Every time there is a race for City Council here in Seattle, as with many American cities, you get a few serious candidates, a few absolute nuts, and a few people who might have good policy ideas but who lack any kind of governing experience. Say, a woman whose entire campaign is based on giving out free snacks on Wednesdays but whose only work experience has been as a slam poet. It’s a good idea, but she’s probably not going to win, even in Seattle.
This happens in the presidential race, too. In the current roster of Democratic hopefuls, the candidate with the good ideas but little chance of winning is Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has taken the media and, subsequently, the polls by storm. Recent polls have him in third place in Iowa, and CNN’s Chris Cillizza called him the “hottest candidate in the 2020 race.”
Buttigieg is 37 years old. He’s a graduate of Harvard, a Rhodes scholar, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and the two-term mayor of South Bend, a town that, until Buttigieg entered the race, I doubt many people out of South Bend had heard of. He’s the first openly gay candidate running for president in history, which, I suspect, is essential to his sudden surge of media interest, which then translates to a surge in the polls. We love firsts. Here’s another one.
I’d love to have a gay president. But more than a gay president, I’d love to have a qualified president. While Pete Buttigieg is certainly more qualified than the morally bankrupt reality TV star currently smearing shit on the walls of the White House, it seems to me that the presidency should be the last stop in one's politic career, not the second one. In light of the bevy of overly qualified, long-time political leaders running (ahem, Elizabeth Warren), it’s hard for me to see why anyone would get particularly excited about this one.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. But Obama!!! He was only a one-term Senator before he became President!! And that’s true, if you ignore the seven years he spent in the Illinois state Senate before going to DC. Regardless, Obama and Buttigieg do have something vital in common: Namely, the media loves them. Sure, they are both charming and progressive and look good in a suit, but the reason people in America are now talking about Buttigieg, or, for that matter, Beto O’Rourke, isn’t because he is the most qualified or has the most interesting or workable policy positions; it’s because the media won’t shut the fuck up about them, including me, right now, in this post. We give dark horse candidates oxygen, and if you need more evidence of that, look at who's in the White House right now. The Trump campaign should have been given as much airtime as the slam poet running for City Council. Instead, he dominated coverage because the media, including me, enabled him.
Name recognition is hugely important in politics. This, in part, is because most voters are low-information voters. They don’t follow the twists and turns of each and every campaign. Most Americans don’t even watch the debates. So when it come time to vote, especially in primaries and races with more than two candidates, they oftentimes vote simply for the person who they've actually heard of. It’s not about policy; it’s about fame, and that’s too damn bad, because we don’t need a celebrity as president and we don’t need a small town mayor as president, either. We need a president who actually has the experience required to effectively govern. Pete Buttigieg might be that guy someday, but perhaps he should start by running for Senate.