It can be hard to remember that Pete Buttigieg is just 37 — his deep baritone and evenness of tone can often seem like a mismatch with his relative youth among the Democratic field. Buttigieg projected steadiness and thoroughness as he faced questions about his consulting work at McKinsey & Co., his service in Afghanistan, his faith and his challenges in attracting support from minorities and younger voters, despite being the youngest candidate in the contest. He bristled at suggestions that his McKinsey work involved bread price fixing in Canada and claimed ignorance of the “Mayo Pete” memes popular on the internet among millennials. (“I get the white part,” he said.)
Pete Buttigieg Says He's More Than a Résumé
This interview was conducted by the editorial board of The New York Times, which will announce its Democratic primary endorsement on Jan. 19.
Here is a transcript, with [annotations in bracketed italics], of the 80-minute discussion, which was filmed for a special episode of “The Weekly,” The Times’ TV show on FX and Hulu. The transcript is unedited.
Pete Buttigieg: Well, thanks for having me over.
Kathleen Kingsbury: Thank you for coming. So, we have heard you obviously talk about health care and climate and the Middle East a lot in the debates, so we’re going to try to ask you some questions we haven’t heard you answer in the past, and you will be shocked to hear that we’d like to start with your time at McKinsey. You graduated from Oxford with sterling credentials. You could have pursued any number of career paths from there, including the choice you ultimately made to join the military. [The week of Buttigieg’s interview, he had just released his client list from his tenure at McKinsey. When he began his mayoral campaign in South Bend, he leaned heavily on his McKinsey credentials. In a campaign speech, he said: “I am the only candidate with experience working on billion-dollar decisions, helping to turn around major companies around the country and around the world.”] Can you walk us through why you decided to go to McKinsey from there?
PB: Yeah, so the biggest thing was that I had a great academic education, but I was beginning to feel that there wasn’t as much real-world experience mixed in with it. That in particular, I was eager to do as many things as I could, touching as many fields as I could, and to understand business in particular, about how people and money and goods move around the world and how that works.
KK: So you didn’t just want to make a lot of money? [A typical starting salary for analysts at McKinsey is now roughly $85,000 before annual bonuses.]
PB: What’s that?
KK: You didn’t just want to make a lot of money?
PB: I definitely noticed the paycheck and that was important, too. [Buttigieg said he lived off his savings from McKinsey during his first two runs for office.] I needed to make a living. Yeah. I’m not going to pretend that that wasn’t on my mind, too.
Binyamin Appelbaum: We’d like to talk about some of those real-world experiences. So one of the companies you worked for, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, you said that you were analyzing costs there, and after you completed that project, the company moved ahead with hundreds of layoffs and rate increases. [Blue Cross Blue Shield was Buttigieg’s first assignment at McKinsey. He worked there for three months in 2007. After he left, the company cut as many as 1,000 jobs, or nearly 10% of its workforce, according to The Times.] Did you understand that what you were doing as a McKinsey consultant at that company that you were working to prepare for layoffs and price increases?
PB: I had nothing to do with premiums, prices, fees or anything like that. Mostly what my team was looking at was overhead. There’s no way to know the relationship between analysis I did in 2007 and decisions they made in 2009, [Blue Cross Blue Shield announced its layoffs in January 2009, after the company reported a loss of about $140 million. The company also announced that it would freeze pay for nonunion workers and cut 25% of discretionary spending.] but certainly our focus was making sure that cost was under control there.
BA: You surely understood why a company like that would hire McKinsey to come in. Yeah?
PB: How do you mean?
BA: When companies hire consultants, they’re usually trying to reduce their costs, right?
PB: I think that’s the only cost-cutting study I did out of all my time at McKinsey, so I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that that’s what most consulting work is. [One of Buttigieg’s McKinsey clients was the Postal Service, which called in McKinsey to address widening revenue losses. In a 2010 report, McKinsey recommended cost cutting by, among other things, replacing unionized career employees with a “more flexible” workforce.]
BA: So it surprised you when that resulted in layoffs and price increases cases. That didn’t seem like what you would’ve done if you had had that information. [Over time, Buttigieg has distanced himself from the work he did at McKinsey. When he was running for Indiana state treasurer in 2010, it was a key part of his campaign pitch.]
PB: I wasn’t following news out of Michigan in 2009, so I found that out since, but yeah, I’m not surprised. I mean, if an organization needs to cut costs, then that can involve layoffs.
BA: Another of your clients, Loblaws, the grocery chain, has since said that it was involved in the price fixing of bread during the time that you were analyzing grocery prices for them. [In December 2017, Loblaws admitted to participating in a more than 14-year-long scheme to inflate the price of packaged bread. The revelation came from a Competition Bureau criminal investigation into the country’s bread price-fixing.] I’m curious first, just, did you analyze the price of bread for them? Is that part of your agreement?
PB: Not in any detail. Basically the way my job worked was, they have about 50,000 items that they sold and I was creating and then crunching a database. [Buttigieg was tasked with building an analysis that could help the company cut its prices without hurting the bottom line.] What we would do is we would figure out, based on a year’s worth of sales, if they tried to cut a certain percent off their prices across a certain number of hundreds of stores, what would the impact of that be? So, bread was probably one of the U.P.C. codes in there, but I didn’t pay attention to one product over another.
BA: When you were working at McKinsey, did you understand the company’s purpose to be exclusively maximizing its own profitability? Did you understand the purpose of the companies you worked for to be exclusively to maximize their profitability?
PB: Well, many of my clients as, you know, were public sector and nonprofits, so obviously their function is not about profitability. But yes, I worked for a company, a for-profit company. [Two-thirds of Buttigieg’s clients at McKinsey were nonprofit or public sector, including the Energy Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Postal Service and the Department of Defense.]
BA: Do you think that that should be the sole mission of a corporation, though, to maximize profitability?
PB: Well, I think that there’s something to be said for the dialogue that’s happening with, for example, what’s going on in the Business Roundtable, but also this is where policy needs to come in. [In August, the Business Roundtable, a lobbying organization that represents many of the country’s largest companies, issued a statement redefining the purpose of a corporation. In addition to advancing the interests of shareholders, the group said, companies must also protect the environment, invest in employees and commit to ethical engagement with suppliers. ] We can’t expect corporate America to spontaneously change what it is about, without imposing different kinds of left and right boundaries.
To me, where the public sector and the function of regulation meets what private companies do is precisely to set up those kinds of boundaries. I welcome any time a company undertakes what is called corporate social responsibility, charitable activity or other factors in what they care about. I have been very interested to see the development of things like a B Corps, which has been a big conversation, especially around South Bend actually. Because one of the pioneering ones was a company called Better World Books that grew kind of up and around Notre Dame. [B Corporations are companies certified for meeting high social, ethical and environmental standards. Better World Books, an online bookseller, became a founding B Corp in 2007. B Corps are certified by a nonprofit called B Lab. There are now more than 3,000 such businesses.] But I also don’t think we should be naïve about how corporations behave unless they are regulated to ensure that their profit-seeking activities don’t cause harm.
KK: In your view, if a company engages in criminal conduct, are the employees responsible for that conduct?
PB: Well, obviously there’s a whole theory in law about how liability works, but yeah, if somebody undertakes illegal behavior, they are as a general rule liable and should be.
BA: But bring that down to the practical level then: If you’re working for a consultant to a company that’s engaged in a massive price-fixing scheme, what’s your responsibility?
PB: Well, if you have anything to do with any wrongdoing, then you’re responsible.
BA: You have criticized some of McKinsey’s more recent engagements with clients. Do you think that something fundamental has changed about the company since you left? [In December, ProPublica and The Times reported that McKinsey consultants had recommended in 2017 that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement cut spending on food and medical care for detained migrants. When asked about the reporting at a campaign event, Buttigieg said: “The decision to do what was reported yesterday in The Times is disgusting. And as somebody who left the firm a decade ago, seeing what certain people in that firm have decided to do is extremely frustrating and extremely disappointing.”]
PB: It’s difficult from the outside looking in to gauge whether this reflects some kind of systemic shift or whether they just have a failure in terms of their guardrails. When I was there, there was a lot of talk about values. Firm values. Now, a lot of that was around impact and making sure that you put the client’s interest first. There’s one story that they were proud of that I remember was part of our training. Where they had gotten some big contract to help a large multinational move into China, and it was going to lead to tons of work. But in the initial analysis, while they were doing their first round of work, the conclusion they reached was that this company shouldn’t go to China at all. [McKinsey’s work with Chinese state-owned companies has recently come under fire. The firm has advised at least 22 of the 100 largest state-owned companies in China. Times reporting revealed that one of McKinsey’s Chinese clients helped build China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea. This was after Buttigieg left the firm.] So, the story, at least the story as it was told within the firm, was that they gave the right advice, even though it cost them, right? So, you would hear a lot about a certain kind of ethic, but it was always about putting the client’s interest first.
What you didn’t hear as much was about whether what the client was doing had moral consequences that the firm didn’t want to touch. I believe I remember a decision not to serve tobacco had been made by the time I was there. But my point is, there seems to be a problem there with assessing what they want to be associated with. Definitely with the ICE work, with the Saudi work, where you just say, this is a company that’s good at helping clients meet objectives. [McKinsey worked with the Saudi Arabian government to analyze public opinion on the monarchy’s most important policies. The firm singled out three people who drove anti-government conversation on Twitter; one was subsequently arrested.] But some of those objectives are not something we want anything to do with, and I think they need to step back and reassess what kind of client work they should take on in the first place.
KK: So you have portrayed a lot of the work that you did for McKinsey, like many analysts and junior staffers starting out in consulting, as mainly crunching data and making PowerPoint presentations and shuffling paper, more or less. Of course, there are also junior consultants and contractors who go to do government work, like Edward Snowden and Reality Winner, who see something that they think is wrong and decide to speak up. [Snowden is a former subcontractor with the National Security Agency who leaked information about the NSA’s surveillance activities in 2013. Reality Winner is a former Air Force linguist and intelligence contractor who leaked a government report about Russian hacking. She was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison, the longest sentence ever imposed for leaking government information to the media.] Can you tell us your opinion of Mr. Snowden and Ms. Winner’s actions?
PB: Well, I think that we ought to have whistleblower protections so that folks like that are not forced to choose between maintaining classified information and speaking up about wrongdoing. It may well be the case that we’re seeing the whistleblower concept work in the way in which the current Ukraine process and investigation came about.
KK: So you think of Edward Snowden as a whistleblower? [Under President Barack Obama, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that Snowden “is not a whistleblower” because he did not follow established protocol for releasing confidential information.]
PB: Not necessarily. I think he could have been, if that framework existed. Instead I think of him as somebody who divulged classified information.
