Q&A: Pete Buttigieg on the monumental task of cleaning up Trump’s mess
Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg stopped by the L.A. Times to talk with our editorial board about his run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
On a recent visit to Los Angeles, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg sat down with the Los Angeles Times editorial board to talk about polarized politics, electability and U.S. policy toward Iran, among other topics. Here is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity:
Nick Goldberg, editor of the editoral pages: So, hello. Thanks for coming in.
Pete Buttigieg: Thanks for having us over.
Goldberg: Thanks for coming to El Segundo. You’re here with mostly members of the editorial board and the Opinion section. This is Norman Pearlstine, the editor of the paper. Other people are editorial writers. I’m Nick Goldberg. I’m the editorial page editor. We’re on the record. This meeting is for the purpose of helping us do our thinking as we decide whom to endorse in advance of the March 3 primary. And I guess, if you’d like to, you can give us a minute or so of an opening statement before we start to barrage you with our questions.
Buttigieg: Sounds good. Well, I won’t do that for too long, but thanks again for having me over. And let me simply say that I hope during the course of our conversation I can communicate, first, why I believe I’m the best nominee to defeat Donald Trump but, even more importantly, the extent to which this is by definition an election for the president who will have to deal with life after Trump. And that this is an election about who can gather up the pieces of what has been broken and establish what I believe is the next era, or will have to be the next era, in American life.
And it’s why I always begin my appearances asking voters to really picture that day when the sun comes up and Donald Trump’s not the president. Not only because it’s something to look forward to, at least in my party — and I think increasingly for a lot of independents and some Republicans — but also because it reminds us of what we’re going to be up against and what we’re going to need as a country. To unify but also to deal with the big issues that have brought us to this point. But I’m sure we’ll have a chance to cover that as we go.
Goldberg: Thank you. So I feel I should start with sort of an obligatory question, but I think it’s an important question. And it’s not one you haven’t heard before, but I hope you’ll give us a thoughtful answer. That is, you were the mayor of a city of 100,000 people. You’re 37 years old. You were in office for eight years. You have no federal experience. You have no statewide experience. Shouldn’t a president have a background in legislating and governing and in foreign affairs? Is it not presumptuous and possibly even dangerous to just come in and assume you can do a job like this? And haven’t we just seen what happens when a person comes in and doesn’t have the experience to do the job?
Buttigieg: Well, I’d say the presidency is a leap for anyone. I do believe it’s important to have governing experience. I would argue that, while there is no job like the presidency, I would also say there is no job in government like being the mayor of a city of any size — and in particular of a community like ours, one that was struggling with being called a dying city in national press when I took office. Where our per capita income was I think in the neighborhood of $18,000 when I took office. Where we had to figure out under very difficult conditions how to move forward. And that the experience of a mayor is not only the policy experience that I think legislators spend most of their time and energy on, but also management, administration — again, especially in our strong mayor form [of government] where there’s no such thing as a city manager, for example — building a government, leading it and shaping it for the future.
But even more importantly than that, on top of the policy, on top of the administration, the experience of being responsible for leading a population and calling that population to its highest values, especially when it comes under stress. You can be a very senior senator in the United States and, depending on your experience before, have perhaps never in your life managed more than 100 people. And I think that the experience that you do get as mayor is just different from the admittedly Washington establishment experience that people would be expected to have. But I think that also Americans are looking for a different kind of experience. Not different in the way that this president is different. Again, I think it matters to have served in government.
I also think it matters to have served in uniform. I’m not suggesting that’s a prerequisite. I’m saying that maybe this would be a good time for somebody who has the sense from personal experience of what is at stake in the decisions that are made in the [White House] Situation Room.
And so while everybody brings their particular blend of experience to the White House, it’s also the case that no one governs alone. Matter of fact, that’s one of the first things you learn as an executive in government — the importance of building an administration capable of supporting you in that work.
Lastly, I would say that it’s very much part of the purpose of my campaign that I come from a community that is maybe not the biggest, certainly not the most famous, city in America. There’s a lot of South Bends out there and a lot of communities, which by the way are communities full of people who would benefit from Democratic policies, but with which my party seems to have lost touch. My county should be reliably blue. Last election it went right down the middle, 50-50. And I think having a voice from a new generation, yes, but also from that middle of the country would be a good idea from a governing perspective and from the perspective of winning this election.
Jon Healey, deputy editorial page editor: How might you go about working with Congress in a way that would be more successful than the last two presidents, if you look at the experience that both President Obama and President Trump have had with Congresses that are not controlled by their own party?
Pete Buttigieg: Well first of all, as a Democrat governing in Indiana, I pride myself on working across the aisle. I’m on my third Republican governor. We’ve been able to work well on different things together even while we’ve had very vigorous disagreements. But even for that to work, you have to have some level of good faith, and I’m not sure there’s much good faith in the congressional GOP right now, in particular in the Senate. And there comes a point where if you cannot work with a legislator in good faith, then you have to work around them to some extent.
What we have going for us, even compared to what President Obama had to work with 10 years ago, is a powerful majority in favor of just about everything that I’m calling for. When you think about not just issues where Democrats have generally been trusted — wages, the economy, healthcare — but areas where my party’s been on defense — immigration, guns — there is a powerful majority to do the right thing.
Even in conservative states, guns in particular, I believe more than 80% of Republicans think we should at least be doing background checks. And so my point is, we have reached a stage where Republicans in Congress are increasingly facing down not just Democrats, but their own constituents. I think a good use of presidential time and resources is to be in the home states and districts of those members, reminding their voters of the daylight between them and the people they represent. Which again is true even in conservative areas and conservative states.
