How Pete Buttigieg Reframed the Debate

“When Pete runs a race, he often changes frameworks when you think about other candidates or issues,” his campaign manager Mike Schmuhl once told me. That happened again last night.

By Adam Wren and design by Kris Davidson

When he strode onto the debate stage Tuesday night in DetroitPete Buttigieg was in need of that commodity that has become the sine qua non of 2019 presidential politics: A Moment™.

To hear the cable news talkers tell it, Buttigieg might be flush with cash from fawning donors, but he seems to have plateaued in polls of early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

He also needed to deliver a performance that stood out alongside fellow single-digit candidates such as former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, while avoiding attacks telegraphed by O’Rourke’s staffers before the debate on his use of private jets and grassroots fundraisers.

On both fronts, Buttigieg succeeded.

But for much of the second Democratic debate Tuesday, Buttigieg’s biggest foe wasn’t one of his fellow primary contenders but a gnat that buzzed around the candidate’s forehead. When he wasn’t swatting it away, he was evading easy categorization in a contest whose central conflict seemed to be between progressives and moderates.

While Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren teamed up against more moderate candidates like former Rep. John Delaney and Gov. John Hickenlooper over issues such as Medicare for All, Buttigieg reframed the question.

Asked whether the middle class should pay higher taxes in exchange for guaranteed health care and the elimination of insurance premiums, Buttigieg offered this: “We don’t have to stand up here speculating about whether the public option will be better or a Medicare for All environment will be better than the corporate options. We can put it to the test. That’s the concept of my Medicare for All Who Want It proposal.”

Later, the conversation turned to the feasibility of liberal Democratic proposals, and Marianne Williamson suggested that Republicans “will so shut us down.” Buttigieg again reframed the question: “It is time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say. If it’s true that if we embrace a far-left agenda they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. So let’s just stand up for the right policy, go out there and defend it.”

When moderators tried to coax him into making age an issue in the primary, Buttigieg pivoted to what George H.W. Bush once called “that vision thing.” “I don’t care how old you are,” Buttigieg said, as the camera zoomed in on a shot of 37-year-old Buttigieg next to 77-year-old Sanders. “I care about your vision.”

The performance was vintage Buttigieg. “When Pete runs a race, he often changes frameworks when you think about other candidates or issues,” his campaign manager Mike Schmuhl once told me.

Buttigieg also scored some of those precious Moments. When asked about climate change, Buttigieg pointed out the similarities between the candidates’ various approaches, and pivoted to beating Trump. “Nominate me and you get to see the president of the United States stand next to an American war veteran and explain why he chose to pretend to be disabled when it was his chance to serve.”

Subtweeting Republicans in Indiana’s congressional delegation, Buttigieg also had a buzzy critique of their docile approach to Trump’s agenda. “If you are watching this at home, and you are a Republican member of Congress, consider the fact that when the sun sets on your career, and they are writing your story, of all the good and bad things you did in your life, the thing you will be remembered for is whether in this moment, with this president, you found the courage to stand up to him, or you continued to put party over country.”

Republicans, meanwhile, noticed Buttigieg’s ability to speak to both wings of his own party, saying in a post-debate statement that he is “willing to say or do anything to make his mark with a rabid Democrat base who’s demanding socialism from their candidates.”

They also called him a socialist, perhaps proving Buttigieg’s earlier point. “At tonight’s Democrat debate in Detroit, Pete Buttigieg was too scared to admit that he wants to raise taxes on all Americans, waffled on his support of decriminalizing illegal immigration, and embraced his title as an avowed socialist,” RNC spokesperson Michael Joyce said.

After the debate, for the second time this year, Buttigieg skipped a visit to the spin room. He had done the job, his advisers believed. He had no gaffe to clean up.

There was one thing to clean up, he admitted on CNN New Day this morning.

“There were these little kinds of gnats around,” he confessed to Alisyn Camerota. “Maybe I smushed one, and it got on my forehead. I don’t know. I didn’t know about it until after. That’s the thing about having something on your forehead, but hopefully it didn’t distract from the message about what’s at stake in this election.”