Time for a test: Mayor Pete needs to be challenged


Another Democratic presidential debate has come and gone, and Pete Buttigieg’s unlikely, charmed campaign continues to rise, unimpeded, unchallenged and untested.

That’s not a good thing for the South Bend mayor, for his party or for the nation.

There was speculation that, given recent polling that showed Buttigieg leading all candidates in the upcoming and important Iowa caucus, the other Democrats on the stage with him in Atlanta would try to rough him up a bit.

It didn’t happen. Other than some brief jousting with U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii — who seems slated to win the Fox News Democratic primary and nowhere else — and a semi-jocular aside from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, the other candidates handled Buttigieg respectfully, even gently.

Maybe that’s because they like the young Midwestern wunderkind. Maybe they’re wary about the blowback that could follow unloading on the first serious self-identified gay presidential candidate in American history.

And maybe, just maybe, they watched what happened four years ago, when all the traditional and better-established Republican candidates for president attacked another unlikely contender for the White House. They ended up building Donald Trump’s profile, which helped him seal the nomination and eventually sent him to the White House.

Whatever the reason for the reluctance to remove the kid gloves with Mayor Pete, it is unfortunate.

Buttigieg is a spectacular political talent, but his tremendous gifts of intelligence and energy should not blind us to the fact that he still is, in so many ways, unseasoned. What’s more, the way he has confronted the leadership crises that have confronted him have not inspired confidence.

Much has been made of Buttigieg’s troubled relationship with black voters. A recent poll in South Carolina showed him receiving 0 percent — as in zilch — support among African Americans surveyed. And some of his most persistent critics have been black elected officials and community leaders in his native South Bend, who long have been troubled by Buttigieg’s decision to fire a black chief of police and his tone-deaf response to a police shooting of a black South Bender.

The concern is fair.

No one reasonable doubts that Buttigieg’s heart is in the right place on questions of race. His flaw here — and perhaps elsewhere — is that of many gifted young men in a hurry. He doesn’t seem to appreciate that there are some problems that only time and patience can solve.

Consider the strengths of the candidate Buttigieg hopes to supplant as the standard-bearer for moderate Democrats, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Thus far, Biden has dazzled no one with his eloquence or his innovative public policy suggestions.

But he still sits atop most national polls of Democratic presidential hopefuls and head-to-head matchups show him tromping Trump by double-digit margins.

More important, all polls show that he is far and away the favorite candidate of black voters in South Carolina and everywhere else.

The why of that is important to understand.

Buttigieg has presented black voters with a detailed package of policy proposals that he calls the Douglass Plan, named after Frederick Douglass. The plan is, as one would expect from someone as sharp as Buttigieg, innovative and even prescient.

Biden hasn’t pulled together anything anywhere near that comprehensive.

Instead, over years, even decades, he’s offered black Americans his ear. Instead of presenting his plans, he has listened to their concerns and their hopes.

That has cemented the relationship.

That is an important lesson, one all great leaders must learn.

There are many reasons Donald Trump has veered from disaster to disaster as president, but not the least of them is that he cannot listen to anyone who does not agree with him on everything. That makes it impossible for him to convert adversaries into allies.

Pete Buttigieg is much, much smarter than Donald Trump, as well as more secure in himself.

I have no doubt that he will learn how to strengthen his relationship with his fellow citizens who happen to be black, but such lessons often are a product of experience. They take time.

One of the many lessons the Trump presidency has delivered is that experience matters.

Pete Buttigieg is one of the quickest studies around.

But now is the time to test him and find out if he’s quick enough.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].

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