KK: OK. By some estimates, the federal government’s work force is between 40% and 70% made up of contractors. [A 2017 report from New York University professor Paul Light estimated that four out of every 10 people who work for the U.S. government are private contractors, about 3.7 million people.] What do you think of that ratio? What should it be ideally?
PB: I think it’d be arbitrary to just say there’s some number that should be contractors. What I think we need to do, across our economy, and in some ways the federal government reflects this, is remove some of the magic between being an employee and being a contractor. [The Times editorial board has condemned the labor practices of companies like Google that rely heavily on contractors because they do not have to offer their contractors the same benefits afforded full-time workers.] So I think the biggest example we’re seeing of this in the new economy is, of course, with the gig economy, right?
This idea that you can drive for Uber and somehow not be a worker because you are contractor. [In September, California’s State Assembly passed a bill narrowing the definition of who can be classified as a contractor rather than employee. Uber responded by saying its drivers are contractors because transportation isn’t the company’s primary business.] A lot of this is about getting around labor standards. A lot of this is about cost-saving. Now, if we had a benefit structure in this country that was not only portable but also prorated, then we would be able to remove some of the magic that creates an incentive to have people be contractors rather than employees, and some of the incentives to be a part-time employer versus a full-time employer as well, for people who are employees on the books.
There will always be times, certainly in my administration, there’ve been times when I’ve turned, in particular, to law firms to supplement the work that our in-house legal team could do and other consultants with specialized expertise or some area where it just made more sense. Of course that’s the case in the federal government too. But if it’s just a way to get around the obligations of having an employee, then I think it needs to be reassessed and the more that can be brought in house, the better. I guess what I’m saying is we can make some changes in our economy and our benefits systems that would reduce some of the pressure to do that in the first place.
KK: This is just a yes or no question, but would you advise a senior at Harvard today to go to work at McKinsey?
PB: Depends on the senior. I mean I get questions from people who are thinking about joining the military, as well as consulting companies, as well as political campaigns. I’ll tell you when I was a senior at Harvard, they came around then, too. The standard that I had for myself was, your early 20s are such a precious time that you should prioritize what you’re going to get out of your experience, way more than anything a paycheck can offer you in your early 20s and, for me, it didn’t meet that standard when I was leaving college. [Directly out of college, in 2005, Buttigieg went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship.]
KK: OK. We’re going to pivot to a new topic if you don’t mind.
Mara Gay: Mr. Mayor, can you explain the mistakes that were made around your Douglass Plan? Why did your campaign falsely claim support from black leaders and then use tokenizing stock photos? Can you just talk about how that happened? [In July, the Buttigieg campaign released “The Douglass Plan: A Comprehensive Investment in the Empowerment of Black America.” The campaign released a list of 400 South Carolinians who supported the plan but faced blowback when some said the campaign was intentionally vague about whether they were endorsing the plan or the mayor’s candidacy. The plan was also criticized for featuring a stock photo of a Kenyan woman, who later reached out to The Intercept to voice confusion about her inclusion.]
PB: My understanding is that no false statement has ever been made about somebody’s support for the plan. My understanding is that there were miscommunications about the public rollout of people’s names, all of whom had indicated at some point support for the plan, but not all of whom had reconfirmed that they were up for —— [The Buttigieg campaign said it sent the plan to a list of South Carolinians and told them they could opt out if they didn’t want to appear on the supporter list. Johnnie Cordero, chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party’s Black Caucus, was listed as a supporter, but his name no longer appears on it and he said he did not endorse the Douglass Plan nor Buttigieg.]
MG: Right. They called it misleading.
PB: — having their names attached to that. So that was a process mistake, obviously, that led to changes in how we communicate with supporters and people that we’re in dialogue with about our policies. I don’t know as much about the stock photo. I think it was on the website until September. I know that the vendor who was involved in running that part of the website or adding that kind of imagery has not been with the campaign for a while [The stock photo was removed from the Buttigieg campaign’s website in September.] and obviously that was a mistake.
MG: How can you win the Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency, without the support of black voters? [Black voters will make up about 25% of voters in the Democratic primaries, according to FiveThirtyEight and NBC. They will be a majority in Alabama and Mississippi. A recent Economist/YouGov survey put Buttigieg at 2% among black voters.] What do you make of the lack of support for your campaign from that community so far?
PB: Well, I believe, first of all, that we’re earning support from black voters. I became mayor and was re-elected as mayor, largely because of support from every constituency, [Politico analyzed data from the 2011 and 2015 mayoral elections in South Bend and found that Buttigieg won the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods, but he lagged when facing black primary challengers.] including the black community in my city. I believe that it is —
Brent Staples: What’s the percentage of black citizenship there?
PB: About 25%. I carried every district, including the minority-majority districts in our city, in primaries and generals, both times. [Census data indicates that about a quarter of South Bend’s population is black. Politico’s analysis found that Buttigieg’s support from the black community declined between his first and second runs for mayor.] I believe that anyone who proposes to be the president ought to be a president for everybody and also in particular, given what African Americans are up against in the United States today, that the message of the Democratic Party needs to be one that speaks to black voters where they are. It’s one of the reasons we’re being very intentional about that.
Now, I don’t want to plunge in on polling numbers, but the last couple of rounds that came back suggested that the way that I’m viewed among black voters is roughly the same in terms of the proportions as among white voters. But far more black voters say they don’t know me or don’t have an opinion. I think part of this reflects the fact, certainly something I hear from a lot of black voters, that folks feel not only abused by the Republican Party but often taken for granted by the Democratic Party. So the trust that you can build through quantity of time, through longevity, is very important. I don’t have the kind of longevity that obviously some of my competitors —
MG: So how do you overcome that?
PB: So two things. First of all, the substance of what we have to offer. I’m really proud of what’s in the Douglass Plan. [Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan, named for the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, aims to reduce the country’s prison population by 50%, address maternal mortality in the black community and increase funding for historically black colleges and universities among many other aims.] It’s praised as the most comprehensive plan on dealing with systemic inequality put forward by a presidential candidate. Not, of course, because I sat in a room and thought up all these brilliant ideas, but because we had a lot of conversation and a lot of dialogue and fit our values to a plan to move forward. The more I communicate that plan, the better received it is and the better received I am.
But I also think before a lot of folks care what’s in your plan, they need to know what’s in your heart. And I’m working in not just traditional campaign formats — big speeches and TV appearances — but also we’ve been doing more and more quiet and smaller engagements.
Our recent tour to the South, for example, had a lot of conversations that were between 20 and 50 people. Some of them very targeted around a policy issue like health equity or minority entrepreneurship. Some of it more about making sure that I was speaking to and hearing from folks who had been overlooked. So when we were in South Carolina, for example, we were with an almost all-black Democratic group in Allendale County. This is early presidential primary state, right? They hadn’t seen a presidential candidate in more than a decade, and you could feel the extent to which they felt overlooked. Those kinds of engagements I think are very important, too. It’s not just about obviously, our goal to win, it’s about deserving to win. I think that kind of dialogue coupled with all of the things that you do in traditional campaigning is really important right now.
MG: Your plans for tackling income inequality are not quite as detailed as some of the other candidates’. For example, your policies on an inclusive economy say somewhat vaguely that you’re going to knock down unfair barriers to entrepreneurship. [A key feature of Buttigieg’s plan for an inclusive economy is his Walker-Lewis Initiative, which aims to triple the number of entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities in the next decade.] What would that look like?
PB: Sure. So first of all, we know that there are challenges to access to credit. [Black families on average have one-tenth the wealth of white families; a key factor is that black, Hispanic and young people are more likely to be denied credit.] In fact, virtually every small African American-owned business that I’ve visited in this campaign, I ask, how’d you get started? How’d you get your startup money? They always say they had to come up with the cash. That’s a pattern of course that’s borne out on everything from how mom-and-pop businesses experience commercial banking to the well-documented fact of VC [venture capital] money, almost all going to a small handful of people and kinds of people in a certain number of places.
So there are things we can do about that. One thing we can do is capitalize CDFIs better — Community Development Financial Institutions — that have a much better track record of in turn supporting minority entrepreneurship. The way I would do it would be a 5X CRA super credit for any of the larger institutions to flow funds into CDFIs. [Community Development Financial Institutions are private institutions created to provide financial services in underserved communities, particularly low-income people. They include Community Development Banks, Community Development Credit Unions, Community Development Loan Funds and Community Development Venture Capital Funds.]
Another thing we can do is direct co-investment — this is part of our Walker-Lewis Initiative — in businesses led by those who are underrepresented. There’s precedent for this with TEDCO in Maryland, and I think that kind of co-investment could be very powerful. We’ve seen it in other countries — you actually see it in the Israeli startup community with state-supported grants.
Part of it is looking at other things that need to be reformed in credit scoring and credit systems generally, and then part of it is a little deeper in the chain of cause and effect, right? Where we know how much of the wealth in this country is inherited, not just among the ultrawealthy but just in general.
PB: And how that flows through the implications for homeownership and access to education and health and all the other things that become barriers to folks being able to be empowered economically as they grow up.
KK: Who do you consider to be your most important advisers within the African American communities, but also communities of color in general?
PB: Well, first of all, our campaign team, we were about — overall, I think we’re about 40% people of color. [At an NAACP forum in Detroit last summer, Buttigieg was questioned on the inadequate racial diversity of his “top-tier staff” on the campaign. The Intercept reported that of nine top city department heads in South Bend, seven are white. Of Buttigieg’s six executive staff members in South Bend just two were nonwhite.]
I will turn to anybody from the local organizer in a given county that we’re traveling to in South Carolina to senior figures like Brandon Neal, our senior adviser on the campaign who’s got a great track record from the Obama White House and the NAACP. Or folks like our national investment chair, Swati Mylavarapu, who can speak a lot to some of those capital-formation issues. [Brandon Neal previously served as the national political director at the Democratic National Committee. He also worked for the NAACP and the 2008 Obama campaign. Swati Mylavarapu is a former Silicon Valley tech executive and investor.] We try to make sure that I’m listening to everybody I can learn from. I don’t always start by getting permission for whether I can name check them, but a lot of conversation going on.
MG: Sorry. Just real quick, have you been to the museum in Montgomery? [Gay is referring to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, sites dedicated to victims of white supremacy and especially lynching.]