And so while I haven’t given up on the idea of a Democratic majority in the Senate, and again I think electing a middle-class Midwestern veteran might help us establish the coattails to do that, I would also say that no matter who’s in control of the Senate, we have an opportunity to mobilize a powerful American majority, provided we can hold it together and not blow it up, which I think is a very important consideration in the Democratic Party right now.
Mariel Garza, editorial writer: So you’re saying you think you can heal the partisan divide in a way that other candidates can’t?
Pete Buttigieg: Well, it’s certainly maybe more a focus of my campaign than it is for some of my competitors. And I think that bears out in the fact that at my events, especially when we’re in states where we visited Trump counties, a lot of Obama/Trump counties, that when I talk about wanting to call in what I call “future former Republicans” to the coalition we’re building, a lot of people reveal themselves to be in that category.
I’m not tricking them. I’m not pretending to be conservative. We have a very bold, progressive agenda. But I think there’s an understanding with many of them that even if we aren’t going to agree on all the policies, they’re ready for a change. And again, my experience as mayor is that not everything has to be so tribal and so partisan. And we need that priority and that attitude I think reflected in the White House right now.
Goldberg: Despite the fact that there are these majorities among American people and voters who can agree on things, in Washington the level of bitterness, gridlock, frustration and anger is so high, it seems like it can’t be overcome. How would you begin to combat that if you were sitting in the White House?
Buttigieg: So I’ve shared a bit about my approach and how I think that would help. But the truth is, for the longer run, this is why the unglamorous issues of democratic reform are so important. The importance of dealing with gerrymandering and districts drawn by politicians effectively choosing their voters instead of the other way around. The importance of changes to our campaign finance system. The need for an end to the electoral college, which is better received in some states than others, but that I talk about everywhere I go because I think most people intuitively understand that the person who got the most votes ought to win. It’s why we need to act on voting in general, accessibility of voting. Not just HR 1, which I think is a really excellent piece of legislation; that’s an example of what’s dying in the Senate. But other measures to make sure that every vote is counted and that every voter gets to count.
All of these effects we have right now that reinforce structurally that kind of gridlock have to be challenged no matter which party is going to benefit, just for the long run. And the Senate by design tends to be set up to cool off or slow down a majority, but I don’t believe it is sustainable for it to completely defy an American majority in the way that it does.
Scott Martelle, editorial writer: Gerrymandering obviously doesn’t affect Senate seats, and that gets to our whole blue/red divide in this country. And I haven’t heard anything from you on how you’re going to overcome that. I mean, you can’t scare [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell [R-Ky.] into changing his position by going and campaigning at Kentucky and telling people he’s out of touch. How do you make that case?
Buttigieg: Why not? I mean, the president’s favored candidate was defeated in Kentucky recently. Mitch McConnell’s approval ratings should have him concerned. He can only for so long defy the people of his own state on issues from wages to guns before even in a conservative area that might catch up to him or at least create enough pressure to be working on some of these issues in good faith.
Look, I’m not naive. This is going to be challenging, clearly. But it’s also not been for that long that many of the states that have now produced very conservative politicians were conservative on these issues. And as we in particular have a deep ideological scrambling of the Republican Party anyway, and when we have a president who doesn’t even have an ideology, it’s actually a pretty healthy moment for us to get some of this realignment done. And in my view, every election fundamentally is about a voter asking the question, “How’s my life going to be different if we go this way instead of that way?”
And right now we have better answers on all of that. We’re the ones trying to get you a raise, and they’re stopping it. We’re the ones trying to get you paid family leave, and they’re blocking it. And if this sounds naive, consider this. I was on the ticket in 2010 in Indiana as an unknown Democrat — not a great time to be running for office as a Democrat anyway because the Affordable Care Act was so toxic, right? By 2018, in a Republican Senate populated by people whose absolute No. 1 signature issue — I mean their reason for existing as far as the electorate were concerned — was to remove the ACA, even they could not vote it away.
Why? Because over the course of eight years, people — real people, some of the same people who went to the 2010 town halls about death panels — showed up in the 2017 town halls [saying] “You’re taking away my healthcare,” facing down members of Congress and senators, telling them they didn’t want that to happen. And so when they had control of all branches of government, the Republican Party failed to deliver on their own signature issue.
Don’t get me wrong. They’re undermining the ACA in other ways, but I’m offering this up as a way to demonstrate the extent to which there really is an effect on the behavior even of cynical, bad-faith obstructionists in the GOP Senate when they are this out of step with their own people.
Norman Pearlstein, executive editor of the L.A. Times: Would you support mandatory voting?
Buttigieg: We can talk about it. I think right now we’ve got to make sure that we give people more reason to have faith in the value of their vote. In other words, I believe passionately that we should all exercise our right and responsibility to vote. I think a lot of people are looking at antidemocratic structures like the electoral college and like gerrymandering and feel a level of frustration or cynicism about that. My priority would be to fix that and see what that does to voter turnout.
Goldberg: Suppose you were president today, given what’s happened over the last couple of weeks, and the Iranians launched an attack that killed 10 Americans on an airbase in Iraq. How would you go about deciding what your response should be? How would you make decisions about whether you needed to respond militarily or whether it was not a time to do that?
Buttigieg: Well, the North Star of course is keeping Americans safe, whether that’s Americans deployed overseas, civilian Americans around the world, or us right here at home. And every step that you take, deciding to use force, deciding not to use force, ultimately is about the question, “Will this make Americans more safe or less safe?” I’m never going to hesitate to use force where it is the alternative that remains after every possible good alternative turns out to be unfeasible or inferior. But you have to believe that force is the last resort in order to go there.
