Pete Buttigieg came into Wednesday night’s debate bracing for an onslaught that never came.
Yes, Amy Klobuchar and Tulsi Gabbard questioned his experience. Cory Booker dinged the young mayor’s resume, pointing out that he’s the “other Rhodes Scholar mayor on the stage” and warning voters against picking a Democratic nominee with an “inauthentic” connection to African American voters — a bloc that has largely ignored Buttigieg’s campaign so far.
But Kamala Harris declined a served-on-a-platter chance to hit Buttigieg again over a recent campaign misstep involving a stock photo of black people, instead pivoting to her own case for the Democratic nomination.
And Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who remain packed together at the top of recent Iowa and New Hampshire polls alongside Buttigieg, didn’t take him on at all — a testament to the still-unsettled nature of the 2020 primary campaign and concerns about alienating potential voters with negative attacks less than three months before voting starts in Iowa.
Several campaigns question whether Buttigieg really has staying power in those early state polls and are waiting to see if he’ll fall back to earth on his own, without a push. “This is just Pete’s moment,” said Jeff Weaver, a Sanders senior adviser, “and we’ll see, we’ll see whether he stays up or goes down.”
Others suggested Buttigieg’s time facing a barrage of criticism was still coming, and soon. “Just like all the other frontrunners he’ll get his turn,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), co-chair of Biden’s campaign. “He’ll get his body cavity check and people will find the flaws in his [policy] plan, and I think that they’ll see that some of the things are just absolutely unrealistic.”
Meanwhile, Booker campaign manager Addisu Demissie noted that the senator is depending on Buttigieg backers to “vote for us, ultimately” — backed up by polling that finds many Democratic primary voters are still very open to changing their minds about their primary or caucus vote. And in Iowa, the caucus system benefits candidates who can become the second choice of many voters, which can make candidates wary of going on the attack.
Still, Buttigieg’s opponents opened up lines of attack that can be deployed again if his recent rise in Iowa and New Hampshire sticks.
Klobuchar hit the mayor on his lack of experience, winning two terms as South Bend mayor with a few thousand votes and losing his only statewide race for Indiana state treasurer in 2010. He also lost a 2017 bid for Democratic National Committee chairman.
“This is a good example where he has said the right words, but I actually have the experience,” Klobuchar said, jumping off an answer Buttigieg gave on protecting voting rights. “Just like I have won statewide — and mayor, I have all appreciation for your good work as a local official, and you did not when you tried, I also have actually done this work. I think experience should matter.”
Buttigieg countered Klobuchar by separating his executive experience from “Washington experience,” which “is not the only experience that matters,” he said. He also noted his military service and “experience of being commanded into a war zone by an American president.”
“I know that from the perspective of Washington, what goes on in my city might look small, but frankly, where we live, the infighting on Capitol Hill is what looks small,” Buttigieg said. “The usual way of doing business in Washington is what looks small.”
Klobuchar said last week that if the millennial mayor was a woman, he wouldn’t be on the debate stage — but she didn’t expand on the attack onstage Wednesday night, instead using the line as an opening to talk about how women are “held to a higher standard.”
“Otherwise, we could play a game called, ‘Name Your Favorite Woman President,’ which we can’t do because it has all been men,” Klobuchar said, before addressing the rest of her answer to Biden, not Buttigieg.
Booker, too, chose to direct his sharpest digs at the former vice president. On African American voters, Booker warned that Democrats shouldn’t risk nominating a candidate who “isn’t trusted.” But rather than tie that counsel to Buttigieg’s near-zero support among black voters, Booker critiqued Biden’s stance against legalizing marijuana.
The fiercest exchange came between the two veterans on stage: Buttigieg and Gabbard. Gabbard accused Buttigieg of “inexperience” in his “careless statement about how you as president would be willing to send our troops to Mexico to fight the cartels,” citing Buttigieg’s comments at a Latino forum in Los Angeles where he floated “security cooperation” with Mexico to address cartel-related violence.
But Buttigieg showed he could counter-punch, delivering a sharp rejoinder back at Gabbard — and perhaps laying down a marker for the next candidate to come at him in December’s debate.
“I know that it’s par for the course in Washington to take remarks out of context, but that is outlandish, even by the standards of today’s politics,” Buttigieg said, before pivoting to Gabbard’s foreign policy record.
“If your question is about experience, let’s also talk about judgment: One of the foreign leaders you mentioned meeting was Bashar al-Assad,” Buttigieg continued. “I have in my experience, such as it is, whether you think it counts or not since it wasn’t accumulated in Washington, enough judgment that I would not have sat down with a murderous dictator like that.”