PB: I have. Yeah. Very recently, and it is haunting because it evokes things that I’ve seen in places like Cambodia, and it’s on American soil. The way they’ve constructed it is, I think, it forces you to understand the relationship between past, present and future. That’s, of course, all the brilliant work that Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative are doing. The fact that it arose out of activism on the death penalty, for example, in Alabama, a state that does not offer counsel past trial and, I think, maybe first appeal for the indigent even on death row, shows you that this is not just about marking something that happened. [Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, was inspired to push for the creation of the memorial by criminal justice reform work he was doing in Alabama. The museum has an exhibit about Anthony Ray Hinton, who was wrongfully convicted by an all-white jury and spent 28 years on death row.] This is about connecting all of the patterns of injustice and surfacing the violent nature of that injustice in a way that forces us to contend with how it’s all connected.
BS: The death penalty as we know it evolved out of lynching.
PB: Yes, as we know it, for sure. Which is, by the way, part of why I’m calling for a constitutional amendment to end the death penalty. [This is included in Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan.] Anyway, it was a very powerful experience, and I think it’s very important for us to view not as an antiquarian kind of thing, but as a touchstone for what we’ve got to deal with right now.
Aisha Harris: Mr. Mayor, you recently said that the failures of the old normal help explain how we got to Trump. Where does Obama fit into all of that? Because he was in office for eight years. I know you were misquoted at one point on that part. [At a rally in November, Buttigieg said: “I think the failures of the old normal help explain how we got to Trump. I am much more interested in building a future that is going to have a lot of differences.” The L.A. Times initially wrongly quoted him as saying “the failures of the Obama era.”]
PB: You noticed.
AH: Yes, but Obama was in office for eight years. So where does he fit into the old normal as you see it?
PB: Well, first of all, let’s acknowledge that under President Obama, the Great Depression was avoided. Osama bin Laden was brought to justice. Health care was extended to millions of Americans. The auto industry was, was rescued in our country, is pretty good for eight years work. I also think that ——
BS: That’s the other thing that — sorry to interrupt you. The other thing to that is the number of racist hate groups kind of quintupled under his leadership. [In February 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the number of hate groups had grown for the fourth consecutive year. Before that, there were three consecutive years of decline under President Obama.] I mean the mere fact of a black person in the White House brought that about.
PB: Which is why we can’t treat the Trump phenomenon as a blip or an anomaly. I mean this is surfacing things that — as in a different way, the arrival of the first African American president surfaced things that — of course, had been here all along.
We’re going to have to reckon with the extent to which Trump and Trumpism reflect a lot more about America than we might want to admit. Now, he was also, I think, capitalizing on a wave of populism that was responsive to what I would call a 40-year-long Reagan era that President Obama was the last Democratic president serving within. [It is widely argued that the 1970s ushered in a new era of neoliberalism, whose economic and social policies put capitalism and free market competition at its core.] In other words, he was constrained by an atmosphere, a neoliberal consensus, where even for Democrats, most of the time, the only thing you could ever say you were going to do to a tax was cut it. There was this set of constraints that has dominated our political conversation leading to the conflagration that is Trump and Trumpism, and we’ve got to find our way out of it to something new.
AH: So how do you plan to sort of dismantle that old regime? Because in part, one of the issues that I think a lot of especially young people have is that you don’t seem nearly as progressive or as revolutionary in some ways as some of the other candidates. That’s something a lot of young people are looking for. So how do you — can you explain in a little bit more detail how you think about that?
PB: Yeah. Sure. First of all, what I’m proposing would make me the most progressive president in the lifetimes, not only of young people, but I mean, certainly in the last half century. I’ll also say that it matters that we hold together an American majority that is progressive enough that it unlocks possibilities that were not available even 10 years ago during the Obama presidency. So it took everything that the Democratic Party had just to push through a health care reform in the ACA, invented by conservatives. Right? [The central features of the Affordable Care Act were modeled by Gov. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts and advanced by economists at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation.] And that was a major achievement.
But that was as far as you could get during the constraints of that time. Where we are right now is that there is a powerfully large, not everybody obviously, but a powerfully large American majority. Not only to do the right thing on areas where Democrats have generally been trusted — wages, labor, health — but also areas where we’ve been on defense, like immigration, guns.
Holding that majority together is a big part of the task of the next president. I’m not just talking about how to win an election. I’m talking about how to govern this country. We need to have enough clarity of vision that we can see that the boldness of an idea is not measured only by how many people it can alienate, but by what it can get done. So there’s always a more extreme solution on offer that sometimes I’ll be competing with. But I also want to be very clear that what I’m talking about would make the next era — what I’m proposing we do would make the next era very different from the one we’ve been living.
AH: Well, one ——
PB: That’s my concern is to make that happen.
AH: So one final question. How do you convey that to younger voters? How do you counter the “Mayo Pete” memes? Are you familiar? [The “Mayo Pete” memes feature Buttigieg’s supporters dancing to Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes”; the “mayo” name plays on the idea that, as Mel Magazine explains, Buttigieg is seen by some as “bland and overwhelmingly white.”]
PB: I’m not. Do I want to know?
BS: You haven’t heard that expression?
AH: Well, mayonnaise as I think, and a lot of people think is really, really gross and there have been teens ——
BS: Wait a minute. [LAUGHTER ]
AH: Let’s not get off track.
BS: Wait a minute!
AH: Anyway, people feel strongly about mayo. There have been younger people — there’s a meme going around called “Mayo Pete,” and that I think does speak a little bit to the lack of youth support that you currently hold, even compared to those who are significantly older. [A New York Times/Siena College poll in November found that young voters ranked Buttigieg as their third choice, behind Sens. Warren and Sanders.]
KK: A more generous interpretation is it’s bland.
John Broder: White.
Several others: And white. [LAUGHTER]
PB: I get the white part.
AH: I didn’t mean to imply that you’re gross . [LAUGHTER] That’s not what I meant.
PB: Well, first of all — again, try to get folks to look at how big these ideas are. I mean I’m talking to them about the biggest reform in the American health care system we’ve had since Medicare was invented. I’m talking about a game-changing transformation on the availability of funds to go to college. I’m talking about getting our climate carbon neutral by 2050.
That will test the limits of human capacity, and there will always be some folks who say, it’s not real. Health care reform isn’t real unless you obliterate the entire private industry. College isn’t real unless even the child of a billionaire can go without paying a penny in tuition. The climate change thing doesn’t count unless it’s trillions more dollars than it is, and that’s just not how I measured the bigness of an idea.
BA: If I can put this question in a slightly different way, you’ve been on the front lines of corporate downsizing. You’ve been on the front lines of corporate price fixing.
PB: Whoa, whoa whoa, that’s, that’s, I’m sorry, that’s —
BA: You’ve been on the front of our misadventures in foreign policy. You’ve had direct experience in many of the things that make a lot of young people very angry about the way that this country is operating right now. You don’t seem to embody that anger. [In 2003, Buttigieg — then a junior at Harvard — spoke at an anti-war rally in Cambridge, Massachusetts, protesting the invasion of Iraq. More than a decade later, in 2014, he served seven months in Afghanistan as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserves.]
PB: So the proposition that I’ve been on front lines of corporate price fixing is bullshit. Just to get that out of the way.
BA: You worked for a company that was fixing bread prices.
PB: No, I worked for a consulting company that had a client that may have been involved in fixing or was apparently in a scandal. I was not aware of the Canadian bread pricing scandal until last night. [Buttigieg’s campaign has maintained that he only recently heard of the bread price-fixing scheme and while he was working with Loblaws focused on price cuts more broadly across the grocery store chain.]
BA: Do you feel the anger that many young people feel about the state of —
PB: Yeah, of course, because it destroyed my city. I grew up surrounded by crumbling factories and empty houses. My city lost 30,000 of its 130,000 people, largely before I was born. [South Bend had an unemployment rate of 13% in 2010. Under Mayor Buttigieg, it fell to 3.2%, though it rose back to 4.3% in 2018.] So I’m under no illusions about the problems that are present in American capitalism generally and were unleashed beginning with the Reagan era specifically. And while I may not be as emotive sometimes about my sense of anger or frustration or injustice — and I would argue that some people are given more room to be emotive than others — I would not be doing any of this if I were not propelled by a level of passion.
Look, let’s talk about why I walked away from the private sector in order to go to Indiana to run as a statewide Democratic candidate during the Tea Party wave of 2010 on a platform of defending Barack Obama’s economic policy, knowing that I would in all likelihood get my ass handed to me, which is what happened. [Buttigieg ran for Indiana state treasurer in 2010 and lost to Republican Richard Mourdock by nearly 25 percentage points. Mourdock was a Tea Party Republican.] But recognizing that the treatment of autoworkers by our incumbent state treasurer in a dispute — which very few people followed, but really fired me up — showed everything that was wrong about the way that our politicians, our corporations, our workers and our communities were interacting. And even though I didn’t win, as expected, I also never regretted the fact that even though I spent down all of my savings doing it with an income of, I think, 450 bucks a month from the Navy being what I had during that year.
KK: So much for those McKinsey dollars, right?
PB: Well, I spent them all, right? I saved them up, and then I spent them all. This is one of the reasons why I’m, by far, the least wealthy person running for president right now. [Forbes estimates that Buttigieg is the least wealthy candidate in the 2020 Democratic field.] I guess my point is my decision to take on that fight and subsequently my decision to serve my hometown at the time that it was written off as dying. Having burned through my lavish McKinsey savings and now going into credit card debt was propelled by my acute awareness of the things that are wrong.
BS: When you say you — just a little aside there, some people are given latitude to be more emotive than others. What are you talking about?
PB: I just think that — you are sometimes asked to ——
BS: You being Pete.
PB: Yeah, sure. I am sometimes asked to be more, I don’t know, have more of a flourish in displaying my emotions, and it is precisely because I feel very strongly about lots of things that I have learned to master how I might feel about anything and channel that into action. Now, I still take great pleasure in firing up a crowd that agrees with me on something I’m passionate about. But I’m also mindful as the new guy that maybe waving my arms is not the best way to convey what I care about.
Jesse Wegman: But who’s given more room to be emotive than you?
JW: Who is given more room to be emotive than you are?
PB: Others. [LAUGHTER]
Nick Fox: Let me get back to Aisha’s question for —
Michelle Cottle: You’re looking to distinguish yourself within a sprawling field of candidates. What do you see as real advantages or challenges as being the first openly gay candidate for a major party? [As recently as 2007, just 55% of voters said they would support a gay or lesbian candidate according to FiveThirtyEight.]
BS: And I have a related question to that, kind of piggy back on it. You’ve talked about your decision not to come out over some period of your life, and I believe we recorded you in a story of saying at some point you thought that coming out would be a political death, a career death sentence. Could you just recap again why you decided to come out when you did, and if you feel you’ve handled that in a way — what emotional residue is left over from that? You feel you hid too long? Or do you — what’s the residual of that previous hidden life?