And if I were president, we would not have been in the situation of the escalations beginning with the withdrawal from the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal] that got us here. The challenge now will be to find means to deescalate, which I believe is in both the Iranian and American interests. Not to mention the goal of all of the allies who were party to the JCPOA, the first letter of which stands for joint, and with whom obviously our relationships are battered but whose interests are still aligned. So it’s also about making sure that we not only look at this from the perspective of what will we the United States do about this issue, but also how can we align our allies and partners to make sure that we’re going to be safer.
Healey: One of the arguments on that point from the president is that the JCPOA was badly flawed in at least two respects. One, there was not enough of a time gap between when it [expired] and when the Iranians could build a bomb. In other words, it didn’t provide enough protection. And the second was that it did not stop the Iranians from carrying out their malfeasance in the Middle East. How important are those two points? And then how do you go about reconstructing a nuclear deal if you win?
Buttigieg: I think the first point is rendered moot by the fact that they killed it. And so any worry about a gap between the end of the compliance with the JCPOA and the beginning of the Iranian nuclear deal just makes it worse right now because we’re literally living in that gap as we speak. Also, it’s worth mentioning that this administration itself certified the effectiveness of the deal on slowing down progress toward nuclear Iran.
Now the other issue, it’s certainly true that JCPOA didn’t stop Iranian malign activities in the region. It wasn’t designed for that. Not because we didn’t want to, but because it was specifically about the nuclear issue. Of course we want to stop Iranian malign activities in the region. And yet saying we’re going to do nothing on denuclearization or the nuclear issue because we haven’t solved the other issue is, I think, the wrong way to think about diplomacy.
I mean, imagine if in North Korea we said, “You know what? There’s no point in trying to do anything, to have any delay in nuclear proliferation in North Korea, until we solve the problem of peace on the Korean peninsula.”
I actually think those two things have to be progressed foward incrementally and in tandem. And I think the same is true with Iran. If anything, we could stabilize the region partly through some of the terms of the JCPOA to perhaps make it less in Iran’s interest to pursue all of these kinds of proxy activities. Instead, of course, we’ve done the reverse.
Goldberg: Although the argument was that the JCPOA gave Iran such an infusion of cash that it gave them more freedom to go about their bad actions in the region.
Buttigieg: Without getting into the question of how the Iranian budget is prioritized, I get the sense that even as those activities have continued, it’s not because they’ve been in great shape economically. It’s because they regard that as a core part of their security.
Martelle: If I can get you to go back to the gist of Nick’s question a minute ago. You gave us a good concept and broad strokes, but say it’s your first week in the White House and the table is set as it is now and an attack comes and kills 10 service members in Iraq linked to Iran. What would your process be for deciding if retaliation is called for and what the nature of the retaliation would be?
Buttigieg: Well, again, I don’t want to go too much down a hypothetical or a rabbit hole, but in terms of the decision process you’re asking about, it’s, first of all, what is the menu of options that’s available to the United States? How many of those options can be designed to maximize, first of all, a deterrent effect that would lead to this not happening again? Secondly, establish that whatever the activity was that happened and the damage that was done will have a response. Third, that [it] will serve in some way to reinforce rather than undermine our partnerships both regionally and globally, especially if we can undertake an action that’s coordinated. And fourth, that we have thought through all of the moves and the countermoves that this is likely to lead to. Is this something that will establish a line that won’t be crossed, or is this something that will create a domestic political need for Iran to go even further?
As we’ve seen right now, it seems that the regime is actually better able now to consolidate its domestic position on the heels of protest just a few weeks ago, partly because of the consequences of this strike. Those are exactly the kind of things that need to be contemplated in advance. And you’re never going to have a crystal ball, but having worked in the intelligence community, this is what our intelligence professionals spent a lot of time gathering good information on for the president to consume. All of that needs to be reviewed. All of it needs to be contemplated.
And the principles guiding this whole process have to be American safety and security, American overall interests, American values. Every time we’ve tried to separate our values from our interests — especially in Iran, actually, if you go back to the days of the shah and the origins of this regime — every time we’ve tried to separate those two, it’s ultimately not been in even our own long-term interests and certainly something that we’ve gone on to regret.
Healey: Sorry to belabor this, but you’ve not once used the word “proportionality.” I wonder, do you buy the president’s argument that sometimes a disproportionate response is the right response?
Buttigieg: There are strategic scenarios where that’s the case, although it’s difficult, again, to believe that that’s true here, based on what we know so far. But again, as a general rule, proportionality is called for. But the principles I’m talking about are security, deterrence, upholding our values and engaging our allies. While that usually means paying a lot of attention to proportionality, again, this is exactly why I don’t want to get into hypotheticals without knowing what it is we’re dealing with and what it is we’re trying to deter.
Goldberg: Since you mentioned our allies, how difficult do you believe it’s going to be to repair relations with America’s closest allies that have been damaged during the Trump era, and how do you begin to go about it?
Buttigieg: Realistically, this will be the work of more than one presidency. But what we know is that it’s not too late for the reason I mentioned earlier, which is that it’s not just affection but interest that, I think, binds us to our allies. Interest in stability and, to the extent we’re ready to uphold this authentically, interest in certain human values that are also American values, around democracy, around freedom, around self-determination.
