The Jimmy Carter Theory
Or, What We Talk About When We Talk About Loving Pete Buttigieg
As soon as Donald Trump won the 2016 election, my wife had a theory. Actually, first she had a whiskey, and then she repeated this action, because every action demands an equal and opposite satisfaction. I don’t know if it was the Jameson or the existential terror of a democratic republic electing a game-show host with the emotional intelligence of a toddler, but that’s how my wife (whom you should follow on the Twitter) came up with her Jimmy Carter Theory of presidential politics.
“After Trump, people are going to want the opposite of this. They’re going to want a Jimmy Carter, someone who exudes love,” she said. I don’t remember if she said it exactly like that. Our collective memory of December 2016 is all a little fuzzy. But I do remember what I said next: “Oh, like Pete Buttigieg?”
We knew Pete. Pete, my wife, and I are all members of the Truman National Security Project, and we chatted a bit at Mayor Adler’s home when he came to Austin for the Notre Dame game a few years ago. Which is to say he probably wouldn’t remember my face or my name, but I knew enough about him to know that he had what it took to fill the Jimmy Carter-shaped hole in the primary field — though neither of us anticipated his progressive evangelical appeal that draws the parallel with the former president more obviously.
In fact, she’s far from the only one to come up with this theory. A few months after she articulated this theory, my boss pulled me into his office to talk through an idea he had about a Pendulum Theory. The way he explained it, the next president, or at least the next Democratic nominee, is going to be a reaction to some aspect of Trump’s. In his resulting piece on LinkedIn, he predicted the pendulum would swing either away from ideological extremism toward moderation but allowed that there were other possibilities.
The other way the pendulum could swing is away from rancor and chaos and toward kindness and calm. As I write these words, I can imagine how good that might feel. In a political environment in which confusion and anger are the new normal, perhaps a happier leader such as former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu might be the cure for what ails our political system.
In addition to that, The Economist recently wrote a smart piece about how Mayor Pete’s marriage exemplifies his pairing of liberalism and traditionalism. The article also reminds us that “Newton’s third law of motion also helps predict America’s presidential succession.”
After Richard Nixon’s sleaze, voters picked a Georgian Sunday School teacher who promised never ever to lie to them. After eight years of interracial progress and cool intellectualism from Barack Obama, they chose Donald Trump. Whoever succeeds him is liable to be as different from the know-nothing New Yorker as it is possible to imagine. For a growing number of excited Democrats, this points to Pete Buttigieg.
All of which is to say that a big reason Mayor Pete is climbing out of the margin of error and into statistically significant territory in the polls is not so much that Democrats were hungry for a gay veteran who speaks eight languages, plays Spoon on the piano, and can eloquently tie Mike Pence in a Gordian Knot. Mayor Pete is doing well because we feel good when he talks.
Mayor Pete’s accomplishments and attributes are real, and he represents authentic progress for the queer community. To elect him president, millions of people would be calling on their better angels, which in turn would make us a more perfect union. Also, he’s a nice, thoughtful, smart guy. I’m not arguing that any of this isn’t true.
I am arguing that the reaction to Mayor Pete bears examination, because damn. Upper-middle-class white boys are losing their minds. The Onion smartly satirized both his “chosen one” aura and the commensurate reaction to it with their account of him speaking to a robot in binary code, which is pretty much like that time he busted out in Norwegian to explain to a Norwegian that he learned the language so he could read untranslated novels by a particular author and can you believe how amazing that is? “Into my veins,” as a friend of mine says whenever Mayor Pete makes the news with another boy wonder feat, like that time he expressed sympathy about the Notre Dame fire to a Parisian reporter in perfect French. Into my veins…
It’s been argued that Mayor Pete is fueling patriarchy’s ego, flattering his demographic equivalents with an ideal vision of ourselves, accomplished, kind, and clever, his progressive bona fides demonstrated by the muscular arts of war and sex. He is the man they were told they could grow up to be when they were boys, allowing them both to identify with him and negate the messy sacrifices of identity politics in the bargain.
This all-fired swooning has demonstrated a corollary to this Newtonian law, namely that the longer women are told that female candidates have to wait their turn because some Golden Boy has arrived, the greater their ire will be. While the boys have been exclaiming their good fortune at yet another Wunderkind — the last one was Halfrican-American, this one is gay! — the women have been taking notes and have some questions.
Why is it always the man who gets to be charismatic?
Is it because the candidates are occupying encoded archetypes? Bill was the man from Hope, and Hillary had Fight Song, but not until she conceded to the hope and change guy. In his kickoff speech, Mayor Pete said the word “hope” eight times and never once used the word “fight,” a word that appeared 21 times in Kirsten Gillibrand’s, 23 times in Kamala Harris’s, and 25 times in Elizabeth Warren’s.
Is it because those codes are also embedded in the mostly male press corps? Storybench, a media watchdog group at Northeastern University, found that “female candidates running for president are consistently being described in the media more negatively than their male counterparts.” Meanwhile, FiveThirtyEight’s cable news tracker finds that the men are consistently getting more coverage than the women. It used to be Bernie and Beto dominating cable news mentions. Now it’s Bernie and Buttigieg. Next week it’ll probably be Bernie and Biden, bless their hearts.
