Pete Buttigieg has won praise for his eloquence and debate skills over the course of his 2020 presidential run, but his performance Tuesday night during the second Democratic debate included missteps and proved a mixed bag at best.
The debate in Detroit, moderated by CNN, was only the second time an openly gay person has participated in a major party debate. (The first was Buttigieg’s participation in the previous 2020 Democratic debate.)
Asked about racial division in America, the South Bend mayor — who has faced criticism for his handling of a recent police shooting of a black man — raised eyebrows when he replied, “As an urban mayor serving a diverse community, the racial divide lives within me.”
Buttigieg also immediately pivoted to his electability when a question was presented to him during the debate on climate change.
“We have put out highly similar visions on climate,” Buttigieg said. “We will win on climate if and only if we win the presidency if and only if we beat Donald Trump. Nominate me, and get to see the president of the United States stand next to an American War veteran, and explain why he chose to pretend to be disabled when it was his chance to serve.”
As the debate progressed, Buttigieg seemed unwilling or unable to defend himself from criticism from other Democratic contenders.
For example, when Buttigieg said gun violence is because “we haven’t had a system in Washington capable of delivering what the American people have told us they want,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) replied she disagrees with him.
“This isn’t just about a system, or it’s not just about words,” Klobuchar said. “This is about the NRA.”
Invoking the Columbine shooting in the 1990s and the school shootings that followed, including the Parkland shooting, Buttigieg said, “Something is broken if it is even possible for the same debate around the same solutions that we all know are the right thing to do.”
But Klobuchar hammered back by more simply identifying the problem as the National Rifle Association.
“What is broken is a political system that allows the NRA and other large, big money to come in and make things not happen when the majority of people are for,” she said to applause in the audience. “The people are with us now.”
One key moment came when Jake Tapper asked Buttigieg whether the middle class should pay higher taxes in exchange for guaranteed health care and eliminate premiums. The South Bend mayor essentially dodged the question.
“So we don’t have to stand up here speculating about whether the public option will be better or a Medicare for All environment will be better than the corporate options,” Buttigieg said. “We can put it to the test. That’s the concept of my Medicare for All Who Want It proposal.”
When Tapper pressed Buttigieg for a “yes or no” in clarification, Buttigieg replied, “I think you can buy into it. That’s the idea of ‘Medicare-for-All-Who-Want-It.’ Look, this is a distinction without a difference, whether you’re paying the same money in the form of taxes or premiums.”
Tapper then shifted to former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who was more definitive in his answer to the question.
“The answer is no,” O’Rourke said. “The middle class will not pay more in taxes in order to ensure that every American is guaranteed world-class health care.”
O’Rourke said his vision is a Medicare for America plan that would enroll everyone uninsured or underinsured into Medicare, but allow others with private insurance to keep it.
In comparison, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders defended their “Medicare for All” plans deftly when moderates like Rep. John Delaney (D-N.Y.) and Steve Bullock criticized their proposals as unrealistic.
Generally, the debate for Buttigieg seemed to improve as the night progressed. He won praise for his answer on Afghanistan in which he called for withdrawal within one year of his presidency and a three-year sunset on any future congressional authorization of military force.
The best moment for Buttigieg came toward the end of the debate when he was asked about his age. At 37, Buttigieg was the youngest candidate on the stage and is just two years older than the constitutional requirement to be a U.S. president.
“I don’t care how old you are,” Buttigieg said. “I care about your vision. But I do think it matters that we have a new generation of leaders stepping up around the world.”
To applause Buttigieg continued, “I actually think it’s good that the prime minister of New Zealand’s gotten a lot of attention in Democratic debates. She’s masterful.”
“She is younger than I would be when I take office,” Buttigieg said. “This is the kind of trend America might be leading, instead of following, but only if it’s actually backed by the right vision.”
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.