PB: Well, between the time I figured out I was gay and the time I came out, was a period of consciously avoiding love, and that has a certain cost, it has a certain weight. On the other hand, I was also very busy in a very meaningful and very fulfilling job, certainly during my time as mayor. So, I’m not sure I felt the cost as keenly as I would have if I were working 40 hours a week or if I had a job that didn’t give me as much meaning, which I think numbed me a little bit to the effect.
What put me over the edge was the experience of the deployment, where you have that experience where you write the letter, and you put it where your folks can find it if you don’t come back. [The Times’ podcast “The Daily” has an episode focused on Buttigieg’s decision to come out, featured in its series of interviews with candidates on pivotal moments in their lives.] And I remember writing words that I really meant about how I did not want anyone to think, if my life were short, that I had been cheated because I’d had such a full and wonderful life, even at a young age. But also, knowing that I was preparing for the risk of dying at an age where most of my peers had something I didn’t, which is to know what it was like to be in love. And that was untenable.
So, by the time I came back, I knew I had to do it, but there was the question of how. Right? By then “don’t ask, don’t tell” was over, so it didn’t mean ending my military career. There was every indication it might mean ending my political career. And I reached the conclusion that I had to take that risk, that was OK, but also, I had some measure of faith in my community, that at least my current job might be something that I could earn another shot at based on the work I did.
But as somebody who lives in Indiana, and needless to say, as somebody who was not computing the possibility of running for president in 2020 when I was going through these personal deliberations in 2015, I recognized that it might constrain, not to say end, a political future I would have in Indiana. As to what it means big picture, I’ll tell you. A couple of things that it means right now, which are very powerful, which is young people letting me know that I’m helping them in some way just by doing this. And not even just young queer people, the really exciting thing — I’ve shared this story many times on the trail — was when a teenager let me know that my campaign helped her feel like she had a sense of belonging in her school and her environment even though she had autism. So, that idea of representing difference in a way that validates others.
MC: This makes you less mayo.
PB: Maybe. Hopefully it’s at least a better flavor. I don’t know.
KK: No longer gross.
BS : Basil mayo.
PB: I actually hate flavored mayo — they do this avocado stuff now and it — because I only use mayo when I’m making tuna salad. [LAUGHTER] And I want it as straightforward as possible.
BS: That’s a joke?
PB: No, it’s high-protein. It’s very affordable.
BS: OK. I thought you’re making a joke.
PB: You can put it on toast. Anyway, where was I? Yeah. Sorry. [LAUGHTER] So, then you have older folks who, and it’s not unusual — I would say every rope line, well maybe not every rope line, but often, somebody comes up to me, looks at me, starts to try to say something and can’t. They’re usually in their 50s or older, and I know exactly what they’re saying and that’s all it takes. And that is extraordinary.
It’s not why I got into this race, but it’s part of what this campaign means, and I’m very mindful of that. I’m also very mindful from a historic perspective that usually when somebody had — well, we don’t have nearly enough examples, but when somebody’s broken a barrier going into the presidency, it’s usually not been the first person to make the attempt. So, the first woman president will not be the first woman to run for president. The first African American president was not the first African American to run for president. So, analytically, I’m conscious of the fact that I seek the presidency, if elected, I’d be the first out gay president, and I’m the first elected official to make the attempt. [The first woman to run for president is often credited as Victoria Woodhull, a stockbroker and newspaper publisher who ran in 1872. The first African American to run for president was George Edwin Taylor in 1904. The son of a slave, Taylor ran as the candidate of the National Negro Liberty Party.]
MC: Do you feel a burden of representation? A lot of women have talked about whether or not they feel this extra burden when they are representing, or minorities or things like that. I mean, is this something that you contend with?
PB: Well, I don’t want to sit around thinking about it, but it’s certainly there. Sure, yeah, of course, but so is every — look, when you put your name on the ballot, and you’ve got organizers who attach their name to yours and drop what they’re doing and skip college to go to Iowa and help you, and people give you their money for your campaign, and some of them tell you that they’re passing up a vacation so that they can contribute to your campaign. You already feel that level of responsibility. Right? So, calling it a burden — I don’t know. It’s one more reason I’m motivated to make sure that I do the very best to win and to deserve to win.
MC: Now, have you given thought, and I know it’s early, but if not to specific running mates then to factors of what you’d be looking for? We talked to people about balancing the tickets.
MC: Things like that.
PB: So, first of all, the choice of a running mate is the one choice a candidate makes that is actually a presidential choice. The whole country has to live with it. And so, in a way, retroactively, it’s your first decision as president. And for that reason I think you have to have this deadly serious bar that it’s really about who is best positioned to lead the country in the event that I get killed or I’m unable to serve, and everything else has to follow that.
Having said that, whether we’re talking about running mates or whether we’re talking about my vision for how to build out a Cabinet, yes, balance is extremely important. Racial balance, gender balance, balance in experience, having a shared worldview but different strengths and weaknesses is important. And so, I’ve made a decision that I should not say anything that would disqualify anybody from being considered, but in addition to balance and diversity and range — this, by the way, another reason I pledged the 50% women minimum Cabinet. [In Buttigieg’s agenda promoting women’s rights, he committed to nominating women to 50% of his Cabinet positions and judicial seats. He also said he would put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill and create a commission to ensure there are more national monuments for women.] I’m looking for truth tellers because I’ve always relied on those I’m with and certainly in my administration, also in my campaign, to be there to tell me things I wish weren’t true or would rather not hear. And that quality, I imagine this is especially important in a vice president, not to mention a running mate.
MC: Now, l ooking at one more with a campaign , specifically, and it speaks a little bit to the youth questions and whether or not you’re not quite revolutionary enough. Cleaning up the campaign finance system is a big issue for Democrats. They won big on it with the midterms. Are you concerned that your broader approach to campaign donations, not eschewing big corporate donations and things like that, will alienate you from these younger, more idealistic voters who really see money in politics, big money in politics, as a problem? [After the board’s interview with Buttigieg, he came under fire for a photo that went viral of a fundraiser held for his campaign at a “wine cave” in California.]
PB: I see money in politics as a problem, but it’s a structural problem requiring a structural fix. I mean, we are getting ready to go into the fight of our lives against Donald Trump and his allies, that last time I checked, put together something like 125 million bucks in the last quarter. Right? And tying a hand behind our back to satisfy a purity test is not going to help us deliver the actual structural change that’s needed. [Warren and Sanders are refusing high-dollar private fundraisers — which Buttigieg refers to as a “purity test.”] So, I don’t take corporate PAC money because I think it’s important to live that ideal. I also have 700,000, I think, individual contributors, and I obviously don’t know most of them personally. Right? And I imagine they don’t agree with me on everything, they don’t agree with each other on everything, but I certainly believe in grass roots organization building. And the office of mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is not generally known as an establishment fundraising powerhouse. Right? So, we got to where we are with a message and a vision that’s compelling, and my message, whether it’s to young progressives or to moderates or to the future former Republicans I’m finding out there on the trail is, “Look at what we could do as a country.” And if that message is compelling, I have to believe that’s what will decide this election.
KK: We’re about halfway through our time at this point. We have about four more pages of questions here, so we’re going to turn to another topic.
Lauren Kelley: Mr. Mayor, I wanted to ask you a little bit about reproductive rights. When you’ve talked about your support for abortion rights, you’ve in the past said that you’ve taken cues from the Bible. [In a radio interview last September, Buttigieg said the Bible has guided his views on reproductive rights. He said, “You know, there’s a lot of parts of the Bible that talk about how life begins with breath, and so even that is something that we can interpret differently.”] I’m curious how you connect with both voters and lawmakers who have a very different interpretation from the Bible, that abortion is a sin or even akin to murder, or do you even try to change their minds or reach them?
PB: First of all, my interpretation of my religion has no business being imposed on anyone else through policy. So, I’ve occasionally shared my own understanding of the verses beginning with Genesis about the breath of life, that associate the beginning of life with breath, but that is a personal encounter with scripture that is not for anybody else to have to live with from a policy perspective.
PB: I think that different people reach different good-faith conclusions about when life begins, which is a metaphysical and, in certain ways, unknowable question. Which is exactly why I think the consensus, or at least the decision we’ve got to reach, is not to convince one another to draw the same line in the same place, but to reach a decision, or consensus, about who gets to draw the line. Not where to draw the line, but who should run the line.
LK: So, I appreciate that you take your biblical interpretation out of the policy arena, but that’s certainly not true of the other side. Right?
PB: True. Yeah, yeah. And this is the problem, right? This is the problem with certain versions of how some people want to bring religion into politics, which is not just as a formation of conscience. I think we have an obligation to be transparent about how our conscience is formed, but something that they believe others ought to have to live by. And obviously, as a member of the LGBTQ community, I’ve seen the consequences of other people believing their interpretation of their religion ought to be imposed on me. And we see something similar in the fight against abortion rights.
Jim Dao: Who does get to draw the line? How do you define that?
PB: Well, in my view, it’s the woman facing the decision. Now, societally, we do have some broad boundaries. You look at the Roe v. Wade framework that has early in pregnancy, very few restrictions, and late in pregnancy, very few exceptions. So, at the broadest level, there’s some societal and legal norms, but we view this, ultimately, as an individual choice. And this is another example of something that most Americans believe. You wouldn’t know it.
LK: Yeah. Most of Americans believe it, but that framework that you’re talking about, Roe, is being chipped away at. [In 2019, a number of states passed laws posing a serious threat to women’s reproductive freedoms, from Alabama’s restrictive abortion bill to Georgia’s so-called heartbeat bill.]
PB: Exactly. Yeah, yeah. And it’s being chipped away in a way that is counter — my point is that it’s counter to what most Americans believe. And it will continue on all fronts, executive, judicial and legislative, which is why I’m determined to make sure my appointments to the judiciary share my understanding of freedom. My executive actions — some of which can be done right away, think about the Title X gag rule. Right? [The editorial board has written about how the Trump administration has undermined Title X, making it hard for women’s health clinics to stay open.]
LK: Sure. Yes.
PB: Uphold the right to choose. But also, that we put more legislative backing behind things like the need to encode Roe, and the need to withdraw things like the Hyde Amendment, that are de facto restrictions that make it impossible to access abortion care for those who are low income.
JW: Mr. Mayor, speaking of your judicial appointments and cases like Roe v. Wade, can you give us some names of people you’d consider nominating to the Supreme Court?
PB: So, again, I think it’s irresponsible for me to name check folks for the future.
JW: Donald Trump did it. [Trump put out a list of possible Supreme Court picks in May 2016, and added more names in September.]
PB: And he is not my role model on things like this.
JW: But it helped him.
