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Mayor Pete understands the power of stories

Steve and Cokie Roberts

Cokie and Steve Roberts


Saturday, April 20, 2019

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, the highly improbable candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, made this insightful comment to The New York Times: "The story that we tell, not just about government but about ourselves, and the story we tell people about themselves and how they fit in, really grounds our politics."

Mayor Pete remains the longest of shots. If he wins, he'd be 39 when he takes office, four years younger than our youngest elected president, John F. Kennedy. He'd be the first openly gay president. And he's never run anything bigger than Indiana's fourth-largest city, with barely 100,000 people.

Yet he's clearly on to something. Buttigieg has raised $7 million, more than four sitting senators. He's surged into third place in the latest polls from Iowa and New Hampshire, behind only Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who are twice his age and profit from widespread name recognition. And he's getting rave reviews from media analysts like Vanity Fair, which writes that his "authenticity is an immeasurable asset."

A major reason for that impact: He clearly understands a basic truth about presidential politics — that the best way to connect with voters is through stories, not policies; deep values, not detailed programs. "I think all politics is local, especially national politics," he told the podcast Pod Save America. "But more than that, all politics is personal."

"He knows how to talk plainly," George Lakoff, a noted linguist at the University of California told the Times. "Usually Democrats are saying: 'What are your 10 most important policy areas?' And he doesn't do that."

Personal connections are more vital and enduring than policy agreements, but they have a second virtue as well: They sidestep doctrinal battles that alienate some voters while attracting others. Barack Obama appealed to liberals and moderates alike because his personal narrative transcended — and avoided — the ideological squabbles that often divide Democrats. No wonder Mayor Pete says "I've actually drawn a lot of lessons" from Obama's campaign.

To work well, stories have to be authentic and believable; they have to connect with the myths and legends we Americans tell about ourselves. Buttigieg weaves together a number of those narratives, starting with epochal change. He talks often about representing "a new generation of leadership," meaning the millenials, and his website promises "A Fresh Start for America."

His words echo Kennedy in 1960, who proclaimed "a torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans" — the veterans who fought World War II. And they reflect the strategy of Bill Clinton as well, who ran in 1992 as the first Baby Boomer president.

Buttigieg's story is rooted outside of Washington, in his hometown, a place he proudly calls "flyover country." He announced for president in an old factory there that once made Studebakers. And while he does have a degree from Harvard, he denounced on Pod Save America the "abandonment of the middle of the country by our party" and the "condescension" many fellow Democrats feel toward the Midwesterners who helped elect President Trump.

In any effective myth, a hero has to overcome adversity — George Bush 41 was shot down over the Pacific during World War II; Clinton's father died before he was born — and Buttigieg talks about serving as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan and making "119 trips ... outside the wire" into hostile territory.

He also emphasizes overcoming the economic adversity that afflicted South Bend after the Studebaker plant closed down, and converting the old factory into a high-tech center. "This city's story is a big part of why I am doing this," he said during his presidential announcement.

Two other threads of Mayor Pete's personal story might seem contradictory, but they appeal to different groups. As an openly gay man, he's accepted and even celebrated by his contemporaries. But he's also married, talks about wanting children, and stresses his Episcopalian faith — all gestures toward more traditional values embraced by older voters.

Democrats have long suffered from the reputation that they are the secular party, while Republicans are the religionists. David Axelrod, Obama's close adviser, made an important point in New York magazine: Buttigieg's "fluency on faith and his willingness to speak about it is a real asset," he said. "Carter, Clinton and Obama — they all shared that quality. It was one of the cues that opened the door to voters."

We do know that Mayor Pete understands the power of stories. What we don't know is how his personal odyssey finally ends.

Steve and Cokie Roberts are veteran political commentators.


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