You don’t have to tell former Vice President Joe Biden that the incoming fire increases dramatically the higher you are in the polls. He’s not even in the race yet, but nevertheless some well-timed complaints surfaced regarding his hugginess. The Biden camp took a few tries until they got it (mostly) right with a short video from Biden to remind voters why he has always been a tactile politician. (It would have been entirely successful if he had managed a simple apology.)
Now it is South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg who will face the acid test. He has risen dramatically in polls and now sits in third place in recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. He continues to impress voters and the media with his erudite answers on a range of policy issues and thoughtful remarks on faith. He has managed to zoom ahead of a host of better-known competitors, including several senators and Beto O’Rourke, who has suffered by comparison to Buttigieg. (The jumping-on-the-counters stuff doesn’t look impressive compared with the guy who can expound on capitalism, explain the tension between free markets and democracy, and demonstrate that his data-driven approach to revitalization in South Bend might just have some application in other places.) His kickoff Sunday in South Bend will give him another lift.
All that means is that other candidates and their opposition researchers will no doubt deliver some shots at Buttigieg. He would be smart to do a few things before his opponents can rough him up.
First, Buttigieg would do well to talk more about his military service and what he learned from it. He’s the only one in the race with military service, and one of the few who has talked about foreign policy at all. His service in Afghanistan is not only indicative of his ethos of public service but also part of a resume the voters will consider in deciding if a mayor of a midsize Midwest town can jump up to the presidential level. He might even consider giving a speech devoted solely to foreign policy, rejecting “America First” and embracing responsible internationalism.
Second, it is not necessary or even desirable to match the policy output of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts. However, since Buttigieg has sketched out a capitalism that needs a robust private sector and a well-designed public sector, he should put together a few policy ideas that reflect his data-driven approach and success in revitalizing South Bend’s economy. Maybe that is an initiative to narrow the gap between urban and rural areas, or a creative private-public initiative for STEM education and jobs. He has set a high bar for himself as someone who sounds more intellectually creative than the average pol. Now he needs to demonstrate how that plays out.
Finally, he’s going to need to resist the entreaties of the left wing of his party to go the route of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for all. So far Buttigieg has walked a tightrope, neither throwing his lot in with the self-described socialist nor ruling out an eventual single-payer system. He has spoken favorably about a reparations commission but avoided endorsing a specific plan. The challenge will be, as it is for other candidates, to maintain his progressive bona fides without pre-emptively disqualifying himself should he reach the general election.
And, in fact, given his enthusiasm for capitalism, his red-state roots and his communication skills, he’d be the perfect person to explain to the party that taking on the socialist moniker is bad politics and bad policy.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post. Follow her @JRubinBlogger.