And a lot of this has to do with what you don’t do. Just making sure that we do no harm in terms of relationships with allies. Things we may have taken for granted until we had a president willing to dismantle them. But a lot of this is also proactive.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that there are a lot of things right now that require American leadership on the world stage. In particular I’m thinking about climate. Here you have a manifestly global issue. The U.S. can’t do it alone, because we’re less than a fifth of the world’s emissions. The world can’t do it without us, because we’re the largest economy. So at a time when our credibility is fragile at best, it would make sense for us to be seen leading on an issue like that, both by example and in our engagements.
It’s true on issue after issue, from stateless terrorism to global public health and pandemics, that more, not less, coordination will be needed. If we’re playing an authentic and leading role in that, I think we have a chance to begin to recapture the credibility and the leadership role that we had.
Pearlstein: In talking about things like democratic principles, can you talk a bit about what you would want the relationship with China to be? Are we in a new cold war with the consequence of decoupling and of more areas of confrontation? Or do you see a way to have a relationship with China that builds on things like WTO [the World Trade Organization]?
Buttigieg: I think we can decouple — let me back up. I think China represents a major strategic challenge, that their model is fundamentally different from ours. I view them as using technology for the perfection of dictatorship. And I think we can expect tension to continue, especially now that in the perceived chaos and instability of our own model, theirs is being held up in some places as an alternative.
I don’t think that has to put us on a collision course, and I don’t think it has to echo the experience of the Cold War. We likely will have to undertake certain kinds of strategic disentanglement. I’m thinking about national security sensitivities around technology, thinking about the supply for pharmaceuticals. There’s certainly some issues where we’ve got to be careful —
Pearlstein: Would you keep Huawei on the entities list [a database of companies barred by the federal government from obtaining U.S. technology without a license]?
Buttigieg: Potentially. I think it’s less about targeting Huawei and more about asking how we can have a robust enough —whether we’re talking about 5G or other forms of digital infrastructure — how it can be robust enough that there’s not a national security dependency on a strategic competitor. If we take those steps, I think it actually helps the relationship overall. Because where we should be engaging is in areas of mutual benefit economically. And if you’re from the Midwest, you’re certainly alive to all of the potential in terms of agricultural exports. But, of course, here when you’re thinking about the ports and any other part of America, we’ve got a lot to gain by making sure that that’s healthy.
But from a political perspective, I think we also have to demonstrate that we care about these issues that are at stake. That at the very least, [we provide] some measure of moral support for people seeking democracy in Hong Kong or people fleeing religious persecution in Xinjiang. They ought to see some signal of, at least, moral support from the U.S., as a floor. And I would go further and say that can’t be completely decoupled from our trading and economic relationships if we want to show that we are seriously committed to those values. It doesn’t have to be a Western-style democracy for us to have a healthy relationship, but we need to be ready to stand up for these values.
Goldberg: How do you do that? How do you defend the Uighurs, speak up for Hong Kong in anything more than just a symbolic, gestural way, without damaging this bigger strategic relationship that you’re trying to build? Can it be done? Can you do both, or do you have to sometimes put your moral principles aside?
Pearlstein: It depends on whether you’re running the Houston Rockets or not.
Buttigieg: Well, again, this is not to say that we have to see every country in our own image before we have a relationship. I do think that, at minimum, we can expect some moral support from the Oval Office. Which is obviously impossible now. First of all, the president made clear that his silence could be purchased as part of the trade process. Secondly, when you have a president who is inclined to do things like characterize unfavorable press [reports] as the work of the enemy of the people and echo authoritarian dictators, you don’t have much standing anyway to be speaking up for these kinds of freedoms.
It doesn’t mean it has to be a condition of every relationship. It means that we should be known to have that as an important consideration that we care about in every economic, diplomatic and other international relationship that we have. The U.S. is at its best when it’s seen to do that.
Healey: But I think what Nick is asking is, where does it go beyond lip service, particularly when you’re talking about the crackdown on the protests in Hong Kong and what they’re doing in western China to the Uighurs?
Buttigieg: Right now we don’t even have lip service. One thing you might begin with is, at least, some measure of moral support. But again, I would go further and I would say that this is something that we would indicate that progress or backsliding on could accelerate or diminish our willingness to be in some of these trading relationships.
Carla Hall, editorial writer: Back here at home, in South Bend, you’ve had a rocky relationship with the black community for almost all the years that you’ve been mayor, starting around the time that you fired your black police chief — and I know you had reasons to believe that he had acted wrongly by allegedly taping secretly other police officers — but as you yourself have said, it affected your relationship with black citizens of your city for all this time. You’ve had dust-ups with Black Lives Matter. What is it that you’re doing wrong that you can fix?
Buttigieg: Well, I would describe it as a family relationship. It’s complicated. First of all, it’s important for me to say that I would not have been reelected the way I was if it weren’t for support in the black community. Most black elected officials who were supporting anybody in this race, who are in South Bend, are supporting me. This is not because they think I’m perfect or because we’ve been able to resolve all of these issues at home. It’s because when these issues have faced us, we’ve worked together side-by-side to do something about it. Whether it was around policing, where we became the most transparent police department in the region, pushing information down to the incident level on use of force online. Or empowering residents to be part of the process to, for example, revise policies on how force is used or body cameras or training.
Not all of that’s reached the goal. We’re not even close to where it needs to be. In particular, I’m thinking about recruiting, where we’ve actually seen the diversity of the department sliding in the wrong direction because of a lot of the issues that we’ve faced. Not just around policing, but we have tremendous racial wealth and income inequality. Part of how we know that is [because] I commissioned the research to tell us some of the brutal facts. This is not unique to South Bend and it’s not something that began on my watch, but the question is, what are we going to do about it?