PB: I’m sure it did. Lots of things he did helped him that I will not be emulating. I can tell you that there are justices, I mean folks like — you can look at the jurisprudence of somebody like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you can look at the historic contributions of figures like Thurgood Marshall, and get some sense of what would guide my philosophy, in particular ——
JW: What about their jurisprudence?
PB: Well, first of all and understanding, most importantly, an understanding of freedom that includes not just the “freedom from” that is, I think, the only side of freedom that some of our conservative friends are able to see, but also “freedom to” live a life of your choosing and the fact that makes a claim. And understanding the importance of our proactive positive freedoms, from abortion rights to voting rights, and what that means for our ability to thrive and to live lives of our choosing and to function as a country.
KK: Can you talk a little bit about your plan, the 15-member Supreme Court plan that you’ve proposed? [During the October presidential debate, Buttigieg defended court-packing — adding additional justices, five appointed by unanimous agreement of the other 10 — as a way to limit partisan control over the court. He suggested term limits for justices as an alternative.]
PB: Yeah. So, again, I do not want to claim credit for having invented this, but it was published in the Yale Law Journal, I think in the current edition, as part of an article contemplating options for structural reform that go beyond the debate about court packing. [Read Daniel Epps and Ganesh Sitaraman’s “How to Save the Supreme Court.”] I’m not talking about changing the court in order to make it more liberal. My appointments will make it more liberal, at least by the likes of the way these debates are tracked.
But I’m talking about a structural reform to change the political stakes of judicial appointments. And the one you’re mentioning that I think deserves to be considered is called a balanced bench. And the idea is you have 15 justices overall, 10 of them arrive in the traditional, you might say, partisan process that we’re used to. The other five can only be seated by a unanimous agreement of the other 10. And the idea is that there will be a depoliticization of those choices. And it might be on a rotating basis. I think the authors in the Yale Law Journal suggest that they be rotated up from the appellate bench. That gets you away from these strange phenomena like the Kennedy brief, where a whole body of casework is done to appeal to the idiosyncrasies of a single perceived swing justice.
But more important, to make sure that every vacancy doesn’t turn into another apocalyptic ideological firefight. A different version that is also contemplated in that article would be to make the entire court rotated on and off the appellate bench. Very interesting debate over whether that would even require constitutional reform or whether you could do it by law. By the way, even though this is admittedly bold, it is far from unprecedented for there to be changes to the size and makeup of the court. It’s happened in a substantial way about half a dozen times. I would argue the Republicans changed the size of the Supreme Court to eight until they took power again, very recently. [Merrick Garland was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2016 but was blocked by Republican opposition.] But in terms of actual formal changes, we’ve seen that about half a dozen times.
JW: And another major structural reform that you supported earlier in your campaign was the abolishment of the Electoral College in favor of the national popular vote. You talked about it a lot early on. You haven’t talked about it for a while.
PB: So, that’s false, and I reject any reporting, some of which I’ve seen, I believe some of it coming from this building, that suggests that I backed away from it. I talk about it in virtually every stump speech that I give, and it is, by the way, kind of a tough sell in places like New Hampshire, but I want to make sure that people in New Hampshire hear something that’s not that different from what I have to say when I’m in Manhattan. [In December, The Washington Post reported that Buttigieg was shifting increasingly to the center. The article opens by stating that he began his campaign speaking urgently about reforms needed like the elimination of the Electoral College.]
It’s not something I’m under any illusions can be delivered in probably one presidential term, but it’s precisely because I think it will take a long time to deliver this, and it may have to be delivered on a delayed-action basis, so it’s harder to know who benefits in the short term, that I think we ought to be making the case for it right now. I mean, first of all, it connects to just the idea of democracy, right? Not the technicality, the system of democracy, but the value that it matters, that we’re a country where the people decide where we’re headed.
Second, I remember as a student learning about this, you know, as a high schooler, thinking, “Well, surely the first time it ever actually overrules the American people, America will get rid of it.” That’s now happened twice.
It doesn’t even privilege small states. One of the principled arguments for it would be the small states get overlooked, but it doesn’t, it just privileges some states. Right? Small states like Rhode Island get ignored or Wyoming, and big states like Texas or New York get ignored.
Plus, our well-being has been impacted by the Electoral College far more in terms of the outcome over the course of this nation than the number of presidential campaign rallies held close to where I live.
And so, it’s one of these issues where if there was any principled justification left for the Electoral College, it was the idea that if the American people somehow elected somebody manifestly unfit for the office that there would be some safety valve on that, and instead, the reverse happened. I didn’t mean to cut you off. I just get frustrated when it is implied that I talk about this less today than I did six months ago.
KK: All right.
Charlie W arzel: If I could pivot to technology and your tech policy. You’ve spoken, and I believe you told Vox recently, that breaking up Big Tech should be an option. [Buttigieg was somewhat vague in his response to Vox on whether Big Tech should be broken up. He said, “We will rigorously enforce the law, and if they continue the behavior, breaking up tech companies should be an option.”] It seems like your proposal is somewhat more vague than some of your opponents’. One of the things you mentioned was doubling antitrust enforcement budgets. Can you tell me a little bit about how you plan to go about evaluating whether breaking up should happen? For Facebook, for example, do you think Facebook should be broken up right now?
PB: Yeah. So, I think there’s a strong case for that. The reason I don’t think it makes sense for me to say as a candidate, “This company shall be broken up,” is the same reason I wouldn’t generally say of the outcome of a trial in a judicial process. This —
CW: But you can think about their power, right? Right now, as you see the influence that they have in modern politics —
PB: Absolutely. Yeah.
CW: — and say, “This needs to change.”
PB: Yes. And that’s the problem with Facebook. No one company and no one person should have the kind of power that they’ve accumulated.
Now, under our existing framework, it was designed to handle monopolies mostly in terms of pricing power. Pricing power is not the biggest worry around the harms that the scope and power of Facebook and other large tech companies have accumulated is, right? The way I would think about it is to, first of all, break out certain things that I think are conflated in the frustrations and anger directed toward big companies.
One set of issues has to do with data security and data privacy. That requires a national data law and stronger privacy and security protections, but frankly, dealing with the monopoly problem is neither necessary nor sufficient to fix that. [Buttigieg has said he would work with Congress to pass a federal privacy bill and double funding for antitrust enforcement.] In other words, that’s a stand-alone set of issues that has to happen, because a small company could misbehave with data, too.
Then we got the monopoly concern, and to put a little more meat on some of what you mentioned, one of the things I think we’re going to need is a standard that shifts the burden to large companies, especially when they’re making acquisitions, like the acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook, that are likely anti-competitive.
CW: If that was happening during your administration, theoretically, you would have vocally supported blocking that?
PB: Yeah. Again, the president doesn’t sit there and direct how an administrative process is going to come out, but yes, there needs to be a prior review. At a certain level, instead of the burden being on the state to demonstrate that some of these mergers will be harmful, I think the burden should be on the company to demonstrate that they won’t.
CW: OK. What do you make of your support from Silicon Valley? I mean, the idea that maybe they’re not adequately afraid of you?
KK: Can you also speak to your relationship with Mark Zuckerberg? [In October, Bloomberg News reported that Zuckerberg advised Buttigieg on his tech campaign hires.]
PB: Yeah. So, we were in college at the same time, got a lot of mutual friends, and it doesn’t mean we agree on a lot of things. So, I’m sure he would vigorously disagree with my assessment of the WhatsApp acquisition, for example.
CW: Do you think he holds too much power right now?
PB: Yes. No one should have that kind of power. Now, part of the problem is that a social network is a natural monopoly, right? So, if we were just talking about the, what you might call the Facebook part of Facebook, the product that people are most familiar with, if you broke that up, you just wind up with two of them and one of them would die and one of them would be the new one. The real problem is how a corporation of that size acquires other competitors and develops certain powers. And then, there’s a problem of their refusal to accept their responsibility for speech that they make money from. So, if a cable company, or a newspaper, if somebody can show that an ad that you all were going to run is false, you would pull it, and yet Facebook doesn’t want to hold themselves to that same standard. [Zuckerberg has repeatedly affirmed that Facebook will not check ads from politicians, even if they contain lies, in the interest of free speech.]
KK: But I want to follow up on Charlie’s question. I mean, is Silicon Valley adequately afraid of you? There are other candidates who have used much more bold, intense, I don’t know — [Zuckerberg said, in audio leaked to The Verge, that having Warren as president would “suck” for Facebook.]
PB: Yes. And some of them seem to get a lot of support out of Silicon Valley, too, so I don’t know. I think you got a lot of folks there who are maybe a little less ideological, who I’m not going to agree with on everything, but also a lot of folks who, I think, are wrestling with what it is they’ve created. The problem is, it shouldn’t just be left to companies to decide how to solve these problems. There needs to be a policy response. Basically what we’ve done is we’ve outsourced public policy decisions around the limits of speech and misinformation and the handling and the use of data to the companies, which are so big that when they make a corporate policy decision, in effect, they’re actually making a public policy decision. They do it.
CW: They’re also just platforms for viral advertisement, too.
PB: Yeah. Right. Which is how they make their money, right? Although, I would say that the nonrevenue vitality of social media is just as problematic as the paid stuff.
KK: We only have about half an hour left, so I want to turn to foreign policy, but before we do, I wanted to ask you one question which we are asking all of our candidates, which is, who has broken your heart?
PB: I mean, Boston College. I was 11 years old. We were this close to the National Championship. And they came to South Bend, we were one game away, we had beaten Florida State, become No. 1. [In 1993, Notre Dame’s football team was undefeated and top ranked until it lost to the Boston College Eagles, 41-39, at home in the final game of the regular season. The rivalry between the schools has come to be known as the Holy War.] There wasn’t a BCS back then, so when you finish the season undefeated, you’re the champion. And they came into our stadium, and they broke my little heart.
KK: As you mentioned, you’ve talked a lot about your faith. [Buttigieg is Episcopalian and outspoken about his faith. St Augustine is one of his major religious influences.] Given your faith, how do you reconcile directing the largest, most powerful military in the world with your Christian obligation to love your neighbor? Or enemy. Excuse me. And your neighbor, but mostly your enemies.
PB: It’s one of the biggest problems of being involved in the military at any level, and I suppose we’re all implicated in this just by belonging to this country. You also have to rationalize, as a citizen, how you participate in a society or a country that sometimes does things that are, even when it’s doing the so-called right thing, from the perspective of law, or the law of war, is still doing something that would not be considered Christian or moral by the lights of any number of different faith traditions. Some people take the approach of punching out completely, right? That’s the Walden approach, I guess. I think you have to accept the reality that you are living and working in a broken world, just as we are all broken and beaten, and try to order your steps in a way that brings greater good than harm.
