The Agonizing Imperfection of Pete Buttigieg

So talented yet so vulnerable — like all the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination.

Opinion Columnist

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CreditCreditEric Thayer for The New York Times

If I dreamed up an ideal Democratic opponent for President Trump in 2020, I’d locate that candidate in the industrial Midwest. That’s where Hillary Clinton lost the last election, and it’s where the next one could very well be decided.

I’d summon someone relatively young. Elections are usually about the future, and the last two Democrats to ascend to the White House were under 50 when they began their first terms. Plus, the contrast with President Trump, who’s 73, would be a favorable one.

I’d want someone who could lay claim to being a trailblazer and reap some of the excitement that comes from that; someone who couldn’t be tarred as a Washington insider; someone who was effortlessly fluent in, and respectful of, religion without buying into the divisively censorious strains of it; someone whose message and style weren’t instantly familiar facsimiles of previously successful candidates; someone who radiated the kind of thoughtfulness that’s foreign to Trump.

Only one of the Democratic presidential aspirants who have gained discernible traction, raised real money and taken up seemingly permanent residence in the field’s Top 5 meets all of the above criteria: Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Ind.

But I have the damnedest time imagining him in the White House in 2021, and that’s depressing the hell out of me.

He’s phenomenally talented. None of his fellow contenders for the nomination speaks off the cuff in such gorgeously composed paragraphs (though Cory Booker, Michael Bennet and Marianne Williamson have their moments).

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Few of those rivals grapple as persuasively as he does with what’s on the line in this election: not just the need to prevent four more years of Trump but also the need to pull America out of its partisan death spiral and rediscover the common ground, civic grace and cultural glue that have been lost.

“There’s this desire to carve the world up into good and bad people and carve the electorate up into good and bad people,” he said to reporters who joined him for an extended bus trip through Iowa recently, as reported by Henry Gomez on BuzzFeed News. “Trump has a way of doing it. My party has a way of doing it. And it misses the need for a certain humility about the good and evil we’re each capable of.”

If that sounded like a rebuke of Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and some other Democratic presidential candidates, the words he uttered next confirmed as much. “The real question of leadership,” he said, “is not: Do we round up all of the good people, hope it’s more than 51 percent, come together and crush the bad people? It’s: Are we going to bring out what is better in us versus what is worse in us?”

He constantly plies this theme, which deserves constant plying. For him it’s clearly more than cant, and has roots in his stint in the military, which throws diverse Americans together, endowing them with a shared purpose.

He routinely steers clear of extremes — on health care, on guns, on environmental issues — not because he lacks conviction or courage, at least not from where I’m sitting, but because extremes aren’t where the most progress is usually made or where healing is likeliest to happen. He’s a champion of the sensible. In that way, he seems much older than his age.

But, ugh, that age. My wish for a young candidate didn’t mean a 37-year-old one. There’s much wisdom in this life that’s accrued only with the passage of years, and he’d be better off — and significantly less vulnerable in a general election — if he had even five more of them.

In 2016, I visited and spent many hours with him in South Bend, then wrote a column with the headline “The First Gay President?” I was looking at least a decade into the future, after he’d extended his résumé beyond South Bend, which has only about 100,000 people.

I’d be a lot more comfortable if there were an additional zero in that population figure, if he had a better record on race, and if there weren’t quite so many elitist mile markers on his journey to this point.

And that’s where my depression sets in. He’s so very strong but so crucially weak — which is the story of the Democratic primary, whose leading candidates are all agonizingly unsafe bets. Without a nanosecond’s pause, I’d vote for any of them over Trump. But will enough other Americans? The stakes are enormous and reassurance is elusive.

Let’s take that Top 5: Warren’s plans may be too boldly progressive, she struggles with black voters and in Massachusetts, which she represents in the Senate, her support is weak among precisely the sorts of working-class whites that a Democratic nominee would optimally reclaim.

Joe Biden has been unfairly tangled in this Ukraine web and isn’t as vigorous as in the past. Sanders just had a heart attack. And Kamala Harris has repeatedly failed to capitalize on bursts of momentum while giving voters maddeningly mixed signals about who she is.

That leaves a certain hyper-articulate Hoosier. “Four months before the Iowa caucuses, it is time to reckon with the reality that Buttigieg probably has a better chance to be the Democratic nominee than anyone aside from Biden and the surging Warren,” wrote the veteran political journalist Walter Shapiro in a lengthy profile of him just published in The New Republic.

There may be something to that. There’s definitely something to Shapiro’s identification of Buttigieg’s greatest gift: “When he speaks, people listen.” I know I do. But it’s with big questions about his timing and a tight knot in my stomach.

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Frank Bruni has been with The Times since 1995 and held a variety of jobs — including White House reporter, Rome bureau chief and chief restaurant critic — before becoming a columnist in 2011. He is the author of three best-selling books.  @FrankBruni Facebook

A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 27 of the New York edition with the headline: Buttigieg’s Agonizing Imperfection. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe