I Once Raged Against the Machine

The year was 2000. I was 15, and Ralph Nader was my candidate. I wasn’t alone; when my high school ran a mock election, Nader placed a close second to Al Gore, putting George W. Bush in a distant third. Young leftists like myself revered the famous consumer advocate running under the Green Party banner. To us, Gore was the enemy, a capitulator, barely even a real Democrat.

This meme was everywhere at the time. In his memoir, Pete Buttigieg describes encountering it as a Harvard freshman:

I volunteered for Al Gore’s campaign that fall, chauffeuring guests around Boston during the run-up to the presidential debate there, but the sense among many students was that Bush and Gore were barely distinguishable on domestic policy: center-left versus center-right. The biggest campaign-related excitement was the arrival of riot police on the outskirts of the debate site to contend with Green Party protesters who were marching and chanting, “Let Ralph [Nader] debate.”

In the end, 2,882,955 votes would be cast for Ralph Nader in the election, 97,488 of them in the swing state of Florida. Gore lost the state by only 537 votes.

How did this happen? Gore had made environmentalism a centerpiece of his campaign, showing a heartfelt interest that would culminate in his 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which brought the problem of global warming to a wide audience for the first time. Bush, a former oilman, had promised to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. Yet somehow, swathes of green-minded citizens in swing states looked at the two major-party candidates and opted to cast a symbolic pro-environment vote instead of a potentially decisive one.

Here’s my theory: Those voters didn’t want Gore to offer bolder policy prescriptions. They just wanted him to feel the way they felt. Nader wasn’t a charismatic speaker, but if you watched him, you could tell that he was angry. Gore didn’t do anger. He was famously bland, with a generally upbeat disposition. “Upbeat” reads as “out of touch” to a lot of people: “Doesn’t he see how bad things are? Does he even care?” That demographic had no interest in a nerdy problem-solver like Gore.

And I was one of them. In hindsight, I lacked perspective. Despite the booming economy, despite the falling crime rate, despite the peace, I saw the Clinton era as a dystopian hellscape. I believed that the only way to make things better was to abolish the two-party system that had led us to this point. Yes, if only I could talk to all the voters, they’d realize that rewriting the Constitution in the name of democratic socialism was in their best interests! I was, as the kids say, woke af.

Fast-forward to today. A guy no one outside of South Bend had heard of until this year has become one of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Like Obama in ’08, his campaign theme is hopey-changey stuff.  “The horror show in Washington is mesmerizing, all-consuming.  But starting today, we are going to change the channel,” he announced.

A cool cucumber like Pete Buttigieg will never satisfy some voters. They’re mad as hell, and they want to see their politicians reflect that. But I’m no longer one of them. I’m on the other side of the divide, the side that prefers cerebral politicians who keep their anger muted and try to get things done. For me, the calming presence of Mayor Pete is a breath of fresh air. What's more, he might be just the unifying force our polarized democracy needs.

This is Part 1 of an ongoing series making the case for Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.

Partying Like It’s 2008

Everyone knew that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee. Her senate seat was always just a stepping stone. The aura of inevitability around her was so strong that people fretted that the American presidency would become a dynastic cycle: Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton…

Almost no one at the time thought of Barack Obama as a serious contender. He’d been elected a senator in 2004 and had only a thin record on national issues. But through skilled grassroots campaigning, he won the Iowa caucuses. From there he cobbled together a wide-ranging coalition to take on the Clinton juggernaut: labor unions and business leaders, political activists and insiders, celebrities and academics. He even won over conservative intellectuals like David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan (who, today, like Buttigieg).

Obama was a deft campaigner. Slippery, some would say. He could play to the left of Hillary in front of some audiences, to the right of her in front of others. No one quite knew where he stood. This infuriated some Democrats. Hillary was a wonk touting a long list of progressive policies. Obama was running on a vague promise of “change.”

But that lack of ideological rigidity was precisely what made him an outstanding politician. Despite the long, sometimes rancorous primaries, he won a landslide victory in the general election against one of the most respected senators in American history.

