There were two drowning men on the stage of the Democratic presidential debate on Thursday. One was the front-runner and a former vice president, so naturally he got the lion’s share of attention. But the other flailing figure deserves notice, since he’s been widely touted as a rising star in the party.
While the media has focused on the sound thrashing Joe Biden received at the hands of California Senator Kamala Harris over his racial politics and opposition to busing, a parallel drama occurred when moderator Rachel Maddow pressed South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg about a police shooting in his city. As Maddow accurately noted, civil rights groups are unhappy not just with Buttigieg’s handling of the shooting but also his inability to discipline the South Bend police force. Before the shooting, the officer had turned off his body camera, making the incident all the more suspicious.
“The police force in South Bend is now 6 percent black in a city that is 26 percent black,” Maddow noted. “Why has that not improved over your two terms as mayor?”
Buttigieg responded with contrition. “Because I couldn’t get it done,” Buttigieg confessed. “And I could walk you through all of the things that we have done as a community, all of the steps that we took, from bias training to de-escalation, but it didn’t save the life of Eric Logan. And when I look into his mother’s eyes, I have to face the fact that nothing that I say will bring him back.”
This acknowledgement of inadequacy was humanizing—but also unsatisfying. Not surprisingly, Buttigieg’s rivals grabbed the opportunity to undermine him further. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper wasn’t impressed by Buttigieg’s claims to be trying to solve the problem. Hickenlooper remarked that “the question they’re asking in South Bend and I think across the country is why has it taken so long?” After all, other jurisdictions have been moving forward with police accountability.
California congressman Eric Swalwell didn’t buy Buttigieg’s claim that as mayor he couldn’t do anything until the investigation was complete. “If the camera wasn’t on and that was the policy, you should fire the chief,” Swalwell insisted, echoing the complaint of many in South Bend.
Both Biden and Buttigieg discovered that their record on racism has seriously wounded their presidential bids. According to a poll conducted by Morning Consult for FiveThirtyEight, Biden lost nearly a quarter of his support after the debates, dropping from 41.5 percent to 31.5 percent. Buttigieg, starting from a lower floor, lost nearly a third of his support, going from 6.7 to 4.8 percent. (By comparison, Kamala Harris more than doubled her support, going from 7.9 to 16.6 percent; Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren also experienced significant, if smaller, gains).
All polls should be treated cum grano salis, with an extra shaker of salt applied to overnight polls about a crowded field of candidates. Still, the numbers reinforce what was clearly visible on the debate floor, the vulnerability and defensiveness of Biden and Buttigieg on racial politics.
Buttigieg finds himself in an especially exposed position, because admitting he’s failed on police brutality gives the lie to the central narrative of his campaign. Unlike Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, Buttigieg isn’t running as an ideological candidate but rather as an embodiment of savvy competence that can bring the Democrats together and also unite America.
The case for Buttigieg is that he combines an impressive résumé (Harvard, Rhodes scholarship, military service) with a proven record of winning in the places that Democrats need to win: He’s an openly gay man who has governed as a mayor in a diverse Rust Belt city in a deeply Republican state (the native state, in fact, of Vice President Mike Pence).
In announcing his candidacy, Buttigieg said, “But I would also argue that we would be well served if Washington started to look more like our best run cities and towns rather than the other way around.” The implication is that South Bend was one of the “best run” cities. Now Buttigieg has to acknowledge that he’s failed in dealing with one of the pressing municipal problems of our time, police violence.
But Buttigieg’s problems go even deeper. Buttigieg has often touted South Bend’s diversity and economic success. But the shooting of Eric Logan has exposed the fact whatever economic success South Bend enjoys has been unevenly distributed, with a glaring racial divide persisting.
On policing issues, South Bend has in fact been going backwards under Buttigieg’s watch. The number of black officers on the city’s force has dropped from 29 in 2012 to 15 in 2019. Interviewed by HuffPost, Oliver Davis, one of the longest-serving black politicians in South Bend, said, “These kind of issues have not been his priorities.” Davis added, “He responds when he has to, but you go back to April, and they were saying the whole makeup of his campaign staff lacked diversity, OK?”
It’s clear from HuffPost’s reporting that Buttigieg’s approach to police racism has been, at best, neglectful: Buttigieg refused to use powers he has as a mayor to reshape the Board of Public Safety, which oversees the police, to make it more responsive to the black community.
The New York Times reports that activists in South Bend “expressed frustration with a debate-night discourse that seemed far removed from their lived experience in South Bend, where they are part of a minority community with high poverty and violence, which has not been lifted by the economic development that Mr. Buttigieg boasts of bringing to the city.” One activist quoted by the newspaper said, “I go to the middle-class neighborhoods, I see people saying he’s done good things. But when I come back to where I live, in the Northwest, it’s the same old thing: broken-down housing, no businesses, shootings.”
Just as he’s alienated African Americans in his own city, Buttigieg has been unsuccessful in wooing black voters for his presidential run. According to a recent Morning Consult poll taken before the debates, Buttigieg had support from 9 percent of likely white Democratic primary voters but only 1 percent of support from their black counterparts. In effect, Buttigieg has the support of any Democrat considered a serious contender—a campaign as white as snow. By contrast, the same poll shows Bernie Sanders is building a genuinely cross-racial coalition, getting 18 percent of the white vote and 17 percent of the black vote.
Buttigieg’s technocratic politics—with its emphasis on his Ivy League education, polyglot speaking skills, and familiarity with the oeuvre of James Joyce—has an intense appeal to one narrow slice of the Democratic Party coalition: college-educated whites. He’s the ultimate wine-track candidate. Unfortunately for him, any conceivable path to victory in the Democratic primaries involves building a much broader coalition. Unless he can figure out how to solve his lack of appeal to black voters, as well as other voters outside the professional middle class, Buttigieg has no future as a presidential candidate.