It would tax even the prodigious powers of the late novelist Tom Wolfe to create a more poignant political scene than a bright, young, white mayor of a small city, who is an upstart presidential candidate and progressive darling, getting yelled at by black residents during a town hall.
The mayor, of course, is Pete Buttigieg. A controversial shooting of a black resident by a white police officer in his city of South Bend, Ind., occasioned the emotional meeting. Mayor Pete handled himself ably enough, yet the episode still highlights the manifest shortcomings of his candidacy.
The elite media fell in love with Buttigieg, not just because he’s genuinely talented, but because he’s the type of candidate — young, earnest, credentialed, progressive but with a self-image as an ideologically moderate pragmatist — it always falls in love with.
It is attracted to the idea of an intellectual candidate. This doesn’t literally mean someone with deep intellectual interests or genuine accomplishments — think the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan — but an impressive academic resume, a copy of The New Yorker on the nightstand and marked verbal acuity.
In this sense, Pete Buttigieg is the new Barack Obama, except with limits that will likely keep him from reaching the next level.
Last week’s town hall brought home just how small-scale Buttigieg’s day job is. He’s mayor of roughly the 300th-largest city in America. He could govern a city twice the size of South Bend — say, Glendale, California, or Fayetteville, North Carolina — and still not crack the list of the top 100 cities in the country. Some county supervisors have more power.
Any locality in America, of whatever size, would be rocked by a police shooting. It’s notable, all the same, how hyperlocal the South Bend town hall felt. This wasn’t a local official, a governor or a mayor grappling with a terror attack or a natural disaster; it was Mayor Pete presiding over a meeting that any member of a local community board is intimately familiar with.
Sure, Obama had little experience, and no executive experience, but he’d ascended to the U.S. Senate. Donald Trump had zero political experience. But not everyone can be a black swan.
Trump, of course, came from entirely outside politics, whereas Mayor Pete is an ambitious politician from central casting: class valedictorian in high school, president of the Harvard Institute of Politics, mayor at age 29.
The hostility of some of the black residents toward Buttigieg at the town hall underlined his lack of African American support. In a May poll in South Carolina, Buttigieg was at 18 percent among whites and zero among blacks. An Indiana poll had him at 25 percent among whites and also zero percent among blacks.
Among whites, Buttigieg tends to run like Bernie Sanders, far behind Joe Biden but strong compared with the rest of the pack; among blacks, he runs like Kirsten Gillibrand or another laggard, hardly registering.
Buttigieg doesn’t have the long history with African Americans of Biden or the cultural connection of a Southern pol like Bill Clinton. And blacks aren’t moved by his progressivism in a technocratic guise.
His support is clustered among wealthy, white Democrats who are very liberal. With a moderate mien, a narrative that emphasizes the importance of place (he went home to his native South Bend), Midwest roots and some practical successes as mayor, Buttigieg would seem perfect on paper to reach out beyond the woke white element of the party. This isn’t how he’s running, though.
If Buttigieg actually won the nomination, it’d be because he’d found a way to broaden his appeal. But he’d still project to have real general-election vulnerabilities, suited neither to recapturing working-class voters in the Midwest nor to juicing African American turnout.
Be that as it may, and whatever his struggles back in South Bend, Buttigieg is going to come out of this with a hell of a collection of press clippings.