Here’s why Pete Buttigieg is talking about foreign policy when few other Democrats are
Pete Buttigieg,. Mayor of South Bend, and Presidential candidate, stopped at Indiana University to lay out his foreign policy plans. IndyStar
At first glance, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg's decision to tackle foreign affairs and national security in his first major policy address was a head-scratcher.
The issue isn't among the top concerns listed by most voters and so seems unlikely to move his poll numbers significantly. But political watchers say Buttigieg, whose campaign has been praised early in the race for its media savvy, was smart to choose it over topics more pressing to most Americans, such as health care or the economy.
They think the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend used the hour-long treatise on foreign affairs last week to blunt criticism he's too inexperienced to lead the United States, reinforcing his time as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan. In the days since, he's been praised bothfor his thoughtful approach to intricate policy issues few candidates have addressed so far, and for delivering it at a place like Indiana University, outside the gaze of the political race.
The strategy likely bolstered his legitimacy among voters and donors who are still deciding whom to support in a crowded field, according to pundits, former politicians and political donors who spoke with IndyStar. He also saw a chance to set himself apart from a crowded field that's largely ignored foreign affairs, they say.
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Of the field of 24 Democratic candidates, only U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have so far delivered speeches on foreign policy.
Buttigieg clearly knew the subject, said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia who watched the speech online. Still, he was taken by how "boyish" the mayor looked and suspected his age will be a nagging problem.
"A lot of people say he is just the mayor of South Bend and there is a big world out there," Sabato said. "He is trying to show people that he knows there is a big world out there and he has a notion about how it should be run."
Buttigieg told reporters after the speech he hoped it bridged that gap for him.
"It's important for people to understand the worldview that frames my work," he said. "Rather than a record of congressional votes, I have a personal record, of course of serving (in Afghanistan), coupled with a view of how America ought to operate in the world."
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020 by declaring that the country "needs a fresh start." Indianapolis Star
'The mayor of South Bend running for president kind of boggles the mind'
Count Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who introduced Buttigieg to the crowd of 1,850 at last week's speech, among those surprised the mayor chose foreign affairs for his first major policy address. Hamilton made his bones in Congress as a deep thinker on foreign policy and is co-namesake of IU's Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.
"He’s very much aware that his experience level is limited in contrast to somebody like (Joe) Biden or Warren or Sanders, where they have a deeper and broader experience base," Hamilton said. "Pete has a limited base. The mayor of South Bend running for president kind of boggles the mind a little."
Hamilton, who hasn't yet backed a presidential candidate, found the speech well-researched and largely aligned with mainstream Democratic thought.
"He put a lot of emphasis on diplomacy and allies," Hamilton said. "He advocated a combination of cooperation and confrontation with China, with an emphasis on American values and goals. He was quite forceful in his criticism of (President Donald) Trump's policies."
Hamilton thought Buttigieg did well at explaining how foreign policy can help Americans at home, something he said candidates don't always do well.
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For instance, Buttigieg said that an unchecked China could dominate the world economy, hurting American interests and businesses. But he thinks tariffs are a 20th-century solution that won't work, a point reinforced by struggling Hoosier farmers who have told IndyStar the U.S. trade war with China is hurting their profits.
Hamilton played a larger role in Buttigieg's Bloomington address than crowd warmer. Buttigieg's campaign called him a few weeks back about delivering a speech at IU.
"I said 'don't come here and give a political speech,' " Hamilton recalls. "If you come here, this is a serious audience and a well-informed and sophisticated audience. Speak on policy, not a cheerleading speech for Democrats. And he stayed away from that, for the most part."
Buttigieg follows the Truman Doctrine
Buttigieg has leaned on a number of former Obama-era officials to develop his foreign policy platform, but experts say it sounded more like President Harry Truman, who famously fought the global spread of Soviet-style communism in the Cold War.
