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Pete Buttigieg Took One for the Anti-Bernie Team

Pete Buttigieg has always been a calculating careerist. By ending his campaign yesterday, he may have sacrificed his short-term presidential ambitions — but he did so for the greater good of a Democratic Party establishment that is hell-bent on sabotaging Bernie Sanders.

Former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg announces he is ending his campaign to be the Democratic nominee for president during a speech at the Century Center on March 01, 2020 in South Bend, Indiana. Scott Olson / Getty

Pete Buttigieg was a company man to the end. With no path forward for his campaign, and recognizing that staying in the race could only help Bernie Sanders win big on Super Tuesday, Buttigieg yesterday ended his bid for the Democratic nomination on the grounds of “responsibility.”

“We have a responsibility to consider the effect of remaining in this race any further,” he told supporters in South Bend last night.

The message wasn’t hard to decipher. Buttigieg had used his distant third-place speech in Nevada to attack Sanders for promoting an “inflexible, ideological revolution” and bringing a “tenor of combat and division and polarization.” These attacks were paired by Buttigieg with some mild red-baiting in the last Democratic debate, warning that Sanders was too radical to win, and, at one point, obnoxiously babbling over Sanders’s entire reply.

Positioning him as the candidate to stop both Sanders and Trump, a February 25 campaign memo outlined a strategy to “shrink Sanders’s margin of victory coming out of Super Tuesday” and prevent him from getting “too great a lead in the delegate race for anyone to catch up.” Unnamed sources already told CNN his decision was motivated by concern over aiding Sanders’s victory.

All this despite a prize-winning high school essay a youthful Buttigieg once authored praising Sanders as a “successful and popular mayor” and his work as a “peacemaker between divided forces in Washington,” embodying John F. Kennedy’s ideals of “compromises of issues, not of principles.”

Alas, Buttigieg sacrificed himself. As he explained to disappointed supporters, the math simply didn’t add up. Left unstated was an entirely different calculation: that with slim prospects of winning in the contests ahead, the best option for his political future involved showing fealty to the party establishment and sacrificing his campaign to help them in their years-old plan to deny Sanders the nomination. By dropping out, the hope goes, Buttigieg will release his voters to put Joe Biden — now the last great hope of the party’s corporate wing — over the 15 percent polling threshold in California and boost his chances in other crucial Super Tuesday states.

That Buttigieg’s last act in this campaign should be to kiss the party’s ring is not surprising. His entire adulthood and career have been at the service of crass political ladder-climbing — what Politico’s John Harris termed his “implacable careerism” and “a facile exercise in box-checking.” This was, after all, the same candidate who chose, after his time at Harvard, his term as a Rhodes Scholar, and a stint as a McKinsey consultant, to enlist in the then nearly decade-long Afghanistan War, a somewhat unusual tenure that involved no combat but provided “more time for reflection and reading” than he was used to.

The party clearly saw something in him. Eight years of Barack Obama had already established the formula for a winning candidate: young, charismatic, well credentialed, with at least one history-making mark of diversity, and an indistinct centrist politics built on vaguely inspiring-sounding twaddle, mostly about “unity” and “healing.” Buttigieg strained to emulate the former president right down to cadence and vocal timbre, even borrowing lines from his speeches. He was rewarded by being invited to party insiders’ secret discussions last year about how to stop Sanders from winning.

And with money — lots and lots of money. Not only was Buttigieg in the running for the title of most billionaire donors throughout the election, he soon became the chosen conduit for big-money contributors, as the Democratic Party’s wealthy funders, spooked by Biden’s incoherent debate performances and embroilment in the impeachment saga, desperately looked for an alternative to invest in.

Buttigieg and his staff soon began touring the country, begging for cash from big-money interests; by July, he was second to Biden among health insurance and pharmaceutical employees, and would remain so to the end; by December, he led the field in Wall Street contributions. By January 2020, CNN reports, his small donor share had dropped from 65 percent a year earlier to a mere 29 percent. He even started a “national investors circle,” promising, among other kinds of access, quarterly and monthly briefings with him and his staff to financiers who raised at least $250,000 for his campaign. The excuses Buttigieg used to get away with this ranged from the easy to the breathtakingly cynical: that Obama did it, too, and that opening his campaign to the corrupting influence of billionaire cash was living out the ethos of “belonging, not exclusion.”

