Opinion

Pete Buttigieg has a point: Republicans will call any Democratic nominee a socialist

“I’m gonna be sharing the story,” Pete Buttigieg impressed by Veterans Community Project

Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is seeking Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential election, visited Veterans Community Project together with Mayor-elect Quinton Lucas and former mayoral candidate Jason Kander.
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Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is seeking Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential election, visited Veterans Community Project together with Mayor-elect Quinton Lucas and former mayoral candidate Jason Kander.

If we ever stop talking about President Donald Trump’s latest racial stylings — and since he’s correct that “a lot of people love it,” he’ll try to delay that day — we will eventually get back to arguing about whether Democrats would have a better chance of replacing him next year with the kind of moderate nominee who might win over independents, or with a blow-the-doors-off progressive likely to turn out every last Democrat.

I’ve been in the former camp, probably because that’s how I’ve seen it done. Also because I’m the “beer summit type, still thinking we can sit down and work it out. When former Vice President Joe Biden talks about decency, now that’s my idea of intoxicating. And after the last few years, who needs any more thrill rides?

Recently, though, I’ve become convinced that moderate or progressive — centrist or central planning — is not even the right question.

As Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic presidential contender who was in Kansas City this week, said in an interview: “We’re still a bit trapped by patterns of the ‘90s.”

Wow, you know me.

“While it’s always important to appeal to moderates and turn out the base, we live in a moment now where there’s less of a relationship between ideological centrism and appealing to independents,” the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said.

No argument here.

Why pander to voters who aren’t really even available? So often, independents are undercover or on-the-lam partisans who in the end either support a third-party candidate or fly home to the familiar nest on Election Day.

A Kansas City independent who works as a government consultant described himself to me as a middle-of-the-road voter who above all is looking for civility and willingness to work across the aisle. He might vote for one of the Democrats — which one he’s not sure — but a vote for Trump isn’t out of the question, either. In 2016, he voted for a third-party candidate and yes, he might do that again, too. Conclusion: Democrats, don’t even try pitching to this guy.

Colorado Republican-turned-independent Katherine Redmond is much more politically engaged. She’s the kind of centrist you’d think really might be gettable for the right Democrat. She’d never cast a ballot for Donald Trump — “I can’t as a Christian give him my vote” — but has never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate, either.

“For me, Biden is safe as a Democrat. He’s been a part of the fabric, and I’m not looking for fresh blood in this time, but for experience. I want to test-drive this car a few times before I buy it.”

But would even Biden win her support? “I’d like to see him not backtrack so much. You’re the experienced one,” she’d like to tell him, so don’t cave to criticism from relative newcomers. “That’s where he’d have to go for me.”

A true independent, she’s most likely to repeat what she did in 2016 and vote for some third-party person.

I know a fair number of “Never Trump” Republicans, too; we have a lot in common. But not one of those I know personally is planning to vote for the Democratic nominee, even if it is Biden.

When he changed his mind on the Hyde Amendment and said yes, taxpayers should pay for abortions for low-income women, that’s when they started saying they could never support him after all.

And that’s when I started thinking if it hadn’t been that, it would have been some other last straw that would have ultimately, to their chagrin, made Biden or any other national Democrat a non-option.

Buttigieg is also right when he says that the GOP will tag even the most middle-of-the-road Democratic nominee as a scary radical. Democrats found that out, he says, after co-opting the Republican-born plan that became the Affordable Care Act.

“That was the most conservative intervention you can think of, and as soon as it was adopted, they started calling it socialism,” he said.

Why should Democrats feel they have to choose either x or y on the ideological spectrum when the current president “doesn’t even have an ideology? He has a style, not an ideology.”

The fact that Buttigieg has supporters back in Indiana who voted for him, former President Barack Obama, Trump, and Vice President and former Gov. Mike Pence means they’re open to politicians of very different stripes. Clearly, “what they don’t do is look at how your dot” on the political spectrum “matches their dot.”

He’s arguing that means there’s no paddling back to the safe harbor of a Joe Biden or any other moderate: “A lot of people in our part of the country are ready to burn the house down. We can’t promise politics as usual.”

I haven’t ruled out Biden or another moderate. But what I’d say to Democrats is that instead of wearing yourselves out wondering whether to look left or center, pick the one who makes you feel like you can’t wait to vote. This time, believe that the passionate choice will also be the sensible one. This time, as my daughter used to say when she was little, “Soup yourself.”

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