Look, when you’re in charge of something important, most of when you earn your paycheck is when you’re making decisions between two courses of action, both of which involve harm. Not just to your objectives, but often to your values, and you have to figure out what the right thing is to do. And that’s true for, I think, any position of executive leadership, but certainly when you’re in charge of a government body or a military unit or the entire country and making those life and death decisions. That’s what you have to weigh. It’s not finding what the perfect answer is. Well, it isn’t a McKinsey puzzle where you might be able to compute the right answer. Moral puzzles are different because they don’t have a correct final answer. They have courses of action, some of which can do more good and some of which can do more harm.
KK: So, the number of countries that the United States military now has troops in is somewhat astounding. Can you make the case for why we need to have an American presence in, for instance, the African nation of Mali?
PB: So, we need to maintain the ability to project force in a way that will protect the homeland and meet our core security and national objectives. What I will also say is that there are a lot of troops deployed around the world right now, pursuant to an AUMF, that was passed to deal with 9/11. [Congress passed the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) three days after the Sept. 11 attacks. The agreement authorized use of force against those responsible for the attacks.]
I’m not sure about Mali, but I remember in Niger, members of Congress admitting, after troops were killed there, that they didn’t know we had troops there. [The deaths of four American soldiers in Niger in October 2017 ignited debate over the AUMF. Many Americans did not realize the U.S. had forces in Niger. Sen. Tim Kaine, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the deaths showed that U.S. forces are “in many more countries than Americans have been told.”]
KK: It’s also an anti-terrorism operation.
PB: Yeah. Is that under the AUMF? I’d have to think about how those two strands connected. But the point is, the AUMF had no sunset, and the scope creep most recently, I think, brought to life by the Afghanistan Papers, but we’ve been looking at it for more than a decade, is one of the reasons why I believe that a future AUMF should always have a three-year sunset. [The Trump administration has opposed putting a sunset clause in an AUMF, on the ground that it will embolden enemies who might see it as a date for withdrawal.] And let’s have that debate.
If a president, if I or any other president, believe in my judgment from a national security perspective that it’s appropriate to have troops deployed somewhere, I should be able to convince Congress of that. Not to mention the fact that the war powers are supposed to [inaudible] in Congress anyway.
And by the way, this also helps with the fact that Congress has been all too happy, I think, not to get involved in questions like whether the AUMF that was supposed to deal with 9/11 justifies troops being in Mali or Niger. So, some of these deployments are problematic, and we need a much more crisply defined mission both for the war on terror in general and for future military engagements, even while recognizing that we are going to have a base architecture globally that ensures that we maintain global military superiority, especially as we get into a more and more multipolar world.
Alex Kingsbury: Since you brought it up, can I ask about the Afghanistan Papers? [In December, The Washington Post reported on a confidential trove of government documents that revealed how American government officials hid from the public evidence that the war in Afghanistan couldn’t be won.] Were you surprised by their broad conclusions, that the public has been lied to for a great many years about the possibility of success?
PB: Angered, but honestly, not completely surprised. I remember these debates raging in the time that I was deployed, and you could argue that was very late in the war. In fact, I thought it was the end of the war. I thought I was one of the last troops turning out the lights, and that was years ago. And I even remember they posted one of those inscrutable PowerPoints on the wall of the gym by the treadmills. And I remember staring at it, and the PowerPoint was supposed to hold the lines of effort that constituted the mission as OEF turned into Resolute Support, [Operation Enduring Freedom was the official government name for the war on terror. Resolute Support is a NATO-led operation to provide training and support for Afghan security forces.] and just squinting at it and thinking, I know a fair amount about why we thought we were here, and I can’t make sense of this.
AK: So if the mission is unclear and civilian casualties are at all-time high now, is the war being waged there a morally defensible war? To go back to what you were talking about before.
PB: Well, unfortunately I think it’s some of our moral intuitions that keep us chasing after some lofty and possibly impossible outcomes.
AK: Possibly impossible?
PB: Let me rephrase. Well, it’s not that it’s impossible. They’re not impossible. It’s not impossible for Afghanistan to become a thriving, prosperous, democratic state, but it is impossible for that to happen quickly. It is impossible for it to happen before the time has come when we need to withdraw our troop presence, which is to say that time has come and it hasn’t happened.
AK: The Trump administration has been trying to do it for three years now. How would you do it any sort of quicker?
PB: Trump’s administration is not big on decision making and also not big on multilateral diplomacy. Look, in order to do this, the thing we have going for us is that leaving Afghanistan is possibly the one thing that all of the parties think ought to happen. The U.S. left, the U.S. right, the international community, the Taliban and in the long run the Afghan government all want to see this happen. [A 2018 poll from YouGov found that 61% of Americans support a withdrawal from Afghanistan.] So the question is when we leave, are we going to leave well or are we going to leave poorly? What leaving well looks like is to make sure that there is some kind of negotiated political settlement that gets us here. Not based on a spontaneous invitation to Camp David, but based on a proper level of engagement with the government, which has been sidelined for most of this from what I can tell. The Afghan government, I mean, the Taliban and regional players that play a hugely important role in that area. I’m thinking about Pakistan in particular.
JD: Coming back to the question Katie asked about troop deployments across the world, could you see a scenario in Afghanistan where the United States would keep some level of troops to maintain some level of stability?
PB: Well, look at what we had in northern Syria, a very minimal, light, specialized presence of intelligence and special ops capability that was able to, while they were there, hold the line. Not by assuming responsibility for stability and prosperity of Syria, but by preventing the worst outcomes and being able to alert the United States command when there were likely to be things that could imperil our troops or the homeland. That kind of thing I think will be part of the pathway out of getting large ground troops there or part of the pathway for moving large ground troops.
KK: Can I turn to another part of the world?
KK: Assume that for a moment that the Chinese government makes a decision that they’re going to flood the streets with troops in order to crack down on the protests that are happening in Hong Kong. What would you do? How would you respond as president?
PB: Well, the message would need to go to China, that if they’re going to perpetrate a repeat of Tiananmen, that that will lead to them being isolated in the community of nations, and that the United States will use the tools that we have, including diplomatic and economic and information tools, to make good on that so that they have a strong reason not to do it. [Buttigieg outlined his foreign policy plans in a June speech at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He said China should be censured for its human rights record but engaged as a strategic partner on a number of thorny issues including terrorism and climate change.]
KK: That’s beforehand, right? What happens if the troops actually go into the streets and there’s mass killings and democratic protests are being squashed?
PB: I don’t want to jump into hypotheticals, but I’ll say that this is an example of where U.S. policy should stand on the awareness that our interests and our values are inseparable. That every time the United States has tried to pursue its interest at the expense of its values, sooner or later that’s caught up to us. And so our approach needs to be guided by the understanding that part of what is in the American interest is the fact that we stand up for values that are shared.
Remember, in a scenario like that or frankly in the scenario we’re seeing right now — this is not just something happening inside Hong Kong or China and a conversation inside the United States. There is such a thing as a global community, and part of the role of the United States is to mobilize that global community in the defense of beliefs around human rights and representation. That ultimately should also be consistent with the stated Chinese goal of stability, but is consistent with our conviction that stability won’t come through repression.
BA: China has detained hundreds of thousands of its citizens because they’re Muslim. It’s your judgment that they haven’t yet crossed that red line? [Times reporting in November revealed a merciless government-driven crackdown on Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region.]
PB: What red line?
BA: You were saying that if China were to repeat the Tiananmen experience, if China were to cross the line and violate human rights, then it would become necessary to respond. Is it not already necessary?
PB: Oh, it’s necessary to respond. Yeah. What I’m saying is we should have a warning about the consequences of those kinds of violent repression, but yes. Right now we are seeing people rounded up, put into camps in huge numbers, and we are seeing not a peep out of the United States president, even by way of moral support for those whose rights are being trampled there and evidenced, by the way, that that silence was purchased in the course of a trade negotiation that has yet to yield anything to the United States anyway. [In December, the House passed a bill, 407-1, requiring the Trump administration to condemn abuse against the Uighurs and call for the closing of China’s detention camps.] So there’s no question that we right now should be using the tools that we have, especially as what should be a leading voice in the international community.
Of course, it’s not possible to do that right now because our own president is fanning the flames of Islamophobia right here in the United States. So it is functionally impossible given how much the use of those diplomatic and moral powers relies not just on policy moves, right? But on language and tone and leadership from the American president, it is functionally impossible to do that so long as this president’s in office.
Serge Schmemann: Mr. Mayor, may I ask you about immigration? You had mentioned that this will be one of the major challenges of the next president. Are you going to, as president, reverse some of President Trump’s policies, his agreements with third world countries on asylum or not letting asylum seekers await the judgment within the United States? [In September, the Supreme Court upheld the Trump administration’s new rule making it difficult for most migrants and especially Central Americans to seek asylum in the United States. Under Trump’s rule, migrants cannot apply for asylum unless they have applied and been denied asylum in a country they pass through on the way to the United States.] What would you do? What would be your criteria for deportations?
PB: So when it comes to asylum seekers, first of all, it’s recognized that measures like the family case management program worked. Virtually everybody in that program appeared when they were supposed to and so I would not continue the “Remain in Mexico” policy. [The Family Case Management Program used case managers to ensure migrants adhered to their legal obligations. It was ended by the Trump administration in 2017. It had high levels of compliance, according to a Department of Homeland Security report.]
And we need to recognize in our policies and in our tone the idea that asylum is a right. It’s not doing somebody a favor. At least applying for asylum is recognized as a right. It’s one of many things that need to change quickly by way of administrative action. The thrust of my vision on immigration centers on legislative reform, but upfront we know that there need to be actions to ensure that family separation can’t happen again.
To the extent that the government is in the business of housing at all, I believe that should be handled by HHS, which is designed around health and not by Customs and Border Protection, which is not set up for that kind of role, and a number of other steps that we’ve got to take right away.
As to what you’re saying in terms of the administration’s posture toward the countries whose misery, often, is propelling this wave of migration, it is perfectly self-defeating to threaten to withdraw aid from, for example, the Central American Triangle countries when by far the best way forward to prevent a migration crisis in our interest is to make sure that people are living prosperous or at least minimally can count on safety in their own home countries. Part of which can be supported with American investment. Again, it’s not that we can fix — speaking about what’s possible and what’s not possible — it’s not like we’re going to fix what’s going on in every country. We should at least be doing our part to help.
SS: People will continue trying to reach the United States. What would you do as president if tens of thousands of Central Americans showed up at the border?
PB: Well, we still need to maintain a border. It matters, and crossing the border illegally will be illegal when I’m president, too.
