Is Pete Buttigieg the next Jimmy Carter?

There are a lot of reasons why South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg isn’t quite like the rest of the Democratic field. He’s younger. He’s in a same-sex marriage. He’s a mayor, and not of a major metropolis like New York or Los Angeles. He’s also appeared in a Fox News town hall and on various occasions criticized his own party. In public appearances, Buttigieg has appealed to some audiences and alienated others by talking about reaching out to Trump supporters.

His rhetorical rejection of partisan politics goes beyond that: He talks about morality, efficiency, governance. These are recurring themes in American politics, of course, but they are especially strongly associated with two Democratic ex-presidents: Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. The connections suggest something we don’t see much in the conversation about Buttigieg (or anyone else in the Democratic field). Perhaps the reform-minded outsider isn’t so much positioning himself to be the next transformative president. Maybe his appeals sound more like someone who might be the final leader of a Democratic coalition that’s struggling to adapt to new political circumstances.

I want to be clear that this isn’t intended to be a criticism of Buttigieg. It’s intended as a commentary on the implications of some of the things he has said. Looking at this particular candidate through this lens also allows us to consider both the common features of a disjunctive president who flounders in the face of competing political pressures and a reconstructive president who’s remembered as the founder of a new political era. The crowded 2020 Democratic field also shows there are competing visions for what the Democratic Party should be. Candidates like Buttigieg, who seem invested in reconciling old and new visions, might be part of an important stage in a more fundamental transformation.

The question of whether Donald Trump is the disjunctive president who will bring an end to the Reagan era has been a topic among political observers since before Trump took office. This view assumes the political time cycle, which Stephen Skowronek discusses in The Politics of Presidents, has unfolded over the past 40 years more or less like it has in the past. Reagan Republicans took over as the dominant coalition in the early 1980s, and the two George Bushes “articulated” the values of administration in different ways, struggling to forge their own political identities and inviting criticism from others within their parties (seen especially in Pat Buchanan’s challenge to Bush in 1992 for being insufficiently conservative).

Democratic presidents, in this story, serve as preemptive leaders who navigate being opposition presidents even as the default political frameworks — shrinking government is good, public-private partnerships are more efficient, entitlement programs require serious reform — and the dominant coalition remain Republican. However, the theory allows for other possibilities. One in which Obama’s presidency was a very limited reconstructive presidency, motivated by reviving New Deal liberalism in ways that are opposed to Reagan conservatism.

Scott Lemieux has argued this, resting on two important ideas. One is that unlike a lot of preemptive leaders who borrow policy issues from the other side, Obama wasn’t really a “third way” president. Lemieux argues in particular that the Affordable Care Act had more in common with the New Deal/Great Society political tradition than anything that came after it.

The other is that the Reagan period didn’t really wipe out the Democrats’ core commitments and constituencies. If the New Deal era remained at least somewhat robust, then maybe Democratic presidents are still working through the different stages of political time in parallel with Republicans, not just filling the “preemptive” role of opposition presidents.

Lemieux has argued that Obama most closely resembled an “articulator” of a Democratic order; the 44th president pursued policies in line with the party’s values, both in the legislative arena and in executive branch policymaking. If this characterization is correct, then it stands to reason that the Democrats, like the Republicans, might be in for a disjunctive leader. And one of the candidates in particular has really fit the mold.

The outsider technocrat

Disjunctive presidents have to strike an impossible balance between their affiliation with the existing power structure — relationships, coalitions, ideas — and the need for the country to move past these older modes of governance. One way that presidents in this leadership position thread this needle is to highlight their credentials as outsiders, criticizing and breaking away from their own parties. Another way is to cast policy problems in terms of management and skill rather than ideology or coalition politics.

