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The Exit Interview: Pete Buttigieg

The former Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend mayor reflects on our new coronavirus reality, the Iowa fiasco that hampered his campaign, the historic nature of his candidacy, and what problems he wants to focus on next.

Pete Buttigieg is holed up in his South Bend home, situated just off the St. Joseph River, riding out the coronavirus with a growler of South Bend Brew Werks IPA.

A few weeks ago, the former South Bend mayor found himself shuttling across America on a chartered plane, with a scrum of reporters in tow, and thousands of rally goers in places like Salt Lake City and Nashville awaiting him. After March 1, when he dropped out of the presidential race citing the lack of a path forward, that schedule downshifted significantly, but for a round of cable television interviews and a guest turn hosting Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Now that the novel coronavirus has ground normal life to a halt, Buttigieg has been back in his hometown, instead of on the beach vacation he had planned with his husband, Chasten, and a brief tour of the nation during which he had planned to thank supporters. He has grown a beard (which has its own hashtag on Twitter: #beardedgeedge).

“It’s a total transformation in lifestyle from four-state days to leaving the house once or twice a week,” he says.

After following him on the campaign trail for months, we talked with Buttigieg one last time about everything from the Iowa vote-counting fiasco to what problems he wants to focus on next.

What are your mornings like now compared to how they were during the campaign?

I’m working. But it’s very different and actually, in some ways, it took awhile to create a routine, but now I enjoy much more of a routine than I had during the campaign. I start with a check-in call with a staff member on what’s ahead for the day, review content, look at the calls we’re going to do. It’s very civilized compared to the constant frenetic motion of the active campaign. Of course, I was looking for an actual vacation, which will have to wait.

Did you have to completely scrap your vacation plans?

We were going to be on a beach right now, but that’s obviously not happening. The plan was to do a thank-you tour for a couple of weeks, visit a lot of our supporters in different cities and then by this week, be on a beach somewhere. So we were able, at least virtually, to do a lot of the thank-you tour by Zoom, and then an awful lot of phone calls that I’m still doing to thank supporters, but the rest of it will wait.

Chrisitians are celebrating Lent right now. I know you’ve often marked the season by giving things up. What have you given up this year?

Yeah, I’m staying faithful to [giving up] the coffee, meat, seafood and sweets part, but I’ve decided to declare a coronavirus exception to the alcohol part. I just need a beer at the end of the day.

What’s in the fridge right now? Any good Indiana craft beers?

You know, we’re trying to support local business, and the South Bend Brew Werks is doing a kind of Growler service, so we’ve got a Growler of a IPA from them and a couple others. That’s there, as well as a lot of cheese and yogurt and various semi-healthy things.

You’ve been watching NBC’s Parks & Recreation, too, I understand. Does that show hit differently after a presidential campaign?

There was one the other day I hadn’t seen. And there’s a subplot where there’s a recall election, when [Leslie Knope] winds up filibustering a city council meeting. And there’s a council member who’s holding everything up in bad faith. And just their comic take on the negativity around politics, it hits a little bit differently now that I’ve experienced the full force of a presidential campaign on Twitter.

Lent is a time when Christians slow down and, as you talked about, practice self-denial. There’s a time of reflection, and sometimes even mourning, and a season of darkness in some ways. What do you make of that?

There’s definitely something Lenten about what’s going on now. Although our priest at St. James referred to it as an exile, which is different from the fast. And exile is something that is actually talked about a lot in different religious traditions, certainly the Christian and Jewish traditions, and there’s something about that, right? It’s strange because in a certain way, it’s the opposite of exile, it’s more like house arrest, and yet it involves that same forced withdrawal from those we love. And we’re all figuring out different ways around it. I mean, my mother lives right in the neighborhood here and we’re having these strange experiences of visiting, but visiting at a distance. And on a warmer day, having her come out on the porch and we’re the requisite number of feet away with the dogs, and we’re visiting but it’s like there’s this kind of fence between us, and I think so many people and families and communities are going through that. Both Easter and Passover are going to take on a whole different significance now.

I think the way the president framed it, obviously it was unfortunate from a public health perspective, but part of Lent is the anticipation of Easter. And we have the anticipation of being released from this situation, but also the awareness that it’s going to be weeks or months.

