The Democratic establishment’s guy, former Vice President Joe Biden, is flagging. He has no money. His debate performances have been apocalyptic. His actual policy positions appeal to virtually no one. He is a handsy creep toward women. And he can’t even deliver his own stump speech without digressing into alarmingly disjointed asides about how it’s like nobody wants to teach the kids how to put the relish on the dadgum what they call a, a, a frankfurter anymore, that’s just not how they, they’re, how I’m, my wife said, told me, I, I, you can’t do that, this is America, I mean come on.
Or I should say he seems to be flagging. None of these people can do more than seem, as far as their actual pursuit of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination is concerned, whole entire months before anybody will cast a primary vote anywhere in the country. By most polls, Biden still appears the frontrunner, at least nationally if perhaps not in certain early primary states. But he is a deeply suspect frontrunner, one powered only and entirely by the broad sense, affirmed by 2016 and by virtually every prior electoral cycle in living memory, that the centrist establishment will get what it wants and the only thing for anybody else to do is wait to be told how to vote in the general election. If he is not actually flagging — who knows? Who can know? — it’s despite a persistent and growing sense of doom around his campaign.
If, like me, you are an old person who spent too much time paying attention to media and politics while your peers were (probably, who knows, none of them talk to you anymore) busy having productive and fulfilling lives, you likely had a sense of how this would go. At a certain point, as Biden continually failed to mount any affirmative case whatsoever for his nomination, it would be necessary to create some momentum for some other centrist weasel more capable than he of reading off a TelePrompter for 30 seconds at a go without dropping an eyeball or somehow tripping and falling paws-first into a bystander’s boobs. The role hasn’t been filled quite yet. It may be necessary for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to throw themselves into the pit.
It’s possible he’s the leader in Iowa polling now, despite having done basically nothing, broadly ever, in that debate or at any other point in his whole life.
That’s not for any lack of trying! Bored mainstream pundits and columnists, openly contemptuous of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders for the sin of challenging self-described progressives to embrace the kinds of policy agendas regarded as sensible by center-right parties in much of the rest of the world, have been trying to cast milquetoast smarmer and mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg as the guy with natural buoyancy for quite some time now. The narrative that Biden’s weakness presented Buttigieg with yet another opportunity bubbled up before mid-October’s debate; the same pundits who’d invented the opportunity — an opportunity that consisted entirely of their own greater willingness to praise him — then credited him with having seized it, merely by dint of his having done nothing egregious to squander it. It’s possible he’s the leader in Iowa polling now, despite having done basically nothing, broadly ever, in that debate or at any other point in his whole life. (This is the most white-man-in-America shit imaginable.)
Thanks to a transcription error by the Los Angeles Times, Buttigieg very briefly made news over last weekend for seeming to have said that “the failures of the Obama era help explain how we got Trump” at an event in New Hampshire. This would have been, by miles, the closest Buttigieg has come to saying anything requiring a backbone since he entered the race, and a sort of funny minor spectacle ensued: An explosion of social media rage, a correction and apology from the reporter who’d screwed up the quote and then Buttigieg’s senior advisor doing a bit of a touchdown dance over it. Because the centrists’ guy briefly had seemed to say something, or almost something, but then turned out to have said, well, nothing at all: The accurate quote referred to "the failures of the old normal." Ah yes, the famous Old Normal, our ancient common foe, which Buttigieg definitely will venture to characterize with any detail at some point between now and the end of time.
The thing here isn’t to debate whether the Barack Obama era contained failures, or whether those failures contributed to the hellish reality from which I write this article, where Donald Trump is the president of the United States. It should not even be particularly controversial, anywhere from the tankie left through the weenie center all the way to the psycho right, to say that whatever one considers the failures of the Obama era to have been — even if you limit yourself to relatively forgivable ones like the failure to properly recognize and prepare for the scope and organization of the white-supremacist backlash to Obama’s presidency — there were some. And it should not be scandalous to suggest that whatever they were, they are at least part of why the person Obama and the party establishment chose to be his successor lost in 2016 to the stupidest, least-qualified, most transparently venal and incapable major-party presidential nominee in history. That seems as anodyne and self-evident as a math fact.
In a sane campaign on a sane planet, Buttigieg could warn against repeating “the failures of the Obama era” twice a week and the harshest reaction, even from Obama lifers, would be a complaint that his speeches lacked spice and specificity. (Ooh, hey, while we’re at it: On the sane planet Biden is playing shuffleboard somewhere, and a shark fell out of the blue sky and bit Trump’s entire head off the first time he ever attempted to use the words “president” and “I” in the same sentence. It’s fun to imagine the sane planet!) Here in this world, it was a point of defensive pride for his campaign that he hadn’t dared to say it at all.
The sorts of questions a national electoral campaign ought to grapple with — like “Is America just?” and “Do our current political and economic systems contribute in any way to human flourishing?” and “What is to be done about the fact that the answer to both of the previous questions obviously is ‘No, of course not, what the fuck is wrong with you’?” — are terrifying for the politics press. Not because they’re hard to answer (they aren’t) but because to answer them with any honesty is to take a definitive stance toward America’s status quo and the people and forces upholding and defending it. And naturally that would be Biased Journalism. It’s much less fraught and frightening, much less of a danger to the performative evenhandedness and smooth-brained centrism of the media class, to bat around empty horserace shit and theater criticism — "How will criticizing the old normal play with the Skee-Ball Uncles of Des Moines?" — instead. Again, not because that’s easier to answer, but because it has no answer; because it’s nothing.
So if you’ve found yourself wondering why the press is giving so much attention lately to Pete Buttigieg, so assiduously empty a candidate that the most interesting thing he’s said since entering the presidential campaign is something he didn’t even say, there’s your answer. The politics press is the Nothing constituency, and it has found its man, for now.