Meanwhile, two new southern California members of congress — Katie Porter and Katie Hill — are best known for people not being able to keep their names straight despite Katie Porter (full disclosure: one of my wife’s clients) absolutely having her way with Jamie Dimon in a recent congressional hearing.
Mayor Pete can be as good as he seems. At the same time, the way we react to him can be informed by a bias written in our societal source code. Sometimes we fall in love with someone without realizing that they remind us of our father, our mother. We choose a product because of an emotional bond created by a commercial we forgot we saw. We see a fake headline reposted enough times and conclude that a consensus has been reached about it’s accuracy. To paraphrase the old Jimmie Gilmore song, our minds have minds of their own.
Unless we are aware of what’s going on, we run the risk of ignoring or ruling out candidates who don’t light up our motherboards. Beware of falling in love when we’re supposed to be filling a temp job. Beware of picking someone just like you — or the best version of you — and thinking you’re different when women are wanting to know when it will be their turn. Be aware of your reactions so you can actually choose a new president when we really need one.
Who knows? Maybe the next Jimmy Carter won’t be a smart, kind white male christian veteran but the daughter of a Jamaican economics professor and a breast cancer researcher from India. Maybe it’ll be a Mexican-American identical twin from San Antonio. Maybe it’ll be a no-nonsense economics professor from Oklahoma City. And maybe it’ll be the gay polyglot veteran. Maybe.
But let’s not lie to ourselves and say that we like Mayor Pete just because he speaks eight languages.
What I’m reading
The first line of my dad’s obituary
Richard Holbrooke’s To End a War
If you’re not following Dave Weigel’s series in which he spends weekends hanging out with campaigns, you’re missing some of the clearest-eyed political analysis around. Here he spent a weekend with Bernie.
And if you’re not reading anything Dan Zak writes in the Washington Post, you are doing everything wrong. He shared a byline here on how DC received the Mueller report.
If you’re rewatching movies and revisiting museums, you might be enjoying your life more than you’d expect because science.
I had no idea about a place in Mexico settled by escaping enslaved Americans, how bad things were behind the scenes in horse racing, that mass shootings have little effect on voting, that Twitter trends are shortening by more than an hour a year, that immigrants built Stonehenge, or that writing by hand (as opposed to typing) makes you smarter.
Are you ready for this? Echo chambers are more likely to exist in real life than online. Dude. In fact, “most people already have media habits that help them avoid echo chambers.” Still, fake news is insidious and powerful because our brains aren’t recorders but story-tellers. So when correcting fake news, don’t use facts; tell a story.
Oh, and guilt trip ads like Sally Struthers are increasingly counter-productive.
I suspected that “hardening” schools and arming teachers would not improve school safety, and now science says I’m right.
Boy, this took a couple turns that I don’t want to spoil for you. Pretend you’re reading a straight business column, and go with it. Same with this analysis of what the way you carry your laptop says about you.
This analysis of Trump as the Wrestlemaniac-in-chief makes more sense than most things.
My friend Brendan Steinhauser, who was one of the lead organizer for Tea Party rallies in 2009, has an interesting perspective on how that movement succeeded, and didn’t, a decade in.
Is it focus groups I hate, or Ohio, or swing voters?
The choice isn’t to impeach or not, at least right now. Karen Tumulty raises a third option, Norman Ornstein tweets that the House needs to hold hearings on the Mueller report first before even considering filing articles of impeachment, and Carlos Lozada, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for the Post, writes that the report is the best Trump book yet.
The CIA once redacted a name from a transcript of a public press conference.
While I was busy growing a small business, raising two boys under 10, getting divorced, falling in love again, getting remarried, this woman was doing much of nothing during a decade that remains mostly blurry to me. I’m not saying this to feel superior — I was a mess, really — but to say that my reaction to this post was, “Oh, so that’s what I was missing.”
Our sun had a twin called Nemeses. They broke up a long time ago, and apparently Nemeses was crushed.
What I am and am not writing
I did not write Mayor Adler’s introduction at Mayor Pete’s presidential kickoff, though I wish I had written this part.
What I’m listening to
“Good Looking” by the criminally under-appreciated Jonneine Zapata
“Dear Padre,” a new podcast by my friend David Peters
Lizzo’s album dropped, y’all
What I’m watching
Shrill on Hulu.
The Philadelphia Phillies' Andrew McCutchen dancing in the dugout to "Oh Happy Day."
The trailer for Catch-22 starting Coach Taylor, George Clooney, and Dr. House that I definitely will watch and this trailer for Showtime’s Roger Ailes miniseries that I’m not sure I want to watch. I think I’m going to wait to watch the feature film with Holland Taylor in it.
What promises to be a ponderous conclusion to the Avengers storyline on opening weekend with my two sons and two of their friends, because I am campaigning for Father of the Year.
This dog is a Very. Good. Dog.
THIS BABY ELEPHANT. Did you know baby elephants can die of loneliness? Ndotto is a baby orphaned elephant who needs to bond with other orphaned elephants. WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO NDOTTO??
The karaoke version of Walker Lukens’ new single, “So I Hear You Bought a House.” Let the record show that I was the first one to figure out what she was spelling.
What I’m donating to
This orphanage that my friend started when he was covering a war in Eastern Congo and couldn’t ignore the orphans. He delivered them to a convent, and the nuns took them in. Now he’s back stateside and raising money to help support them. You get to help now, too.