You know, one other thing that I’ve been reflecting on is that plague and pestilence is something humans have had to deal with all through history, and around the world. The fact that, with the very notable exception of the gay community, most Americans over the last century have not dealt with the effects of this kind of plague, is actually very much the exception to the rule. And you could view this as more of a return to a normal for the human species than an aberration. And I’m thinking about that because it’s also a theme in scripture, right? There’s an awful lot about plague and pestilence, and here we are.

We can’t talk about Lent or Easter without talking about Dyngus Day, the Polish holiday that marks the day after Easter, featuring kielbasa, polka music, and beer. (Buttigieg, fresh off of launching his presidential campaign last April, campaigned at the event back in South Bend, with national media following his every move). I’ve heard there were efforts to get former Vice President Joe Biden there this year?

You know, one of the things we realized as we were planning a vacation was it absolutely had to have us back in time for Dyngus Day. And you better believe I would have been lobbying hard for the Biden campaign to capture Indiana’s heart by having a phenomenal presence at Dyngus Day. Obviously Dyngus Day, as we know it, is very much not in the spirit of social distancing. So we’ll have to practice some form of remote Dyngus festivities. But yeah, unfortunately, I can’t allow for that in good faith, but maybe we can wire up something remote.

Pre-coronavirus, were there talks with the Biden campaign to do some in-person surrogacy travel on his behalf?

There hadn’t been a lot of shape to it, but it was certainly expected on both sides that I’d be enthusiastically campaigning for him here in Indiana (ahead of the state’s once-scheduled May 5 primary; Indiana has now pushed its primary to June 2). I still will [campaign on Biden’s behalf], we’re just going to have to think up a different way to do it.

Last week, we learned that Sen. Elizabeth Warren had one supporter who gave $14.6 million to her Persist PAC. She criticized you pretty heavily for taking outside money. What went through your head when you read that news?

Well, you know how I feel about purity tests, and I did notice that. I’m not sure if she’s been asked about it. Certainly it’s the case that, by their nature, these are not directly coordinated with campaigns. But I also think it’s all the more reason why we can now concentrate our efforts on fixing a system that none of us likes.

You took a significant share of criticism on Twitter during the primary, particularly from members of your own Millennial generation, who saw you as a political opportunist, a corporate shill, and not being gay enough. Some even suggested you were affiliated with the CIA. What did you make of that?

You learn very early on in politics not to take criticism personally. I would much rather have somebody go online or write an article and say, “Your higher ed policy sucks and here’s why…” and critique it point-by-point. Then we could have a debate. But when it gets so over the top, the idea that I’m a CIA agent cleverly disguised as an intelligence officer in the military, or that I took down Blue Cross Blue Shield Michigan, or that I was somehow responsible for the Great Canadian Bread Pricing Scandal of 2002. Or perhaps the most bizarre one of all: That I had something to do with the app crashing in Iowa when no individual suffered more or was impacted more, I think, in terms of political trajectory as a consequence of that then than me and my campaign.

That’s where you learn that, okay, yes it is personal, but it’s still not about you. It’s about a cartoon character version of you that people are building up and then tearing back down as a way of expressing their frustration with things that are bigger than you or that you may remind them of. But it’s actually not about you, because the caricature they’re talking about doesn’t even resemble you.

The Biden campaign released a withering ad about your experience in South Bend ahead of the New Hampshire Primary, comparing it to the former vice president’s own experience. Did it take some effort to get beyond that to endorse him?

No, it’s just politics. Obviously, I didn’t love it, but I also understood what they were trying to do, and it’s an example of learning not to take something too personally.

What is your relationship like with the Panic! At the Disco song “High Hopes” at this point in your life right now? (The pop song was Buttigieg’s walk-up music throughout the campaign.)

You know, it came on somewhere, and Chasten and I were joking that if I was asleep and I heard that, I would probably just snap awake and start giving my stump speech. It’s definitely strange to think I was walking out to that in front of a crowd two, three, five times a day and then one day that’s ended and it’s been replaced by something else. So I’m still kind of metabolizing all of that.

I would ask you what Cabinet position you’re interested in, but I have a hunch you wouldn’t play that parlor game. And I imagine that you’d probably mentioned the Ignatian process of discernment.

