Is Mayor Pete Buttigieg too young to be president? Our nation’s founders didn’t think so; among the few limitations they applied to presidential aspirants was a minimum age of 35.
Nevertheless, at 38, the mayor stands out among the prominent Democratic candidates, that is, Buttigieg and the five others who participated in the debate last week in Las Vegas. Their ages are 78, 78, 77, 70 and 59. No wonder Buttigieg looks so young.
But generally Buttigieg’s competitors for the nomination don’t criticize him for his age as much as for his lack of experience. It’s easy to dismiss his only political experience: eight years as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city of barely 100,000 residents.
Granted, Buttigieg’s governing experience is limited, but maybe there’s such a thing as too much experience, as well.
Three of Buttigieg’s competitors — Michael Bloomberg, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders — have years of experience in politics and management that approach Buttigieg’s years of age. But those many years include missteps and mistakes — Biden’s ill-advised vote on Iraq, Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk program or Sanders’ distant-past praise for Soviet collectivism, for example — that primary voters may accept but that could represent liabilities in the general election.
Besides, in terms of electability, experience may be overrated. There’s not much evidence that voters prefer the most experienced candidate. In fact, we have the recent counter-example of Hillary Clinton, whose remarkable political experience — first lady, U.S. senator, secretary of state — could not prevail against Donald Trump, a man with no political experience at all.
And too much experience might not be a good thing at a time when the presidency, during Democratic and Republican administrations, has grown much more powerful in comparison with the other branches of government in a republic that depends on a balance of power.
Candidates such as Bloomberg are used to being in charge, to being the center of power. A powerful presidency would suit him, just as it would suit Biden and, probably, Sanders and maybe Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. A candidate with less experience of being in charge — or of being in charge of less — might better suit our national need for a less powerful presidency.
Besides, Buttigieg has plenty of experience, it’s just experience of a different sort. For one thing, he served his country in uniform, an experience that no other candidate can claim. Service in the military and putting your life at risk for your country don’t necessarily prepare you to be president, but they may produce valuable wisdom, insight and perspective that is hard to gain elsewhere.
Furthermore, Buttigieg appears to be innately intelligent, which can compensate for a supposed lack of experience. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, majoring in history and literature. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford he studied philosophy, as well as politics and economics, graduating with honors.
When smart people study subjects such as history, philosophy and literature, the main thing they learn is how much they don’t know, an insight that might serve a president better than the misconception that he or she knows everything.
Buttigieg is still a long shot for the presidency, but he’s not in a bad position. Bloomberg stumbled badly during his first debate, but it wasn’t because he was inadequately prepared to answer questions about his stop-and-frisk policy or his attitudes toward women; it was because there are no good answers to those problems. Practice won’t make that better.
If the party swerves to the left, then Bernie is in. If it prefers the center-left, then there’s Biden. But his supporters hold their breaths when he speaks, and too many gaffes could take him out. Warren performed poorly in Nevada. That leaves Buttigieg and Klobuchar, which helps explain the tension between the two of them during the last debate.
When Buttigieg is 70, he’ll probably have his own string of mistakes and gaffes. But at present, the Democrats could benefit from a strong moderate. It would be a mistake to dismiss Buttigieg solely for his age or lack of experience.
John M. Crisp, an OpEd columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas.