Peter and Goliath

I didn’t have more to go on than intuition last summer when I conjectured that Pete Buttigieg would win the Democratic nomination and go on to defeat Donald Trump to become the next US president – just the sense that Elizabeth Warren would fail to attract Midwestern support, that Joe Biden was vulnerable, that Trump was growing more heedless,  and that Buttigieg, despite his youth, showed evidence of steel in his character.  I upped the ante in September, noting his “cross generational appeal.”

Now that Buttigieg is leading in polls in Iowa, the state that put Barack Obama on the road to the White House, I have studied up some and I am ready to bet again, It’s simple. The worried Democrats must send out someone in the autumn to battle the 73-year-old ogre. The 37-year-old kid is the likeliest winner they’ve got.  Buttigieg is the future. Sanders, 78; Biden, 77; and Warren, 70; are the past.

Most interesting among the daily stories I read was Michelle Smith’s account of Buttigieg’s years as a student in South Bend as the only child of two professors at the University of Notre Dame. The resemblance to Barack Obama psychological history, I thought, was only passing.  Illuminating, too, was this story about how former newspaper reporter turned talent scout David Axelrod pointed New York Times columnist Frank Bruni to South Bend in the spring of 2016. Bruni’s column, The First Gay President?  then put Buttigieg on the map. A second column, in October this year, expressed Bruni’s fears about the candidate’s “agonizing imperfections,”

Nobody’s perfect.  Buttigieg has succeeded somehow in making his gay marriage seem beside the point, perhaps for enough voters to swing the election,  He embedded himself in the US Navy Reserve in order to serve seven months in Afghanistan – and to learn something about the problems of less-fortunate reservists who are bearing much of the brunt of the war. He must run left on economic issues, hoping to turn towards the center if he secures the nomination. And two terms as mayor of a harshly-divided former manufacturing city in northeast Indiana have meant a baptism by fire in racial politics.

Things can always go wrong. But no less than the stock market, a good candidacy likes to climb a wall of worry. The Iowa caucuses on February 3; New Hampshire’s primary on February 11; Nevada on February 22; South Carolina on February 29; Super Tuesday, (including California, Colorado, Minnesota, and North Carolina) on March 3; Michigan on March 10; Florida, Illinois, and Ohio on March 17; Georgia on March 24; Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania on April 28:  each date presents an opportunity to overcome doubts about his appeal, to Hispanics, African-Americans, progressives, disenchanted Republican voters.

In Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events (Princeton, 2019), economist Robert Shiller reminds us that the most important narratives often resemble disease epidemics, the impulse to share stories being as contagious as germs. Facing a president accustomed to preening before adoring crowds, the mayor of South Bend would be tapping into one of the oldest stories in the Bible, in the hope that his version would spread.

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New on the EP bookshelf:

Money and Government: The Past and Future of Economics, by Robert Skidelsky (Yale, 2018; Penguin, 2019)

Living in Different Cultures, by Tamar Frankel (Fathom, 2019)

The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War, by Archie Brown (Oxford, 2020)




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