If presidential debates, especially those with as many names and faces as Thursday night’s, are just superficial exercises in generating snappy, CNN-social-feed-ready soundbites, I’d be hard-pressed to say South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg had a successful night.
In its early days, Buttigieg’s campaign dazzled pundits and the donor class with a welcome serving of fresh Capricorn at every turn. But he’s lost his shine in recent weeks. His polling numbers have dipped from double digits to a tire-spinning fifth place in the 4%-5% range, just barely outperforming the remaining lower-tier candidates like Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) or former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas). In other words, the one-time media darling’s star is beginning to fade. He needed a jolt. A moment.
He didn’t get one. Or, at least, not the one he deserves.
Nothing Buttigieg did or said Thursday night will generate headlines quite like former Housing Secretary Julián Castro’s rhetorical stone-throwing, former Vice President Joe Biden’s unprompted and anachronistic child-rearing suggestions, or even Andrew Yang’s proposal for political Schrute Bucks. But Buttigieg’s closing statement — a rousing personal tale prompted by a question about professional setbacks experienced and resilience gained — deserves to be remembered. It’s the most candid he’s been about his sexuality in quite some time, and it reestablished that, even if his White House hopes look like more of a longshot now than ever, his campaign still marked something important and noteworthy.
History still has its eye on you, Mayor Pete.
“At a certain point, when it came to professional setbacks, I had to wonder whether just acknowledging who I was was going to be the ultimate career-ending, professional setback,” he remarked. In 2019, it might be easy for blue state voters to pass over how unprecedented it is for an openly gay candidate to have this much success running for the highest of offices. It’s remarkable — and great — that many straight voters in his political party think little more of his sexuality than a potential coalition building block. But Buttigieg’s closing speech served as a reminder that being gay and being in politics, at this level, did not always mix so well. It was only four years ago, after all, that the mayor publicly came out of the closet. And even then, in Mike Pence’s Indiana, it was a politically risky move.
And, of course, there are layers and caveats to everything. It’s noteworthy that Buttigieg is gay, though it also worth noting he’s about as straight-passing as they come. No one is mistaking him as a Jonathan when he’s clearly an Antoni. He’s “palatable.” Depending on which wave of the LGBTQ rights movement one happens to be surfing on, this is either the best or worst thing about him (and, to be clear, this certainly correlates with race, class and age).
But I’d like to remind hetero voters that what he is doing is difficult and takes an incredible amount of guts. You might not see it in your liberal circles, but the first guy through the wall always gets bloody. And for those in the community who wish Buttigieg were a little less “palatable,” a little more vibrant, it’s important to remember that he won’t be the last one we get. Because he had the courage to be the first one.
A few years ago, my brother, who attended Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., earmarked Buttigieg as a potential future president, and mentioned his most identifiable qualities: young, Harvard-educated, war veteran, gay.
At the time, I was young, and scared, and had the exact same living situation as Harry Potter’s at the Dursley family residence (for you imperceptive muggles, I’m referring to the closet). And this meant the world to me. Gay. A gay mayor. A gay president. Could it be?
I can’t imagine what it would mean for a kid today, trying to figure out who they are, catching this clip on TV or Twitter. And then to see Buttigieg joined on stage after the debate by his husband, Chasten, and have no one bat an eye.
If this is to be his last big moment, Mayor Pete sure made it count.