Smart man.

But what I will ask you, now that you have the campaign behind you, is: What problems are most interesting to you now?

What we’re going to have to do in the coming decade is design new structures and institutions. And it won’t do to just go back and say we’re going to rewind to the New Deal. It won’t do to try to copy and paste what’s working in Europe, even though we should certainly aspire to have the quality of life and social mobility that Europeans now have more than we do. We’re going to have to find something distinct. We basically are going to have to fashion a distinctly American social democracy for the 21st century. And the lack of it is definitely showing in the sloppiness of the response to COVID-19.

A little more concretely, I think that some of the best policy work on the campaign was in things like the Douglass Plan, which ties into this directly because one of the reasons America failed to build and maintain the kind of institutions that we need is racism. And so really the question of how we have a third reconstruction in our time and the question of how we build something to replace the protections and institutions that were dismantled at the beginning of the Reagan era are actually, in my view, almost one in the same. I think that anti-racist project is going to take a lot of work, and I’m going to look for ways, sometimes political, sometimes more in the policy space, to contribute there.

I’m also really proud of the work we did on national security and foreign policy. I don’t think anyone was expecting the mayor to be a foreign policy guy, but it wound up being another area where I’m just really pleased with what we did. And drilling down a little more narrowly into issue sets, if there was one issue where I saw the biggest gap between how much it was on the minds of voters and how much it was on the minds of reporters, it’s mental health. I just couldn’t believe how often I got that question. And I’m sure you were at an event or two where I did the show of hands thing.

As the campaign progressed, I got to do that with larger and larger groups. I remember doing it in Nashville with a couple of thousand people and it became emotional for me. Sometimes, the stump speech line, you get a bit numb to it. That moment became more emotional for me every time we did it with more and more people, because you just see how this problem is penetrating and the solutions are way behind. And by the way, obviously we think of coronavirus mostly in terms of its physical health implications, but we’re going to be thinking a lot about the mental health consequences of everything from the lockdown itself to the grief and loss that it’s going to accelerate around the country as a consequence of this. So, those are just some of the things that interests me now.

Whether I wind up in the short to medium term working on those in public service or not, what I know is that I have a chance right now with the audience that we built to find ways to make contributions on that. In addition to simply doing everything I can to get Joe Biden and other great candidates elected, that’s going to be where most of my energy goes to this year.

When you got back from Afghanistan, you told me that one of the ways you processed that experience was through writing. Have you had time to write these days?

I’m beginning to, but not much. The big difference between the campaign experience and the Afghanistan experience was that there was a lot of dead time in Afghanistan.

So there was the old hurry up and wait adage, and when I was waiting, when I was bored, I was writing or at least thinking. On the campaign, if things ever came to a pause, I was sleeping. If there was a flight and my homework was done, I was sleeping. Now is the first chance I’ve had to kind of process things. But I am looking forward to starting the journal again.

Who should the former vice president pick for running mate?

Well, no one knows more about the vice presidency than him, so I don’t think that I’m in a position to offer him much advice. I think it was a good decision for him to make clear that gender equity is going to be the first consideration, and I’m excited knowing how many extraordinary women leaders in the party there are for him to consider.

In the same way that a former reality television star and businessman like President Trump opened up a path for a nonconventional candidate like you to run for the presidency, do you think that your campaign did that for a different kind of candidate in the future?

I’d like to think so. I think so many of the rules have changed or are in the process of changing, and that’ll happen even more as the nature of campaigning has shifted in the context of the pandemic. A lot of questions will be asked, and rightly so, about how early states in the nominating process work and ought to work going into 2020. But what I hope isn’t lost is the fact that in the early states, we get campaigning off of the airwaves and into people’s backyards. It’s the only reason that campaigns like mine got a chance. And if we want campaigning to matter, and if we want qualities that only come through when you look people in the eye to matter, then whatever reforms we undertake to the nominating process, I hope they continue to be reforms that make it possible for somebody as unlikely as I was to have a shot.

Editor’s note: The transcript—including questions and answers—have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Adam Wren writes about business, politics, and crime for Indianapolis Monthly—often in the same story. Follow him on Twitter @adamwren or visit his website at adamwren.me.
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