Over the years, some of Obama's supporters were (inevitably) disappointed. I never was. We got everything I’d hoped for when I cast my vote: We got 8 years of quiet, competent administration. We got a complete economic recovery from the Great Recession. We got the world’s respect.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. This time around, the talented young outsider causing a stir in the primaries is Pete Buttigieg. “Running for office is an act of hope,” he announced. “You don’t do it unless you believe in the power of a law, a decision, sometimes even a speech, to make the right kind of difference, to change our lives for the better, to call us to our highest values.” Others have tried to run the Obama playbook, but Mayor Pete is the only one who’s succeeded so far. If anyone is capable of being a unifying candidate in 2020, I believe it’s him.

This is Part 2 of an ongoing series making the case for Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.

Learning the Right Lessons from 2016

Primary voters instinctively react to the last election. That’s healthy, as far as it goes: If a party loses an election, it should consider what it might have done differently. On the other hand, there’s a tendency to overreact, to treat random deviations as the “new normal.” It’s easy to learn the wrong lesson when you’re trying to spin a narrative thread from a single data point. So, with that caution in mind, here’s my take on what happened in 2016:

Hillary Clinton was a weak candidate. We know that because she lost the ’08 primaries to a previously unknown senator named Barack Obama, despite early advantages in funding, name recognition, and endorsements. Partly that was due to Obama’s outstanding political skills, but Hillary was responsible for a long series of bad decisions in that campaign. Then there were the headwinds. Republicans had been laying down anti-Hillary groundwork since the ‘90s. She was further weakened by a long, combative primary against Bernie Sanders, by a never-ending scandal over email security, and by Russian trolls.

None of that in itself should’ve stopped her from winning against a candidate as unpopular as Donald Trump. Her biggest problem was her own campaign. She failed to reach out to large voting blocs. She overextended herself with a 50-state strategy that maximized the popular vote instead of concentrating on swing states. And she focused her ad spend on attacks on her opponent—whose failings were already (to put it mildly) well-known—rather than trying to form a positive narrative around herself.

For some Democrats, the takeaway here is that the party should’ve nominated Bernie Sanders. While it tickles me to imagine what a real-life Trump vs. Bernie debate would look like, the idea of Sanders triumphing in the general election is a stretch. Americans prefer capitalism over socialism by a wide margin, and Sanders was always even less popular with Democrats than Hillary, which doesn't bode well for his chances beyond the party bubble.

Another common refrain among Democrats is that Hillary should’ve run further to the left in order to “rally the base,” attributing low turnout to her lack of radicalism. In truth, reports of low turnout were greatly exaggerated: Democratic turnout in 2016 was pretty strong. And this theory ignores the reality that running as an ideological extremist risks rallying the other base more. Indeed, many a swing voter will tell you that her problem was failing to tack to the center after winning the primaries.

I’m certain that most Americans would, like Bradley Whitford in Get Out, have voted for Obama for a third term. They also probably would’ve gone for a less vexed Obama surrogate, e.g. Biden. The problem the Democrats had in 2016 wasn’t their ideological positioning; it was Hillary.

If Hillary was the problem, then nominating someone from the left flank of the party is the wrong corrective. Indeed, it would likely spell disaster, since Trump’s stances on most issues are much closer to the median voter’s. A candidate who promises to transform America into Sweden is likely to be dismissed out of hand by that critical demographic.

The candidate will also need to campaign well. Here, Pete Buttigieg has shown immense promise. His skills have taken him from an unknown to a top-tier contender in a matter of months. “Alfred E. Neuman cannot become president of the United States!” Trump griped, coining a nickname for Mayor Pete. Based on recent history, I believe he can.

This is Part 3 of an ongoing series making the case for Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.

The Opposite of Trump

“The opposite of Trump is an Asian man who likes math,” Andrew Yang is fond of saying. He’s not alone in drawing contrasts between himself and the incumbent. In one way or another, all of the contenders are promising to bring dignity, competence, and sanity to the White House. And they’re right. Compared to the current Commander-in-Chief, every candidate in the Democratic primaries is—to quote the man himself—a very stable genius. Most, however, fail to appreciate one of Trump’s gravest flaws as president: his contempt of experts.

