Pete Buttigieg creates another media moment

Pundits arguing that South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg simply cannot be president because his only civilian public service has been at the local level, or that he is heavy on values and persona but lighter on policy, seem not to have learned anything from 2016. President Donald Trump won the Republican primary by stringing together media moments, dominating the airwaves and intensifying his audience's emotions (anger, resentment, etc.). Buttigieg is testing the proposition that Democrats desperate to take back the White House may admire Sen. Elizabeth Warren's policy parade but what they long for is someone who can beat Trump and reflect their longing to reassert their values (respect for intellect, empathy, tolerance).

Buttigieg, in appearing on Fox News Sunday night, helped his cause tremendously. Projecting the same calm, incisiveness and wit that have impressed other audiences, he won enthusiastic applause and a standing ovation. He created some viral moments that will echo around the mainstream media for days.

Buttigieg accomplished several things.

First, he showed how to defend progressive positions and dismantle the right-wing frame for discussing them. On abortion, he had this answer to say about whether women should be allowed to terminate their pregnancies in the third trimester. After noting that that represented less than 1 percent of all women who have abortions, before responding specifically, he said, "We're talking about women who have perhaps chosen a name, women who have purchased a crib.” They probably had been expecting to carry their babies to term but had received medical news that forced them "to make an impossible, unthinkable choice," he said.

"The bottom line is, as horrible as that choice is — that woman, that family may seek spiritual guidance, they may seek medical guidance — but that decision is not going to be made any better, medically or morally, because the government is dictating how that decision is going to be made."

This ability to defend Democrats' values and views effectively, to avoid being cornered by right-wing talking points impresses — and delights — Democratic voters.

Second, going on Fox News, in contrast to Warren, D-Mass., and others (who had perfectly acceptable moral reasons for shunning the propaganda machine,) reinforced the notion that his political instincts are superior to hers and other competitors. Instead of refusing to appear to denounce hate, Buttigieg used the airtime on Fox to denounce its hateful hosts, who were "not always there in good faith." He called out Tucker Carlson, who said immigrants made the United States "dirtier," and Laura Ingraham, who compared detention centers for migrant children to summer camps.

"There is a reason why anybody has to swallow hard and think twice before participating in this media ecosystem," Buttigieg said.

That's nervy.

Third, by going on Fox News and winning plaudits, he implicitly made the argument for his own electability. Part of his argument is that a religious mayor from the heartland knows the secret sauce for breaking through to working- and middle-class voters in the Midwest. His appearance on Fox News will convince some Democrats that he can.

Fourth, Buttigieg recognized that, in a field of 23 Democratic candidates, holding the media's attention for a sustained time is nearly impossible for those challenging front-runner Joe Biden. Buttigieg's answer: Use earned media to create viral moments. These cement in the public's mind the image of a feisty, witty, super-smart candidate with a Zen-like ability to turn Trump's anger back against him, making the president look small and childish.

Buttigieg has real challenges. Most importantly, he needs to find support among African- American voters who are a critical part of the Democratic primary electorate. He'll need to show he has some policy plans to avoid looking like a lightweight.

That said, he showed Sunday night just how formidable are his communication skills and political antenna.

Others can help you construct policy proposals, but that "it" factor is either there or it's not. Buttigieg has it.

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.

 

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