JD: Mr. Mayor, to follow up on that, some Democrats seem to argue that comprehensive immigration reform could be as politically risky as say Medicare for all.
JD: How great a priority would that sort of comprehensive immigration reform be in your administration?
PB: It’s a priority because of the way it’s being used to divide Americans. My biggest priority is to bring the country together. Could it be divisive? Sure. I mean, that’s why this president uses it.
The irony is that there is that same majority I was talking about. A powerful American majority, not a consensus, but a majority, to do all of the things we’re talking about. Pathway to citizenship, protections for Dreamers, reforms to the asylum system, reform to the lawful immigration system, like how my dad got here, and moving away from a system and numbers and quotas and caps that are not based on anything currently real. And I think that this administration, if they wanted to, could have passed comprehensive immigration reform and taken credit for the achievement. Unfortunately, this president believes that it is more useful for him to divide us around the failure than it is for him to take credit for the achievement, and so we continue entering our 35th year or so since there’s been meaningful reform. [In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed a major immigration reform bill creating a path to citizenship for immigrants who came to America before 1982. There has been little meaningful immigration reform in the past two decades, though in 2012 President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, for the so-called Dreamers. Buttigieg’s father immigrated from Malta.]
JB: Sorry, go ahead. You were in the middle of your answer.
PB: I was going to say a lot of these concerns that we have around the border change when we have actually fixed the fundamental problem of the legal framework that we have.
JB: Can we turn to climate change for a minute?
JB: You’re proposing quite a sweeping reform to the country’s approach to climate change. Yet in the detailed proposal you’ve submitted, there’s not a word about nuclear power, which now provides something like 20% of electricity in this country with no carbon at all. Would you phase out the existing plants and stop all research on future nuclear technology? [Other Democratic contenders, like Andrew Yang, have made nuclear energy a central feature of their climate plans.]
PB: I would not look for new nuclear as part of our power mix. I also don’t think we can afford to be dogmatic about this. As you said, it’s carbon free and by far the biggest threat we face right now is carbon. However, you can’t ignore the waste concerns associated with nuclear power as we know it. Research to develop nuclear possibilities that don’t have those risks or don’t produce that kind of waste, of course we should be pursuing that. [The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) has devoted significant time and funds to research on thorium, an alternative to uranium as a source of clean energy.] As far as the kind of nuclear power that we currently have, the kind of fission power that generates waste, I don’t believe that that is the long-term future when we know so much potential lies in other forms of renewable energy generation that don’t have that set of problems. So yes, it is part of our pathway to carbon neutrality. There’s no question. It’s part of that medium-term mix. When I talk about that medium term, I’m really talking about the existing installed generation base and not adding more.
AK: When you phase out the nuclear plants, do you support keeping all the waste at the closed facilities like it is now or building Yucca Mountain to store it safely? [Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the site for a nuclear waste repository in 1987, but it has never been licensed. If constructed, it would use a complex 1,000 feet below the mountain’s summit.]
PB: So the problem with the Yucca Mountain is it’s not got the consent of those who would be impacted, and I don’t think it’s an acceptable solution as long as there is not that kind of consent. [In March, Nevada’s Democratic representatives unveiled legislation that would prevent the construction of the facility as long as the state, local and tribal communities haven’t given their consent.] There’s been talk about certain kinds of safer on-site or near-site storage than we have today. No solution is perfect, but we certainly need to continue developing safe methods for storage and removal.
KK: Do you think there’s enough effort to build consensus to build Yucca Mountain at this point? I mean we haven’t even, communities —
PB: There’s been the reverse. There’s been no effort. They’ve completely ignored communities, right?
AK: But no one’s going to put nuclear waste in their backyard.
KK: Yeah. Exactly. No one’s going to want nuclear waste in their backyard.
PB: Well, the blue-ribbon commission laid out a framework for some kind of an informed-consent process, and we’ve seen the reverse. Just failing to inform even elected officials about some decisions and some moves. So what we know is consensus may be elusive. The wrong way to get it is what they’ve been doing lately.
KK: So I hate to cut us off from climate since it’s such a huge issue, but we have only a few minutes left and we have a lot of other things we want to get to. Maybe we can turn to health care for a few minutes and then go back to a couple of economic questions.
Jeneen Interlandi: Do you think that families should be able to obtain religious or personal exemptions for mandatory vaccination?
PB: No. We’ve seen the public health impact of, I can’t even call it pseudoscience, but the way that people have been steered off things that are necessary. This is complex. Different states have different frameworks, some of which acknowledge these kinds of exemptions and some of which don’t. I acknowledge that those differences exist among the states, but we have to move forward a world of universal vaccination. [Earlier in his campaign, Buttigieg said he backed “personal belief and religious exemptions” on vaccines, then backtracked and said he only supported medical exemptions.] And I believe this strongly enough that personally I’ve done what I can just from a public education standpoint, including this somewhat awkward spectacle of inviting news cameras to watch me get my vaccinations at the county health department. Just to try to send that message to remind folks of that responsibility.
JI: Have you thought about what you would do as president to promote that message and to kind of shore up public trust in vaccines? [Recent reporting has shown that trust in vaccines has declined in the past decade among American adults.] Because it is waning.
PB: Yeah, I think that people need to hear that from the president. The president is a messenger on public health and maybe I’ll continue that spectacle, hopefully I’ll have a little more to show up here. [MAYOR POINTS TO BICEP. LAUGHTER] But also in terms of the message we send about the role that this has in parenting and in citizenship and in being part of your community to make sure that the community is safe from communicable disease.
JI: As president, would you use march-in rights to produce low-cost insulin? [March-in rights were created in 1980 under the Bayh-Dole Act. Some argue they could be used to lower the cost of drugs like insulin. They allow a government agency to “march in” and circumvent a patent if a therapy isn’t made available to the public within a reasonable time.] So overriding corporate patents on drugs that are overpriced?
PB: I would view that as a last resort, but I believe it should not be taken off the table.
JI: Something you would consider.
PB: If only because I think knowing that is being held in reserve might be what it takes to get a better result while at the table. So definitely something I would hope never to use, but I would not rule it out.
JI: I just want to talk a little bit very quickly about the public option, which is what you’ve supported in terms of health care reform. You’ve said yourself a couple of times today that this is still actually a bold vision. It’s kind of sort of gotten framed as weak sauce relative to Medicare for all, but it’s actually still a pretty heavy lift. So can you talk a little bit about how you see getting that through Congress, where there’s going to be a lot of opposition, and what you think it would cost?
PB: Yeah. So the bedrock for this as for many of the other policies I’m talking about that yes, put me certainly further than the Obama administration was able to be, for example, and would be progressive. The great thing about this is they command a support of the American majority. So Medicare for all if you want it has strong support. Often when people tell pollsters they’re for Medicare for all, this is what they mean, right? So there’s issue after issue where what we’ve got to do is manage the daylight between what commands a majority among the American people and what can get a majority in the American Congress.
Part of that is why we need structural reforms, why we’ve got to do something about things like gerrymandering and other issues that help to explain why Congress is the way it is. But I also believe that a very good use of the president’s time and energy is to be personally present in even conservative states or districts where measures like this have popular support. I don’t think there’s anything fanciful about this because you can just look at the political life of the ACA, which again was toxic for Democrats in 2010 when I was getting crushed in my first experience on the ballot in Indiana, and by 2018 was the winning issue for Democrats such that even when the Republicans controlled everything, they could not make good on their central campaign promise, even when they were in charge. [In 2017, Trump claimed “we have essentially repealed Obamacare.” In fact, the Affordable Care Act has grown only more popular — a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in 2018 found the law’s favorability at 54%, its highest point since it began surveying people about it in 2010.] Right? So we know that when we restore the center of gravity of politics to the lived experience of Americans who are affected by political decisions and not the noise that this president creates, we have a winning hand to get these policies through.
JI: Can you talk a little bit about the cost itself?
PB: Yeah. So we’ve scored it at $1.5 trillion over 10 years. [Buttigieg’s campaign said his health care plan, “Medicare for all who want it,” would be almost entirely paid for by rolling Trump’s corporate tax cuts back to 35% rates.] In order to achieve that, actually a fully 1.4 of it can be recouped just from rolling back the corporate tax rate portion of the Trump tax cuts. For the other 0.1, $100 billion, I would account that as part of the savings that we will get from the negotiation of prescription drug prices by Medicare and HHS, which I think narrowly that move alone CBO had between $3 billion and $400 billion over a decade. We believe the overall savings to the Treasury of the different moves we aim to make would come to over $600 billion. Anyway, I only need 0.1 to make up the gap between 1.4 and 1.5 [trillion].
JI: So here’s the thing I kind of want to talk about.
JI : $1.5 trillion is a lot less than Medicare for all, than Elizabeth Warren’s plan would cost, right? [Warren’s “Medicare for all” plan is estimated to cost $20.5 trillion in new federal spending over the next decade.] But that’s over 10 years. If your plan succeeds and more people choose the public option versus private insurance beyond 10 years, it could become quite expensive. What do you say to arguments that ultimately it would be just as expensive as something like Medicare for all, so why not just do that?
PB: Well, the problem with Medicare for all or that version of Medicare for all that my competitors have isn’t just the cost. I certainly believe that when you propose something with a cost, you got to be able to explain how to pay it. And that’s a problem there. It’s also the idea of dictating to people what their choice ought to be.
You look at the plans that a lot of folks, including a lot of folks in labor, have fought for, sometimes trading off wages to get them. They’re not interested in being kicked off the plan. I think just baking that little bit of humility into the policy pays off because it also, it’s not just — sorry — but it’s not just the problem of dictating that this plan will be better. There’s a comparable danger of policy arrogance in supposing that we can guess from Washington the correct number of years before the transition should happen. So what I’m supporting is a way for the transition to be organic.
JI: OK. So just one very quick follow-up to that. With respect to the public option being a better choice and that’s the thing that’s often used to kind of promote the idea. How do you make that work if doctors and hospitals can simply choose not to accept the public option as long as private still exists? How do you address that concern in your thinking?
PB: So I believe the economy of scale, especially if you compare it to Medicare, right? The places where Medicare is accepted indicate that as long as a reimbursement is appropriate, that there should not be a problem on the provider side. Now I do think that you can’t just copy-paste what we’re doing with Medicare now because if that were where we needed it to be, we wouldn’t see the problem we have with the loss of —
JI: So do you reimburse at a higher or lower rate? Sorry, last one.
KK : Jeneen!
PB: Overall reimbursements are likely to have to go higher, not just in the public but in Medicare as we know it, especially in areas that are losing providers like rural areas.
KK: So we have a couple of questions about your time and your mayorship in South Bend and I want to get to those if you don’t mind. Then we’ll come back to the economic questions.