In working together, we’ve reduced black unemployment, we’ve reduced poverty for African Americans, and often been able to do it at a faster rate than the country as a whole. It’s not just riding the waves of an economic recovery. But here too, there are areas where we clearly have a long way to go.
And so my focus has been on making sure that we engage to make sure things are better, that we acknowledge where things aren’t where they need to be, but we also get results and do it together. And of course, I have critics as well as supporters. But I believe that’s the reason I have more supporters than critics.
Garza: But just to follow up on that, your polling with the African American community is pretty low. How are you going to overcome that? What’s your strategy? What policies do you need to address? What’s going on?
Buttigieg: Well, first of all, I would say there’s a lot of regional differences here. In the Midwest where people know me best, I’m doing well with non-white as well as white voters. The South is certainly more of a challenge. And I get it. I don’t think it’s just about policy. It’s about voters who have felt taken for granted by my party. You come along as a new guy with a lot of ideas and big, big policies on offer, and before people care about what’s in your plan, they want to have a sense of what moves you.
The Douglass Plan has been praised as the most comprehensive plan on dismantling systemic racism put forward by any presidential candidate, because we look at how everything fits together. It’s economic empowerment with things like the effort to co-invest in black entrepreneurs. It’s education, not just support for [historically black colleges and universities], but making sure we support things like completion. It’s health, it’s housing, it’s access to democracy itself. It’s criminal justice reform, but recognizing that’s not all there is to the black experience in America.
I will stand by the Douglass Plan as the best piece of comprehensive policy work done on this in this election. But people also want to feel like they know you, and that’s the work that we’re really continuing to work to do. We found that different forms of engagement have paid off, especially in the South, where we didn’t only do the 1,000-person rallies, but we’ve had more kind of intimate conversations, listening as much as speaking.
Right here in Los Angeles, visiting places like Vector90 in South Los Angeles and seeing what was being done to cultivate the potential of black entrepreneurs who have the best track record of creating opportunity for others.
But also seeing what people are up against. Not just entrepreneurs here, but while we were there, there was a group traveling from the Midwest, of black and Latino young middle school students mostly, who showed a lot of promise in tech. Just because we happened to collide, we wound up having this conversation. And hearing kids as young as 14 and 15, including one from Indiana, describing the kind of racial taunting they’re experiencing in school right now, it shows just how deep these issues are. I believe that if we don’t get a handle on this in our lifetime, we’re going to see white supremacy unravel the American project in our lifetime.
Garza: Do you support reparations?
Buttigieg: I support HR 40, which is [Democratic Rep.] Sheila Jackson Lee’s bill to examine reparations, but I also don’t think we should wait for that to undertake investments that are reparative. It’s part of the idea of things like the funding for HBCUs that I was talking about, the co-investment for entrepreneurs.
Also, if you look at an area like housing, we have a lot of people who may be gentrified right back out of neighborhoods they were redlined into a couple of generations ago. It’s why I’m proposing a 21st Century Homestead Act that, unlike the original Homestead Act that ran a lot of native folks out of their land, actually helps people acquire title and build wealth in the neighborhoods that they were redlined into.
My point is, these are uses of dollars. Reparations is often caricatured as a check in the mail. The truth is, nobody’s fully offered a design template that I think everybody’s comfortable with. It doesn’t mean we have to wait for a commission to finish its work to do things that are reparative right now, that I think move in that direction.
Kerry Cavanaugh, editorial writer: On housing — and as a mayor — cities have guarded their local housing authorities, their local control, very much for years, but there’s exclusionary zoning, there’s history of redlining. What role would your administration take on, in terms of not just incentivizing cities to build housing, but perhaps requiring cities to build housing, or tying it to federal funding?
Buttigieg: I think it is carrots and sticks. Look at the effect that the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule had. I’ll tell you, for us as a grantee, that’s certainly motivated our economic development offices to snap into action and make sure that the city was doing the right thing in that regard. It’s one of the reasons it’s so frustrating that that’s been dismantled in this administration’s HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development]. We know that that even if it involves more strings, it can also lead to better results. And I think that as we look at how federal funding reaches communities, homes, [Community Development Block Grants] and beyond, at the very least, we should be offering up templates for what kinds of zoning reform are going to help deal with affordable housing.
But I think it’s also completely fair to make sure that demonstrating that steps have been taken toward more inclusion in these processes is part of what cities should show in order to get that funding.
Goldberg: You got some blowback for comparing your experience as a gay man to the black experience.
Buttigieg: Except that I didn’t, but go ahead.
Goldberg: OK, as I read it. Was that a mistake to have said something like that? Are there things that are comparable about the two experiences, and finally, have you personally experienced discrimination because of your sexual orientation?
Buttigieg: This did not penetrate into all the stories, but I’ve always been very careful and clear to say that I’m not comparing different experiences of exclusion. I think that’s important. Because they’re so different and there’s no comparison, especially when we’re talking about race. I walk around a department store, if my hand goes into my pocket to fiddle with my keys, I get the benefit of the doubt. If I’m pulled over on the freeway, I will roll my eyes and be irritated and think about how much the ticket’s going to be, not grip the steering wheel and fear for my life. It’s a different experience.
The reason I do want people to hear my own story is to make sure that I’m clear about my motivations in making myself useful to others, especially across equations of privilege, where I’m on the privileged side. Because I’ve seen my own rights expanded, not only by the activism of people like me, but through allies who are not like me. We did not get marriage equality because there was an LGBTQ majority in America. We got it because a lot of different kinds of people — by the way, many of them closely allied with those fighting for racial justice — got together and pushed until rights were expanded for millions of Americans, including me. And that’s part of what motivates me to make sure that I am part of every effort to deal with prejudice and exclusion in all of its radically different forms, experienced very differently by people, some of whom are at the intersection, of course, of these different patterns of exclusion, and make sure I’m there for others. That’s why I talk about my experience.
