
We’re looking for a nondescript generic white male Democrat, preferably a senator, and you ask why not Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana?
How about this?
He’s too young.
He’s too inexperienced.
He’s not just gay; he’s out-of-the-closet gay, gay with a husband, a veritable First Man.
All of which is true. The generic Democrat he is not.
Then again, the generic Democrat isn’t running.
The candidates who aren’t too young are too old.
The candidates who have experience have to answer for that experience. Two words: Anita Hill.
Donald Trump changed the rules: the rule that said you have to be a senator or a governor; the rule that said you have to play it safe, own the middle, stick to the briefing book; the rule that said a guy with a personal life most of us don’t approve of can’t be elected president.
That would not be Mayor Pete. There’s nothing about his personal life to disapprove of, unless you disapprove of gays, in which case you’re not likely to be voting for any of the Democrats.
As for experience, Barack Obama was a first-term senator, and a state legislator before that. Experience? He had vision. He had judgment. He had a world-class mind.
The first time I saw Barack Obama, I thought, “That guy will be president some day.” Same thing I thought when I first saw Bill Clinton in action.
Same thing I thought when I watched Mayor Pete handle himself in a town meeting.
This guy has it.
Lee Atwater, George H.W. Bush’s late campaign manager, used to say that there’s a little boat, and on that boat are the people Americans can imagine being president. It may be a little boat, but those on it have to be big.
Mayor Pete may not be old enough or experienced enough or straight enough for some folks. But none of those flaws matter near as much as being too small for the job. And he definitely is not that.
He has emerged as the standout in this race for a very simple reason. In a crowded field, his talent — pure political talent of the best sort, the smarts but also the ability to connect, to touch people, to lead — stands out. There are brilliant people who are terrible politicians and great politicians who can’t put the paragraphs together. To have the “touch” and the “vision thing” is how you get on the boat.
He is also playing this game exactly right. Iowa was made for a candidate such as Mayor Pete. He can do three events a day seven days a week and not look at his watch (a famous debate mistake made by President Bush 41 in his race against the too-young Bill Clinton), or misstate his position.
Best as I can tell, he has moved to Iowa, which is what Iowans expect.
And if he can knock off one of the gorillas in this race, if he can finish ahead of either Biden or Bernie in the first caucus state, then he’s on a roll in prime time. And if he can beat them both ... .
People who pay careful attention to politics forget that most people don’t. That’s why Iowa matters so much. For most voters, this is spring training. Iowa is the first real game.
The morning after the Iowa caucus, the country wakes up to meet the man or woman who just might be president.
In 1976, that man was Jimmy Carter, a one-term governor who no one outside Georgia (his home state) and Iowa had ever heard of until he literally moved to Iowa and beat out all the names-you-know in the caucus.
In 2020, that man could just be Mayor Pete. Why not?
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law.