In various public appearances, Buttigieg has emphasized his experience as a mayor and used that to distinguish himself from “Washington.” For example, at a CNN town hall at South by Southwest, he expressed the idea that the national government could learn lessons from city government, where a shutdown would be “unthinkable.” In a conversation with Vox’s Ezra Klein, Mayor Pete spoke about different models of governing efficiency that could be applied when fixing potholes. On Fox News, he spoke about “managing” and getting the 3 am call.

Moreover, he’s also tried to distinguish himself from the Democratic Party as it drifts leftward (arguably, toward its own New Deal past), talking about climate change in terms of the more conventionally Republican idea of national security and endorsing an incremental approach to health care. He came in for some criticism after breaking with fellow Democrats over the issue of whether incarcerated felons should have the right to vote.

Morality and reform

Specifically, Buttigieg sometimes sounds like the last disjunctive Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. The two share a penchant for talking about morality. Carter was one of the first presidents to bring a distinctly evangelical sensibility to his governing appeals. Buttigieg has also sought to move the discussion about how Christian faith might inform political positions.

In a similar vein, the South Bend mayor has advocated for process reforms, using justifications that supposedly transcend politics. He’s called for reforming the electoral college, as Carter also did. (Although this issue has picked up some traction among Democratic presidential candidates in general). He’s also advocated for reforming the courts to make them “less political.”

These ideas — that government should reflect the goodness of its people (to borrow Carter’s language) and that reforms to insulate power from politics can solve problems — make sense as responses to the core dilemma of disjunctive leadership. Disjunctive leaders face a situation in which it is both necessary and impossible to break with the past. Insisting that the solution lies in improving the machinery of governance and engaging in moral renewal beyond partisan politics allows politicians to advocate for doing something different without challenging the core commitments and power arrangements of the governing order.

Identity politics and the Democratic Party

“Identity politics” has also been a prominent and fraught topic for Democrats. Buttigieg would be the first openly gay presidential nominee or president, a sign of progress unthinkable even a few years ago. At the same time, his record on racial issues has attracted criticism and commentators have noted that men in the race have attracted more media attention than several highly qualified women who are also seeking the nomination. The contours of the nomination race itself indicate that both practical and ideological questions of identity strain the Democratic coalition.

Mayor Pete’s critiques of the Democratic Party have included the “identity politics” question, arguing that “we have a crisis of belonging in this country” and suggesting that his own party has embraced identity issues in a way that might be divisive. He hasn’t hesitated to talk about racial inequality as well as gender inequality and LGBTQ issues, but these statements come alongside comments about American civic identity and shared values. In other words, when he talks about identity, he sounds less like a transformational leader and more like one who is wrestling with a contradiction that he has inherited.

It’s a fine line between disjunctive and reconstructive politics

In the original explanation of the theory, one thing that we see is that disjunctive presidents foreshadow the reconstructive period that came later. Herbert Hoover, Skowronek argues, experimented with new approaches to addressing the Great Depression and managing the nation’s economy. Carter advocated for an issue that would become of Reagan’s signatures — welfare reform. Late into a regime, leaders tend to cast about for new kinds of solutions. It’s the party connection with the existing order that makes it harder for them to make a clean break and offer something completely new.

The question of making a clean break with the status quo is a particularly complicated one right now. Among Democrats, there are people running with long records and those with hardly any national experience and everyone in between. Reconstructive leaders often push back against existing institutions, ideas, and governing coalitions, achieving the latter by building new majorities out of the wreckage of the old. They also offer ideas about renewal by reimagining old values, drawing on founding language and documents.

Both undertakings are a tricky business in the current political environment. Years of divided government, close presidential elections, and relatively frequent changes in control of Congress mean it’s hard to clearly define who is responsible for the status quo and who has the freedom to reject it. There’s room for individual candidates to make decisions about how they want to talk about their parties, the country’s history, and the recent past, and with more than 20 Democratic aspirants, there’s likely to be a range of choices about these questions. At least one candidate seems to be embracing the delicate and cautious stance of a president trying to preserve something that is breaking down.