Goldberg: And about your experience, have you experienced discrimination yourself?
Buttigieg: Well, I had an employer who would have fired me if I had mentioned anything about my sexual orientation, specifically the military. That comes to mind.
Pearlstein: Given the the ways in which nationalism has become an important issue around the world, given your own experience, is there any way that you could assert that your candidacy actually would reflect an understanding of globalization and where it can be helpful to a country like ours? Or a defense of competence, as opposed to what we’re now seeing in the White House? Or is the Democratic Party moving in ways in which that would be too risky a position to assert? Would it be possible to speak with pride about the McKinsey experience, about what it takes to get a job offer there and so forth? Or are we in an age and stage where you almost have to run against yourself to be successful?
Buttigieg: Well, I think the case for competence and the case for skill is stronger than ever, as we see —
Pearlstein: Among the candidates you’re running against and within the party?
Buttigieg: Sure. One of the things that can help bring our party together is our response to the incompetence we’re seeing in this administration. But let me also say this: I’m from the industrial Midwest. A place that heard a lot of experts come along and say: “Just trust us. Just trust us on economic growth and everything will be great,” only to have the auto industry collapse. “Just trust us on trade. Don’t worry about your slice of the pie. The whole pie is going to be so much bigger that you’re going to be better off too.” And it didn’t happen. The reverse happened.
And so the suspicion of expertise that’s going on in many parts of the country, including my own, and that this president takes advantage of, that’s real. And it’s coming from a place that deserves to be taken seriously.
Now, it doesn’t mean that we throw out expertise. Especially when it comes to things like science policy and climate science, not to mention public health, it’s more important than ever. But one of the reasons, even as mayor, I sometimes found it difficult to persuade people to follow me on a course of action, even when we were just trying to rearrange the way we did streets and traffic to make it healthier for the city and healthier for different ways of getting around — just because I could prove it with an engineering study didn’t really impress a lot of folks, because there’s this real sense of loss at the hands of a lot of experts. I think that in order to overcome that, we’ve got to bring together two different instincts that, I think, both belong in my party. One is the respect for science and expertise and skill and merit. The other is an insistence that we actually check to see whether they’re benefiting the vulnerable. That’s where the values part comes in. It’s why most of my campaign is about values. Because it turns out we have seen living proof that a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats. The tide’s risen in my lifetime more than any tide has ever risen in an economy —
Pearlstein: California might be quite different from Indiana in that respect. Innovation, globalization, imports and foreign students from graduate schools have actually in many ways defined us. We have 50,000 Chinese students in Southern California, and some people think that puts us at great risk. Other people think that that gives us great opportunity in the world to come.
Buttigieg: Well, if you’re talking about global connections, I think one of the really striking things that we’ve seen for ourselves on the campaign, actually, is that it really is everywhere. I mean, you go to Storm Lake, Iowa — I’m pretty sure it’s in [Republican Rep.] Steve King’s district — you go to their 4th of July parade, part of it’s the Parade of Nations, 22 countries that are all the countries of origin of the people who are there largely working in agricultural facilities. The agricultural economy there wouldn’t work without them. And of course many of them are undocumented.
True in my city, too. The reason we’re so proud of the fact that our city is growing at all is because we were called dying. The truth is, if you netted out immigration from that, we wouldn’t be growing. Of course, so much of our growth at different times has been a function of our global relationships, whether it was immigration coming in or international relationships that were part of our economy too.
So, I don’t think you have to fit the template of a modern megacity to have a lot at stake in being connected around the world. Especially now that there are digital relationships that make that easier. It may play out in ways that seem quaint in our global cities. It may have more, in some communities, to do with somebody’s experiences with an exchange student than with a multinational corporation. But all the same, I think that there’s no reason to strip that away from the mindset of people in the middle of the country, as long as we continue to show how it’s actually helping.
Healey: Just to be clear — you mentioned a couple of things that made me think that you believe that, on net, NAFTA and China’s entry into the WTO were bad things. Is that what you believe?
Buttigieg: I think that, at best, NAFTA was problematic. I’m not a close the border, no more trade, free trade or no trade kind of guy. I do think it’s clear that a lot of the promises around NAFTA didn’t come true for my part of the country. Doesn’t mean we don’t participate in trade. It means when we do, we make sure that it’s lined up in a way that’s fair, that’s going to benefit workers.
By the way, the improvements that were made to the USMCA [United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement], largely because of a push from Democrats, are an example of how that can work. We got to get away from this idea that you’re either for free trade or nothing. Because neither one of those is going to work, certainly where I’m coming from. And I don’t think either one of those will work for the country.
Pearlstein: Would you support a TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal for countries bordering the Pacific Ocean]?
Buttigieg: It needed more improvement for me to have felt good about it. The idea of making sure that China isn’t setting the terms for trade in Asia makes sense. But again, the kinds of things that we did get in USMCA, I think more of those would’ve made it easier to feel comfortable with TPP.
Healey: Although much of USMCA was taken from TPP.
Buttigieg: Yeah, but again, look at the push that happens in order to improve USMCA. By the way, it could go further. USMCA is not perfect either. But it’s indicating the movement that we can go in terms of labor, in terms of enforceability, and increasingly in terms of environment. Where if we want any kind of action domestically to be meaningful, we’re going to have to incorporate that, especially the carbon picture, into our trading relationships.
