Candidate Spotlight: Pete Buttigieg
1. Mayor Pete is surging in the polls. Good for the Jews?
It was November of 2007. Democratic candidates were getting ready for the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries, and the race could not have been any clearer: Hillary Clinton was cruising at 44 percent in the polls. Far behind trailed the young senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, with 22 percent, battling John Edwards, who was polling in the low teens.
By early February, Clinton would lose her lead in the polls to Obama, who never looked back and went on to win the nomination.
This is a scenario some are now looking at, as Pete Buttigieg, even younger and less experienced than Obama was at the time, is having his moment. The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana is surging in Iowa, the first state to vote in February. He is now polling at 25 percent, leaving Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in a tight three-way race for second place.
This could be Buttigieg’s Obama moment (or, for those who remember, the Bill Clinton “comeback kid” moment). His supporters are already visualizing the fairytale of the young, gay, centrist Midwesterner who came from nowhere to defeat the Democratic Party’s most seasoned politicians.
But it could also be no more than a blip. In a super-crowded race, with voters split not only along ideological lines but also within the two rival camps of moderates and progressives, Buttigieg can easily be the one benefiting as his competitors fight it out between themselves. But his great polling numbers (and he’s doing pretty well in New Hampshire, too) could also be meaningless. Mayor Pete comes in a distant fourth in a poll gauging voters’ feelings in the 16 first states to vote, and there is little reason to believe, at least for now, that the enthusiasm he is evoking in Iowa or New Hampshire will carry on to states with larger minority voter populations.
But let’s just say that this is a defining moment in Buttigieg’s race to the top.
Does it mean anything to Jewish voters?
As far as policies are concerned, he could be a good fit. Older Jewish voters, who tend to be a tad more cautious on fiscal issues, can appreciate Buttigieg’s positions on healthcare and taxes; younger members of the Jewish community can relate to his personal story and his battle for LGBTQ equality. Both, and that’s a rarity, can probably live well with his policies on Israel.
2. On Israel, Buttigieg is closer to Warren and Sanders than to Biden
He’s seen as a centrist, positioned on the Biden/Harris/Klobuchar side of the Democratic spectrum, rather than on the Sanders/Warren progressive end.
But when it comes to Israel, Pete Buttigieg’s views don’t fit neatly in any box.
At last month’s J Street conference, Buttigieg joined progressive voices within the party when he expressed his support for the idea of leveraging U.S. aid to Israel to ensure that the Israeli government doesn’t annex the West Bank or expand settlements.
But at the same time, Mayor Pete manages not to come across as hostile or antagonistic to pro-Israel mainstream Democrats. His calm demeanor, the lack of a strong progressive constituency pushing him far left on issues relating to Israel and the lack of a relevant voting record all help make his views on Israeli policies more palatable for a broad swath of Jewish Democratic voters.
Speaking to a group of Jewish leaders in meeting hosted by Steve Rabinowitz and Aaron Keyak in Washington, DC earlier this year, Buttigieg described his approach to Israel more as a mentor than as a critic: “The right approach when you have an ally or a friend that is taking steps that you think are harmful to you and to them, you put your arm around your friend and you try to guide them somewhere else,” Buttigieg said.
3. Pete has detailed policies, but not much history with the Jewish community
Buttigieg, as methodical as Elizabeth Warren, has detailed his views on Israel in a major speech on foreign policy he delivered in June. There’s nothing in it that most Jewish pro-Israel Democrats can’t sign off on.
According to a Forward analysis of political contributions, he’s already doing better than other Democrats in bringing in Jewish donors.
But Buttigieg’s major hurdles in winning over Jewish voters remain his age and background. As an under 40 devout Christian coming from a city with a Jewish population of less than 3,000 (though, apparently, with a growing appeal to Orthodox residents), Buttigieg hasn’t had sufficient opportunities to engage with the Jewish community and its leadership. He’s definitely on the radar of the Jewish organizational world, and he has participated in the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange trip to Israel, but there’s just no way he can compare to Joe Biden’s decades of involvement with the community. Biden spoke at Jewish gala dinners, met with Jewish advocacy groups and schmoozed at a fair number of bar mitzvahs before Mayor Pete was even born.
4. The takeaway from Trump’s fundraiser with Orthodox Jews
Much has been said already about Trump’s closed-door meeting with Jewish Orthodox donors in New York last Tuesday.
Trump made headlines when joking he’d run for prime minister of Israel if things go wrong in America; he raised eyebrows with his description of the rocket attack Israel was under as “missiles going in and going out. A very bad day…very scary,” and some have also noted the dismissive tone he took toward Israeli politics (“what kind of a system is it over there? They’re all fighting and fighting. We have different kinds of fights, but at least we know who the boss is”), asking whether it is a sign that he is distancing himself from Benjamin Netanyahu.
But there was something else in his speech, something repeats itself whenever the president speaks to a Jewish-American audience: the lack of distinction between U.S. Jews and Israelis. “I gave you, in Jerusalem, the embassy. That was a big deal,” he told the crowd of American Jews. In previous speeches, he also referred to Israel as “your country” when speaking to American citizens. Last week, Trump added a new element—he admonished the Jewish community for voting by a 3:1 margin for his Democratic rival. “75 percent of your people voted for her… She would never do anything for Israel.”
5. Bipartisanship on Israel still exists
Despite all the mudslinging and mutual accusations, Israel—and this may come as a surprise to some—is still one of the few issues that can get Democrats and Republicans to work together on the Hill. The most recent evidence is legislation introduced last week aimed at helping Israel deal with weaponized drone attacks. Its authors: Democrat Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, and Republican Anthony Gonzalez from Ohio. And this bill is no aberration. Republicans and Democrats have been working together closely for years on pro-Israel issues ranging from foreign aid to missile defense to trade. True, the past few years presented more divisions, especially regarding the anti-BDS legislation and efforts to codify America’s support for a two-state solution. But on a daily basis, politics is often put aside.