To Pete Buttigieg’s many other virtues, add these: He’s not delusional, and he can see beyond himself.
He looked at what happened in South Carolina on Saturday. He looked at what was likely to happen in the many states that will vote Tuesday. And Buttigieg recognized that he had no path to the Democratic presidential nomination and that staying in the race would probably help Bernie Sanders, the rival he had branded a dangerous nominee.
So on Sunday he got out. Just like that. No praying for a miracle. No waiting too long. No protracted melodrama or slow-building drum roll of hints. No, the youngest of the Democratic aspirants did the grown-up thing.
I can only imagine how bitter that felt, given how high he had flown. And I can only hope that he and the rest of us never minimize that altitude.
Some other Democrat will carry the party’s hopes in November. Some other Democrat – please, God – will replace Donald Trump in the White House and both dull the memory of him and clean up his mess.
But no other Democrat will be able to claim a more surprising, disarming showing in 2020 than Buttigieg can. After the first two contests, in Iowa and New Hampshire, he had more delegates than anyone. He finished in the top four in all of the first four states to vote.
That was despite the fact that his highest political office has been mayor of a city with only about 100,000 people. That was despite the fact that he’s 38 and would have been the youngest person ever elected to the presidency.
That was despite the fact that he’s married to another man. For many Democrats, Buttigieg’s sexual orientation made him a trailblazer and was cause for excitement, but for others, it made him a risk and was cause to turn away. The degree of success that he nonetheless enjoyed reflected his ability to rise above stereotypes and identity politics, and to pull voters up with him.
Buttigieg was the first major openly gay presidential candidate, and the wonder of that was how little it was talked about as his bid progressed. Rush Limbaugh, to whom Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in January, was more deviation than norm when he subsequently derided the possibility that Buttigieg, as the Democratic nominee, would be “kissing his husband onstage next to Mr. Man Donald Trump.”
And Buttigieg was in perfect form when asked during a CNN town hall to respond to that. “The idea of the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump lecturing anybody on family values, I mean, sorry, but one thing about my marriage is it’s never involved me having to send hush money to a porn star after cheating on my spouse,” he said. “They want to debate family values, let’s debate family values. I’m ready.” Was he ever.
While some of his critics on the left conducted an offensive debate about whether he was gay enough, he performed an important balancing act, integrating his gayness into his candidacy without letting his candidacy be defined by it, seizing moments to deliver lessons without ever becoming tendentious or tedious, showing the world that being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender or queer is an essential part of who we LGBTQ people are but not all of who we are.
Buttigieg mentioned one of those lessons Sunday night in South Bend, where he gave a big speech announcing his withdrawal from the presidential race. He said that his campaign had “sent a message to every kid out there wondering if whatever marks them out as different means they are somehow destined to be less-than.” They could look at him, he added, “and see that someone who once felt that exact same way can become a leading American presidential candidate with his husband at his side.”
He was talking about the experience of being in a minority and being marginalized – about the sorrow and the fear – and one of the great disappointments of his presidential bid was his inability to build a bridge between himself and others who have had that experience. He was getting better and better at it, though. He was ever more attentive to it – in his last debate, for example, and in his speech Sunday night.
I listened to that speech and realized what most impresses me about him, and it isn’t his intellect per se – the fancy degrees he has, all the languages he speaks – or his crazy poise or the manner in which he handled the novel aspects of his candidacy and persona.
It’s his thoughtfulness. Yes, he got plenty prickly and even somewhat overbearing at moments during the most recent debates, trying to break through as the clock ticked down. But still he wrestled earnestly and eloquently with the meanings of things.
“Politics at its worst is ugly,” he said Sunday night. “But at its best, politics can lift us up. It is not just policymaking. It is moral. It is soul craft.” At his best, Buttigieg demonstrated that.
He has an opportunity over the coming months to demonstrate it further. “I will do everything in my power,” he said, “to make sure we have a new Democratic president come January.”
Mayor Pete, I’m holding you to that. We all are. Because your power is remarkable.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.