NF: If you don’t mind, I wanted to get back to what Aisha was saying. I found your answer to her kind of vague, quite vague, and I thought she was asking something really important. A lot of young people and not so young people are disgusted by growing up in a system in which they’re seeing more and more of the wealth of the country going to a smaller and smaller group of people at the expense of everyone else. That small group of people having an increasing amount of political and economic power. Some of your opponents have had very clear solutions or what they call very clear solutions for those problems. I’m wondering if in that time we have, if you could give specific solutions to say what the government could do to address the growing financial inequities, what the government could do about the power of the financial industry, about the corruption of politics, about the corruption of industry itself?
PB: Of course. Yeah, I mean, I would argue that the proposals I’ve put forward on dealing with precisely this set of problems is more specific than most of my competitors’. That’s everything from my proposal to double the rate of unionization in this country, to my insistence that we increase the minimum wage to some of the other labor market reforms I’ve proposed around taking care of contractors and gig workers, to campaign-finance reforms up to and including a constitutional amendment to end Citizens United. [Buttigieg is one of several candidates who have earned the approval of the grass roots group End Citizens United for his commitment to anti-corruption legislation. He defended his intent to use a constitutional amendment to do so, arguing: “Does anybody really think we’re going to overtake Citizens United without constitutional action? This is a country that once changed its Constitution so you couldn’t drink and then changed it back because we changed our minds about that.”]
Not to mention things we could do in the shorter run, ranging from ideas already baked into H.R. 1, around drowning out dark money, to heavier-lift reforms around public financing of campaigns, while we are working the bigger generational fight on things like Citizens United. I believe that we need to be investing in the sources of social mobility and domestic competitiveness to include my proposal that we triple funding for Title I in education, to include everything that’s contemplated in the Douglass Plan, to include what we need to do around infrastructure. [Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders have all pledged to triple Title I funding for low-income schools, and Warren has pledged to quadruple it.] And that in order to do that, we must raise taxes on wealthy individuals and on corporations. So I am no less determined and no less specific than my competitors about this. What I think might be happening ——
NF: What are your questions on raises?
NF: What are the questions on raising taxes?
PB: Say again?
NF: On raising taxes, what are your proposals?
PB: So a financial transactions tax, rollback wholesale of the Trump tax cuts with a special focus on what’s going on in the corporate-rate tax cut. Close the 199A loophole, deal with some of the enforcement deficiencies that are driving the big part of the revenue gap right now I think. I’m also open to a wealth tax. I just would not put my signature proposal in a position of being completely dependent on a tax that is constitutionally untested. [In the December Democratic debate, Buttigieg criticized Warren’s wealth tax plan as “extreme.” He cautioned that candidates should “be smart about the promises we’re making, make sure they’re promises we can keep.”] In principle I think it’s fine. I’m just not counting on it.
Now just to get to the heart of the question that maybe we didn’t touch about what interests a younger generation of voters. I think part of this might be a question of tone, too. I think that the younger I was, the more I was inclined to think about politics as combat. Having been responsible for a city, I think about it differently today, but what I don’t view as different is the importance of restoring power to workers and citizens. When I say power, I mean both political power and wealth, which becomes both economic and political power at the expense of those who have concentrated it too much in today’s world.
NF: How would you double unionization?
PB: So part of it has to do with who can organize. Making it possible, for example, for gig workers to organize, as I’ve called for. Making it possible for there to be more scope for multi-employer bargaining. If you are one of those fast-food workers and you’re in a McDonald’s and there’s an Arby’s across the street, you should be able to team up.
Part of it is how you can unionize. We have penalties for company interference in union elections, but the penalties are so weak that even when they are imposed by what I view as a much-weakened enforcement structure — both in terms of the Department of Labor and NLRB — even when they are imposed, they’re not really enough to change behavior. Which is why I’ve specified the need for fines in the adequate range of the multimillions that would actually make it a different calculation for companies to make it difficult to unionize and we need an end to right-to-work. Right-to-work is a restriction. It’s talked about differently in conservative political language, but it is a restriction on the ability of employers and employees to negotiate, and I would remove it.
KK: Sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt, but I want to get back to South Bend for a minute. Rape, robbery, and assaults are all crimes that are at much higher rates in South Bend than they are for example in New York City or in Indiana versus New York. [Since 2012, Buttigieg’s first year in office, South Bend has averaged 5,890 reported serious crimes a year, down from an average of 6,845 in the three years prior. According to The South Bend Tribune, burglaries declined under his administration, but aggravated assaults increased.] Why haven’t you been able to do much about those types of crimes?
PB: Well, I’ll tell you what we have done. We have group violence intervention that has been able to deal with gang and group violence and in particular gun violence in our city, hasn’t ended it. We’ve had some terrible years, but my first year we had 18 homicides, I believe, and we have been able to see a shift in that. [The South Bend Group Violence Intervention strategy was introduced to the city in 2013 with the aim of curbing gun violence. The strategy, developed by David Kennedy at John Jay College, relies on direct communication with people most likely to commit violence.]
Of course, it’s different from New York. The per capita personal income in my city has finally gone above $20,000. We have poverty rates similar to Baltimore’s, but in many of these categories, crime rates there are different. [The poverty rate in South Bend is estimated at 25.4%. The poverty rate in Baltimore is estimated at 23.8%.] Now having said that, I should also mention that you brought up at least two categories of crime, rape and aggravated assault, where reporting has changed. And it is my fervent hope without coming over and telling you what to do that when folks report on in particular data that is compiled in the FBI’s uniform crime database, UCR database, that attention is paid to the language warning about why it is not a good idea to compare between the different jurisdictions due to reporting differences and also some of the pitfalls of reporting over the years when some of the standards changed.
NF: Haven’t reporting standards had been changed for other jurisdictions, too?
PB: Say again?
NF : Haven’t the reporting standards for aggravated assault changed for other jurisdictions, too?
PB: Yes and no. So what happened with rape was a nationwide change in the UCR reporting standards and so you can even break out what is called legacy rate and the new standard. [In 2012, the attorney general announced a new and more expansive definition of rape, a victory for survivors and advocates. The definition is available on the Department of Justice’s website.] In the case of aggravated assault, I know of changes that happened that led to more reporting of it in my jurisdiction. I don’t know how much that’s part of moves that have been made in other police departments.
NF: How much of the crime increase do you think might be due to the bad relationship between the police and the black community?
PB: I believe police officers by and large get up in the morning and do their job no matter what’s happening in politics. I do think that there is a cost to reductions in police legitimacy that come about, especially when there are cases of abuses both from around the country and what happens in any local area.
What we’re seeing a lot are cycles of gun violence, assault too, but especially with gun violence where you have a family, someone is attacked or killed. The family weighs whether to take that to the police or to handle that in a way that leads to more violence and so the less comfort there is reaching out to the police, the more likely it is that there will be contagion between one violent act and another. That’s actually even more true as you get out of the ones that we’ve been better able to get a grasp on through our group violence intervention strategy where it’s connected to, whether it’s a formal gang or what’s called a group, it can often be comparatively easier to map and enforce on the associations that lead to that violence than when you have looser associations and sometimes families.
NF: You mentioned poverty. You’ve done in a lot in the downtown area of South Bend. In the poor neighborhoods you’ve knocked down a lot of buildings and some have said you’ve not done enough for housing there to replace that and that there are sort of two South Bends. Is that a fair criticism?
KK: I want to be respectful of the mayor’s time, so after this maybe we can ask you one last question and then we’ll let you go. Is that OK?
PB: Sure, yeah. So our effort on vacant and abandoned houses was very much about directing dollars for improvement in low-income and predominantly minority neighborhoods. Because the No. 1 thing I heard knocking on doors in those neighborhoods from voters and residents when I was a candidate was why has there been a collapsing house next door to me for 12 years? Often they didn’t know or necessarily care that the city did not own that property, just because it was vacant and abandoned. Often we didn’t even know who did own it because in our housing market, again —
I know this doesn’t always compute in New York, but you can get a pretty good house on the west side of South Bend for 25 thousand bucks. So when it falls, it’s in bad shape and it falls to eight or nine thousand bucks. [In 2017, the median property value of a house in South Bend was $81,100, according to Data USA. Nationally that figure is closer to $217,600.] Someone who just owns this as a line on a spreadsheet anyway, and they’re not even from in town, just walks away. They don’t even bother selling it or disposing of it, or they cleverly hide who owns it. Anyway, my point is we directed dollars to remove the houses that couldn’t be saved and to improve the houses that could precisely because of the importance of supporting low-income neighborhoods.
So while we did a lot of work in our downtown for sure, and I’m proud of the fact that a downtown that used to be characterized as dead or dying is growing. It’s equally important to me, if not more so, that we’ve created opportunity for folks around the city and that we’ve invested directly in neighborhoods. We’ve also invested directly in home repair, knowing that there’s not only a moral and economic empowerment rationale for keeping people in their home, but frankly it’s also a public safety rationale.
There are a lot of folks in these neighborhoods who are not afraid of the police or don’t respect the police, but they respect Grandma. And I want Grandma to be able to afford to own her home, stay there and be on her porch, as part of what keeps the fabric of the neighborhood intact and makes it safer. So there have been justified critiques that we may have used code enforcement as a blunt instrument in some cases and listening to neighborhood feedback improve that over time, but it’s very important to me that it’d be understood that our effort to direct dollars, whether it was for demolishing collapsing structures or for enhancing ones that could be saved, was very much about supporting low-income residents.
KK: Brent, you want to finish?
BS: Something we ask everybody: What is it that you are most likely to fail at as president?
BS: And that’s the same expression we get.
PB: Well —
MC: Don’t cop out on this.
PB: I know. I’m tempted to go with a condiment reference, but I’m going to behave. Well, let me say this. First of all, there are some problems you can solve and then there’s some problems you can manage and a lot of the most important problems we face, both internationally and domestically, will be managed, improved, but we have to face that one presidential or two presidential terms won’t be enough to solve them.
If I’m being more specific about something that I don’t think I will win, I would say social media. I view myself as a digital native. I spend less and less, but a fair amount of time, on social media. People in my generation have become preposterously wealthy creating it, but we have not yet got a handle on it. The one thing I am learning is just how much daylight there is between what has currency on social media and what I’m getting asked about when I’m on the ground, and I would not be surprised if it continues to be the case that doing what I view to be the right thing as president is not just politically costly in general but may cost me the hearts and minds of those who are disproportionately represented online.
KK: Wait. So, your answer is you’re going to get canceled on Twitter?
PB: I just might get canceled.
KK: All right. Thank you very much.
PB: Thank you.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .
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