“Nobody knows the system better than me. I alone can fix it!” declared the man with no prior experience in government as he accepted the Republican Party's nomination. True to his word, he rarely takes advice from anyone who disagrees with his prior judgment. He prefers to listen to his gut, and his gut gets its information from Fox News.

One of the few persistent voices in the president’s ear is the economist Peter Navarro, who’s continually pushed for the trade wars. The vast majority of economists are opposed. That would give most presidents pause. In fact, it has: During the 2008 primaries, Barack Obama called NAFTA “devastating” and “a big mistake.” He later revised his views based on expert opinion and publicly admitted that he’d been wrong.

That kind of epistemic humility is an essential quality for a president. Which is why I was heartened to read Pete Buttigieg describe his decision-making process at length in Chapter 11 of his book. First he talks about the value of data:

When I took office, it was clear that too many decisions were still made based on gut feel, rather than data—and some operations never got rigorously analyzed at all. Old-fashioned local government is notoriously full of seat-of-the-pants operations, even as financial pressures and resident expectations should be forcing us to become hyper-efficient. No one could tell me, when I took office, how much it cost to fill in a pothole, or how many times we missed a trash pickup in a given neighborhood in a given week.

Then he spends several pages warning of the limits of data-driven policies, providing the cautionary example of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara:

Before serving in public office, McNamara had been the CEO of Ford Motor Company, and the use of data and metrics on his watch escalated almost to a kind of fetish. After the Vietnam War collapsed into chaos, historians and journalists inquired into how the most brilliant minds of their generation could have led the country into such a lethal blunder, and the image emerged of McNamara as a data-obsessed manager who missed the forest for the trees.

Finally, he discusses big data and artificial intelligence:

Computers can now crunch sets of numbers so vast that the patterns that emerge from them are beyond the reach of the human mind—and yet the patterns can be used. Utilities like our waterworks are beginning to tap into computing capabilities that can accurately predict points of failure in water systems without our truly understanding how the prediction was made—only that it works.

Ironically, what makes this kind of predictive technology most interesting is that it so closely resembles human intuition. More often than we realize, humans rely heavily on knowing things that we can sense, but not explain…

And again, he expresses an understanding of these tools and their limitations:

Capable of something resembling intuition but nothing quite like morality, the computers and their programs can only imperfectly replicate the human function we call judgment. Knowing when one valid claim must give way to another, or when a rule must be relaxed in order to do the right thing, is not programmable, if only because it is not completely rational. That’s why, even as reason has partly replaced divine intervention for explaining our world, it will not replace human leadership when it comes to managing it.

When the campaign is behind us, whoever wins the presidency will have countless tough decisions to make. Mayor Pete’s approach to making those decisions, his careful weighing of evidence and expertise, strikes me as more Obama-like than any other candidate’s.

This is Part 4 of an ongoing series making the case for Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.

The Best-Laid Plans

Many voters see presidential elections as a contest of ideas. The media showers attention on the most dramatic policy proposals. As a result, some candidates tether themselves to impressive-sounding signature initiatives. “I will build a wall and Mexico will pay for it!” was a much pithier way for Trump to signal to voters that immigration would be his top priority than any white paper.

But ideas unveiled on the campaign trail usually aren’t very well thought-out. Voters would do well to ask: If your idea is so good, why hasn’t it already been enacted into law by Congress? And if the reason is that it wouldn’t get through, then how the heck would making you president change that? Some voters imagine that the president can push anything through with sheer force of will. One president after another has disproved that notion.

“I don’t think we should measure the bigness of an idea by how many trillions of dollars it costs,” said Pete Buttigieg. This may seem like an obvious point, but it gets at a subtle problem with the incentives of the campaign trail. Imagine that Candidate A says, “I propose Policy X, which will cost taxpayers $0.1 trillion and create $2 trillion in value.” Candidate B says, “I propose Policy Y, which will cost taxpayers $10 trillion and create $11 trillion in value.” Candidate A’s policy creates more net value ($1.9 trillion vs. $1 trillion), but Candidate B’s policy is 100x more expensive. Who will get more attention for their idea? Candidate B, of course! Headlines will tout the $10 trillion number, even though that’s a measure of cost, not of benefit.