Coincidentally, the more money Buttigieg took, the more he started to sound like a different candidate. In 2018, Buttigieg had positioned himself as a staunch backer of Medicare for All. “Buh? When/where have you ever heard me oppose Medicare for All?” he asked in February 2018, after being accused of not supporting the policy. “Gosh! Okay . . . I, Pete Buttigieg, politician, do henceforth and forthwith declare, most affirmatively and indubitably, unto the ages, that I do favor Medicare for All.”

By early 2019, he was already nonsensically insisting to George Stephanopoulos that he both supported a single-payer system and that the private insurance system would stay intact. That gave way to the last phase of his evolution, in which he spent the last fall and winter relentlessly attacking and fearmongering over the policy and those advocating it, completing his transformation into a wholesale corporate marionette.

So far, so Obama. Like the former president, Buttigieg made a public health insurance option (an option defeated under Obama by the same industry now funding his own run) his plan of choice, one that would leave people uninsured and rely on an even more regressive version of the hated Obamacare mandate. He, too, had the peculiar ability to win the backing of right-wing columnists. And just as Obama’s longtime friendship with and eventual hiring of neoliberal Svengali Rahm Emanuel raised questions about his progressive bona fides, Buttigieg’s leading political operative had once worked for a faction of New York Senate Democrats whose raison d’être was working with Republicans to block anything progressive from coming through the pipeline.

But Buttigieg differed from Obama in one key respect: while Obama was able to win the loyalty of African-American voters despite his staid centrism, Buttigieg’s standing with voters of color was abysmal; he failed to get the support of a single black voter in one South Carolina poll. Maybe it was the fact that he demoted the city’s first black police chief. Maybe it was his administration forcing unpopular urban redevelopment plans on communities of color. Maybe it was the furor that erupted over a South Bend police killing midway through his campaign. Either way, his campaign’s habit of making up support from black leaders didn’t help — a matter Buttigieg was heroically saved from having to address by debate moderators who preferred to ask the 347th question about “Bernie Bros” and how Medicare for All would be funded.

Buttigieg’s final play was a smart one. Unable to organically win the support of African Americans, he instead poured his resources into the Iowa race, betting that a good showing there would translate into momentum in New Hampshire and the states that followed. And it nearly worked, except for the brick wall of diversity the campaign ran into in Nevada and South Carolina, where voters of color stubbornly continued to back Sanders and Biden, leading Buttigieg to come in a disappointing third and fourth place, failing to reach the 15 percent threshold in either. With no realistic path forward, Buttigieg has fallen on his sword, hoping his act of political seppuku will smooth Biden’s way to the White House — and bring with it a plum appointment, no doubt.

It may well be too little too late. Ironically, given this last-minute assist to anti-Sanders party elites, Buttigieg’s greatest impact in the race was siphoning money and voter support from the leading establishment candidate, Biden, who was hobbled right out of the gate by his losses to Buttigieg in Iowa and New Hampshire, taking a hit to the manufactured aura of “electability” he and his boosters had been cultivating for all of 2019. It may not even help: at least according to Morning Consult, Sanders is the top second choice of Buttigieg supporters, though this isn’t the case in every poll. His sacrifice will no doubt smooth things over with the party, but it won’t change the fact that Buttigieg did more than arguably anyone to assist Sanders’s road to the nomination.

Ever the company man, Buttigieg has bet on the house. By striving, even with his campaign’s dying breath, to defeat Sanders and guarantee four more years of corporate centrism on behalf of party elites, he has positioned himself to be handsomely rewarded, while signaling he will loyally say and do whatever the party establishment and the industries that fund it want him to. But it comes with a risk: should Sanders win the nomination and then the presidency, Buttigieg’s political future will involve navigating a party whose standard-bearer and agenda he did everything in his power to oppose. Maybe he’s hoping voters will forget. Be sure you don’t.