Cavanaugh: Can I follow up specifically on this point? Donald Trump told the Midwest that he would bring back manufacturing and that would lift the economy. What do you tell people in the Midwest?
Buttigieg: Well, for one thing, we are in a manufacturing recession. The only economic promise I’ve seen this president keep was the giant tax cut. That’s it. And whether you’re a worker seeing a manufacturing recession or a farmer seeing the way that he’s jerked around, in particular, corn — it’s not just soybean farmers suffering from things like the China trade war. It’s also the total inconsistency around ethanol and these so-called small refinery waivers going to giant operations. So he just has not delivered for my part of the country. I’m glad unemployment is low. That’s great.
Cavanaugh: But what do you tell people when they say, “How do we lift up our economy in the Midwest?” What is your simplistic answer? [Laughter.]
Buttigieg: Well, my simplistic answer [laughter], make sure you get paid more. I mean, there’s a lot of complicated things going on: globalization, automation, technology. But also the biggest problem in our economy is blindingly obvious and abundantly simple, and it’s that people aren’t getting paid enough. That’s especially true in real terms if you think about how wage increases are generally swallowed by increases in the cost of higher education, health, saving for retirement.
Most people get this, the simple fact that one job is not enough. That there is not one county in the country where someone living on minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment. Look, the house that I started out in as a child, talk about affordable housing, just changed hands for about $60,000. You get a good, decent house in that neighborhood for about half of that. And we still have folks experiencing homelessness, and we still have folks experiencing profound housing insecurity. We’ve got to make sure people get paid more.
Garza: Even before you get to try out your foreign and domestic policies, you’re going to have to get through the primaries.
Buttigieg: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Garza: I know that in this, well in every primary, but this one in particular, Democrats are racked with fears and indecision. The big question they’re asking themselves is, who’s the best candidate? Your campaign asks a lot of people. It says, “Here are all these old vets, you know, a former vice president, senators, but you should take a chance on me, a relatively unknown, young, small-town mayor.” Why should they take a gamble on you?
Buttigieg: Well, first of all, we begin with this. Is it important to you to beat Donald Trump? I always think of the most colorful way I heard this question put, [which] was [by] a New Hampshire voter. I said my whole piece for the backyard, classic New Hampshire kind of event, did my thing. First question, he says, “You seem great, but I’d vote for my neighbor’s dog if I thought that’s who could beat Donald Trump.”
So since winning is so important to all of us, my party anyway, and increasingly independents and some Republicans too, let’s think about this. In the last 50 years, every single time my party has won the White House, certain things have been true about the nominee. It’s been somebody who was new on the national scene, had not run for president before, was calling the country to its highest values, did not work in Washington — or if they did, had not for very long — and was ushering in a new generation of leadership.
Now we’ve gone different ways many years, but those were the years we’ve come up short. Every time —
Garza: And one thing, they were also male. That’s another issue.
Buttigieg: Regrettably. That one, I’m fine with seeing some change.
Goldberg: But not this time around.
Buttigieg: I mean, I am who I am. But look, that pattern is strong enough that you might call it a law. So I recognize this is not how everybody thinks about electability, but I would say, you might want to look at that pattern and think about it.
You add to that the value of, again, coming from the kinds of places that the president has appealed to, and I think not at all because his policies are better for those places. And the opportunity to have a new and different vocabulary, and to call people together in a different way with real, meaningful, progressive policies that would make me the most progressive president in half a century.
But we talk about it in a way that includes as many people as possible in that effort. And again, I think it’s one of the reasons we see a lot of independents and some Republicans showing up at my events. That’s the way I think we actually get this done, not just in order to win, but in order to govern well. I think those two things are connected. And I’ll leave it at that.
Goldberg: So we’re running low on time. But if we could get Carla and Scott —
Hall: I’ll just do this really quickly. Nick asked if you’d ever been discriminated against because you’re gay. As you go through this campaign, do you feel that you’re going to see discrimination from whole groups of people who think, “He’s great, but he’s gay, and I don’t think America’s ready for a gay president”?
Buttigieg: I don’t think so. I mean, don’t get me wrong. We’ve seen our share. It’s strange, right? When you go to an event, you’re being picketed not because of a decision you’ve made, but just for existing. But I’ve got to tell you, that’s been a tiny minority of the encounters that we’ve had.
I would also point to my experience back home. When I decided to come out, it was a reelection year. The timing was largely because I’d gotten that far in my life. But after the deployment, I just kind of got to a different place personally and was done not having a dating life. For me at least, that was a prerequisite to having a dating life, so I had to come out.
I’ll never forget the look on my campaign manager’s face when I asked him over for breakfast and I said, “Hey, I got to tell you something and it’s going to make your job a little more complicated.” [Laughter]
We didn’t know what would happen. It’s not like you can run a poll, right? “If you knew Mayor Pete was gay, would you...?” I mean, it was a leap of faith. Mike Pence was the governor of Indiana at the time, and we didn’t know what would happen. It’s a Democratic city, but it’s a socially conservative city across all kinds of different groups from East European ethnic Catholics to black evangelicals. We didn’t know what was going to happen.
And I got 80% [of the votes]. I got more on the reelect than I did the first time around. If that can happen in Mike Pence’s Indiana, then I think it’s further evidence that voters are just asking that question: “How’s my life going to be affected?” And if we have the best answer on that, the rest is noise.
Martelle: I don’t know if we have enough time for this one, but all the Democratic candidates have climate change programs. I read through yours over the past couple of days. And I was struck that ... you point out that experts say [we’re] within 10 years of being on the cusp of a point of no return. If you win and win reelection, you’ll leave office when we’re at that cusp. And your plans have horizons of 2025, 2035, 2050.
Buttigieg: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Martelle: From a pragmatic standpoint, is it too late to do anything effectively? And conversely, does America have the political resolve and will to make the kind of changes and sacrifices that we need to get to that point?
Buttigieg: It’s not too late in my view. But I often point out that if the IPCC [the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] deadline is 2030, then the political deadline is 2020. Because we’ll never get to 2030 without a president who’s committed to these things. Now by their nature, if we’re talking about a carbon-neutral economy by 2050, some of these things get achieved further out, but we talk about the immediate actions, right? Rejoining Paris right away. As you said —
Martelle: Which wasn’t enough.
Buttigieg: It’s table stakes. This is the very beginning. As you pointed out, 2025 is quite soon, but we can double the amount of renewables going into the grid by then. Other things — in terms of heavier transportation, getting that carbon free, that’s further out, right? But we’ve got the roadmap to get to 2050. I think the distinctiveness of our plan is its answer to your other question, which is how do we actually get it done? Because we’ve been talking about some of these ideas since the ’90s. And the question is, what does it look like to actually mobilize the whole country into this?
And I think what it’ll take is for people, from the auto worker in my neighborhood to a farmer, to see where they fit. I think there are a lot of Americans, whole categories of Americans, who feel like they’re being beaten over the head, told they’re part of the problem. Which means just as a matter of basic psychology they have been made to feel like accepting climate science would be a defeat for them morally. We have to change that for the politics to change.
So you’ve already examined all the kind of technical dimensions in my plan, the most important thing politically here and psychologically is that people are called into it. It’s why my national service program has a big plank on a climate corps.
I’m thinking about the kid in Shenandoah, Iowa — this is a way Western, very conservative area — who’s coming to my event, sticking up his hands from a rural community, saying, “How can we be part of the solution on this?” It turns out there are huge opportunities in farming, for example, and soil management, and carbon capture.
There are huge opportunities in industry, of course. A lot of the net new jobs I’m talking about are not exotic green jobs designing electric aircraft. Some of them are union carpenters and glaziers and insulators — building trades jobs we understand perfectly well right now and are going to need more of in order to do the building retrofits. So if this feels like something that we’re calling everybody into, and people feel recruited rather than scolded, that’s where it begins to take on the feel of a national mobilization.
Our country always does better when we have a national project. Here’s one waiting to be done that doesn’t even involve fighting other people. And if we can change the way it feels to think about climate from a sense of guilt, or a sense of fear, or a sense of doom, to a sense of pride, then it becomes a lot easier to ask of people [to make] the different changes we’ve got to go through as a society to get there. Without it, I don’t think we can get it done.
Goldberg: Why do you say it doesn’t require fighting with other people? My recollection from 2012 is that all the Republican candidates stood up and said one after another they don’t believe in climate change. And you’ve got to fight the oil and gas industry. I mean, there’s a huge battle ahead.
Buttigieg: What I’m talking about is that we have a national project available to us that doesn’t involve violence.
Martelle: Is that on the table? [Laughter]
Buttigieg: No, there will be a political battle. Of course there’ll be a political struggle.
Goldberg: I mean, would you say is this a top priority for you?
Buttigieg: Yeah, absolutely.
Goldberg: Would you agree that climate change is the most serious and dangerous problem facing —
Buttigieg: I think it’s the global security threat of our time.
Goldberg: And how will you deal with the Republican Senate on that issue?
Buttigieg: So again, this is why this has to become something where everybody sees where they fit, including people in constituencies that have often not felt like there is any reason for them to embrace climate science. Often, though, those are the same constituencies with the most to lose. I mean, again, farming has the most to lose. And this is no longer theoretical, right? It’s not just coastal communities. I mean, obviously wildfires in California, sea level rise in Florida. But I’ve had to activate our emergency operations protocol for a once-in-a-millennium flood and do the emergency management for that in our river city. And then two years later, [we] had another one. This is no longer something that you have to do a lot of arm-waving to get people to see is there.
The Senate GOP is a little different from the American people. And again, this comes back to that question of how we make senators more responsive to their constituents.
Goldberg: Last question.
Pearlstein: Could you, sort of a form of reverse speed-dating, just give a sentence or two on Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Bloomberg, and why you think, besides a place of birth and age, that you would be a better president than each of them?
Buttigieg: Reverse speed-dating? [Laughter]
Pearlstein: Well, just a sentence or two. You want to distance yourself from them, not embrace them.
Buttigieg: My approach is different, right? We share a lot of common goals, but my approach is that of somebody who is on the ground, in the middle of the country, with an executive mentality, whose relationship to the middle class is that I’m in it. I think I’m the only person you mentioned that’s not a millionaire. And who is determined to bring about the kind of generational change, change in style as well as change in politics, that our White House needs, that official Washington needs, and that I think the country needs. So that we are not simply repeating the same arguments, and often recycling the same voices that have been discussing the same issues with distressingly little effect for literally the entire time I’ve been alive.
And at a moment like this, where we see, by the way, around the world, a new generation stepping forward. From places like New Zealand, to France, to Finland, even ones that we don’t like, North Korea, or are concerned about in Saudi Arabia. What all of them have in common is they’re the same age or younger than I would be on taking office. Maybe the U.S. ought to be leading that kind of trend instead of catching up.
Goldberg: Kind of answered your question, right? [Laughter] Great. Thank you so much for coming in. Appreciate it.
Buttigieg: Same here, thanks for having us.
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