Of course, rational cost-benefit analysis is too much to expect from voters. Trump promised to cut taxes, raise spending, and balance the budget. The contradiction cost him nothing. Responsible tradeoffs are the domain of the elected, not the electorate. Which is why it’s so important to choose politicians who are capable of seeing and making those tradeoffs.

I have no way of knowing that Mayor Pete is the right person to elevate to that position. Certainly, he’s made his fair share of unrealistic campaign promises to Democratic primary voters. (Only Biden has kept the malarkey to a minimum.) But his even-keeled temperament gives him the benefit of the doubt in my book.

This is Part 5 of an ongoing series making the case for Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.

Parable of the Golden Goose

Many Americans imagine that the President runs the economy, in the sense that a CEO runs a business. When 200,000 people become employed in a quarter, sloppy media reports will say: “The President created 200,000 jobs.” Conversely, when the economy slips into recession, the President is blamed. In reality, the economy is a complex system, like the weather. It’s not predictable, let alone controllable.

Presidential policy does influence the economy, of course—but random variance influences it more. So good policy recommendations necessarily have to come from well-grounded theory. Just as climate scientists can tell you what policies will mitigate global warming and which will exacerbate it, but can’t tell you what the temperature will be a year from now, so too can economists tell you what policies are conducive to economic growth, despite their inability to game the stock market.

So when a presidential candidate promises to remold the economy according to a theory that lacks strong foundations, I get worried. My #1 political principle is, “Don’t kill the Golden Goose.” There’s always room to improve things, but any drastic policy change has much more potential downside than upside. At the risk of channeling Connor from Succession, I think it’s worth pondering the example of Venezuela. Initially, its economy seemed to improve under Hugo Chavez’ socialism. Then it collapsed. With so many left-wing policies implemented, no one can say for sure which one broke the camel’s back.

To take one policy example, look at Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax. What’s the theory behind it? It’s certainly not the most efficient way of raising revenue, since it’d require a large new bureaucracy to conduct appraisals and handle disputes. Rather, the proposal is motivated by the notion that wealth inequality has negative effects on society (popularized by the 2009 book The Spirit Level) and is perpetually rising (promoted by the 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century). But The Spirit Level has been thoroughly discredited, and the wealth projections from Capital hotly disputed. Surely a policy initiative on the scale of trillions of dollars should have stronger intellectual foundations!

My sense of Pete Buttigieg is that he has the epistemic humility needed to avoid a disaster of his own making. He stands in contrast to Warren and Sanders, who seem intent on doing whatever it takes to “fix” an economy that Americans don’t think is broken. A president who tries to make things better the wrong way could make things a whole lot worse.

This is Part 6 of an ongoing series making the case for Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.

The Case Against the Case Against Mayor Pete

If you follow social media, you know that Pete Buttigieg has been making some Democrats apoplectic. Maybe it’s that he’s running closer to the center than his rivals. Maybe it’s the vagueness of his platform. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t seem angry enough.

Trolls aside, the most common critique of Mayor Pete is the obvious one: He’s just the mayor of a small midwestern city. Beyond that, he has no political experience. There’s a common assumption that the President should have experience with leadership at scale. Most candidates are senators or governors. The last President with no elected office behind him (present company excluded) was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who’d commanded 3 million Allied troops in Europe. By contrast, the city of South Bend has about a thousand employees.

The counterargument is that no job can really prepare someone for the presidency. It’s an entirely unique position. No amount of experience can mold a person who’s unsuited to it into someone who excels at it. That’s why I feel that intangible factors are far more important: having the right temperament, being a quick learner, choosing sound models to emulate.

A candidate’s experience is really only valuable insofar as it gives us a window for evaluating them. The campaign trail offers another window. “When I first heard of him, I didn’t take him seriously. Then I started watching him speak and answer questions about policy, in detail and in terms of where the country should be going. He’s wise, sensible, well balanced, and well prepared,” tweets Will Saletan. No amount of experience is as valuable as those qualities.

This is Part 7 of an ongoing series making the case for Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.