Doug Wilson, who served as assistant defense secretary under President Barack Obama, has emerged as Buttigieg's leading foreign affairs adviser. He's credited with leading the Pentagon's communications strategies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and China. He's also the first openly gay man confirmed by the Senate to a senior-level Pentagon position and played a role in the repeal of the military's"don't ask, don't tell" policy.
During his address, Buttigieg made a point of saying he would counter Russian interference in U.S. elections and the political and economic expansion of China with American Democratic capitalism values. Unlike Obama, who launched military action in at least seven countries, Buttigieg argued for U.S. military intervention only as a last resort, promising an end to "endless wars."
After the speech, Buttigieg told reporters he chose Bloomington for the speech because the heartland can think globally too.
"I think a lot of people envision various oak-paneled halls in the Capitol where they think about foreign policy," he said to reporters. "But part of what I'm trying to achieve and part of what I talked about in the speech is that foreign policy needs to come home and it also needs to include the voices of the heartland."
Buttigieg's campaign did not respond to multiple email and phone messages for comment.
Pundits say the decision on location also was smart strategically. Buttigieg has been campaigning in Iowa, first up among the Democratic caucuses and primaries, but they say the speech would seem too political there.
He could have chosen a place such as California or New York, where he's been aggressively campaigning and raising money. But in the most progressive college town in his home state, pundits say, he was sure to find a large and supportive crowd at an academic setting – which plays well in news clips.
"This was a sober setting for a sober topic," Sabato said, "removed from the immediate politics of the day."
Will it play well for donors?
Buttigieg has told supporters he has raised $7 million in the first quarter and, according to multiple news reports, is poised to double that this quarter, which ends June 30.
Some donors who have been sitting on the sidelines think Buttigieg was wise to tackle foreign affairs early on. It's clearly a perceived gap for Buttigieg, said Jeff Smulyan, a noted Democratic donor from Indianapolis.
He's met with Buttigieg and finds the mayor thoughtful, but hasn't yet decided which candidate to support. Smulyan thinks age and experience will be among the obstacles Buttigieg has to overcome. That being said, Smulyan thinks Democratic supporters who listen to Buttigieg will find him knowledgeable.
"I think (contributors) are looking for someone that resonates with their point of view in the world, but also clearly want to know 'Can this person break through?'" Smulyan said. "People are very pragmatic when it comes to writing checks."
Money is flowing into Buttigieg's campaign, of course, so clearly some donors have heard enough.
Influential Chicago businessman and Democratic activist John Atkinson was one of Buttigieg's early backers. Atkinson is an LGBT ally, he said, and so immediately donated to Buttigieg's campaign this winter, because he felt it was important to have that voice in the conversation.
But as he learned more about Buttigieg, he decided to drive to South Bend to talk to him. Atkinson liked what he's heard and has become a major financial backer, organizing several fundraisers in addition to personally donating. Once folks hear and learn about Buttigieg, Atkinson said, they want to get involved.
Atkinson doesn't think the foreign affairs address was a strategic move. He noted Buttigieg has a military background and said the mayor thinks how America approaches world affairs and national security is one of the most important issues facing the country, linked to climate change, domestic security and economic security.
Still, he conceded the speech might help Buttigieg with Democratic activists unfamiliar with his campaign.
"I think he's trying to make sure that he has got a well-framed rationale for becoming president," Atkinson said. "If you are 37 and mayor of South Bend, people will question whether you can pass the commander in chief test."
Former Democratic congresswoman and Indiana gubernatorial candidate Jill Long Thompson, for whom Buttigieg once worked, thinks the decision to take on one of the more difficult and nuanced topics fits his character.
"It's very reflective of who he is and how he thinks and understands issues in fine detail, but also broadly how different policy areas interrelate," she said. "I think this international policy speech that he delivered at Indiana University fits very well with what his campaign should be doing. I think that he delivered that speech because it’s important to the country, he’s obviously a veteran and he’s very policy-oriented. I think this is just who he is."
Call IndyStar reporter Chris Sikich at 317-444-6036. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSikich.