PEte Buttigieg (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) and Tulsi Gabbard (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
MERRIMACK, N.H. – Pete Buttigieg showed up to his veterans event last week with a hop in his step, as well he might. Still the ostensible winner in Iowa, normal math be damned, the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor is riding a wave of press attention and a potential polling surge. The American Legion hall hosting the event was at capacity, to the chagrin of both a Dane and a Canadian waiting to see America’s newest political celebrity. Some of the media, too, found themselves on the outside looking in, trawling the line for voters with something to say. Buttigieg briefly dismounted from his SUV convoy to thank the supporters stuck outside, before pulling away to a back entrance to the building.
Inside, cameramen peeked around flag stands to get shots of the candidate as he unspooled a message of doing right by America’s veterans. Buttigieg extolled homecomings, better military housing, and the unity in diversity he found in uniform (“task cohesion,” in the parlance of the sociologists). He rightly raised the issue of veterans hamstrung by “bad paper” discharges for failings often linked to trauma they suffered overseas.
Buttigieg occasionally found himself on more uncertain ground. As the technocrat’s technocrat, he is never more at ease than when explaining a problem that should be amenable to a procedural fix—like when “systems aren’t talking to each other.” Confronted with a human issue, he contorts himself into phrases like “gender parity in the experience of serving this country in uniform.” If that means what it sounds like, reality will rudely intrude. Even the Nordic countries, probably the most egalitarian nations on earth and all with at least a loose conscription system on the books, are striving to get their militaries to 20 percent female.
In a tidy 50 minutes with Buttigieg, foreign policy—the actual ends to which American servicemen are dedicated and sometimes sacrificed—received scant attention. It was an odd elephant in the room: Fawlty Towers’ “don’t mention the war!” rebooted, ongoing conflicts that most American politicians would just as soon ignore. An Air Force veteran asked the mayor what he learned in Kabul. Afghanistan itself, and what we’re still doing there, was all but absent from the long answer. There were more questions (one) about Brexit than Iran.
The event was sponsored by VoteVets, a decade-old political action committee that endorsed Buttigieg in December. Other veterans seem more inclined to be skeptical of a naval reservist who appeared to punch a ticket with a short Afghan tour and then returned to climbing ladders Stateside. Buttigieg advertises early and often: loud noises become a springboard to a brief, artful reference about what one “learns on deployment.” He uses his time in uniform to undercut Beto, level with Klobuchar, and attack Trump.
True, Buttigieg ventured “outside the wire” often (and kept count when he did), and the threat of an improvised explosive device lurked on every Afghan road. But the mayor’s descriptions of his service often have the ring of military LARPing. His stories of service dwell far more on convoy duty than on the presumably more valuable work he was doing behind a desk in Kabul. He writes of “shipping out”—a phrase surely last deployed in a war movie. Buttigieg never internalized the enlisted rank structure (the Marine Corps does not employ anyone who answers to “gunny sergeant”). And cringe-worthy posed war zone photos drew predictable heat online.
Buttigieg’s military record would hardly be the least distinguished in presidential history. Captain Ronald Reagan spent his war at the Army Air Force’s First Motion Picture Unit in California. Naval reservist Lyndon Baines Johnson received a sham Silver Star despite never coming under fire. The problem is not Pete Buttigieg’s service: it is what he seems to have learned, or rather not learned, from his time in Afghanistan.
Buttigieg’s campaign-ready memoir, Shortest Way Home, gives the mayor’s Afghanistan deployment due weight. But why he served isn’t really clear. What the eager young volunteer learned in his five months in Afghanistan is even more opaque. In the book, Buttigieg refers to John Kerry’s apt formulation: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” All that the famously erudite, would-be Kerry 2.0 can offer is repeated platitudes about how wars don’t end anymore.
When the New York Times asked Democratic candidates about regime change wars and U.S. support for coups, “Mr. Buttigieg did not answer this question.” Ditto for all of the Times’ questions about Afghanistan, the war upon which Buttigieg’s claims to foreign policy expertise hinge. Buttigieg remains essentially a cipher on foreign policy, sensible words about the AUMF aside. He sounds the right progressive notes but refuses to be pinned down on much of substance. It is hard to imagine him diverging much from the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that has wreaked so much havoc, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Ninety miles north in West Lebanon, just across the river from Vermont, the other veteran in the race helmed a far smaller town hall. Clad in woodsman casual, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard spoke to an audience perhaps a quarter the size of Buttigieg’s. The Hawaiian struck similar notes to the Indianan: unity, bipartisanship, common sense. She decried tribalism and described her successes in working across the aisle. (Note: Tulsi Gabbard is on the unpaid Council of Advisors to the Center for the Study of Statesmanship. She and the author had not met prior to Thursday night.)
Gabbard’s crowd spoke to her cross-party appeal—or her alienation from her own party. Just five hands went up when she asked who in the crowd was a Democrat (seven claimed to be Republicans). The vast majority in the room identified as independents or libertarians. Several, and perhaps most, were Vermonters. One man asked Gabbard point-blank: “Have you ever considered changing parties, or maybe re-affiliating somewhere?”
Though the Lebanon event did not focus on foreign policy, Gabbard’s supporters, animated by her lonely heresies on the subject, raised the issue. In a tone more healing than strident, the congresswoman stuck to her guns. Though not fully dismissing humanitarian intervention, she rightly noted that humanitarianism is often the guise under which intractable, unjustifiable U.S.-led wars proceed. She vowed to reject “all these people” in the failed foreign policy establishment. One feels confident that even Samantha Power, most sainted of the she-hawks, would not be welcome in a Gabbard Administration.
Gabbard, last graced with a CNN town hall in March, soldiers on. Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor who will likely receive a tenth of the New Hampshire votes she does, got his time on the big stage yesterday. Polling indicates that Gabbard may receive over 5 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, where she has focused most of her attention. Media dismissal and outright slander has knee-capped Gabbard’s campaign to be president. Her fellow millennial veteran provided a small assist. Interviewed a week ago by Bill Maher, the late night host told Buttigieg, “You are the only military veteran in this.” “Yeah,” replied the mayor, his sister-in-arms erased.
Tulsi Gabbard’s next move will be interesting. Gabbard herself was vague on the subject last night. She is not running for re-election to Congress; this will be her last campaign for the moment. Despite appearing to burn her bridges with the Democratic Party, she could have a place in a Sanders Administration. Regardless, one hopes her voice will remain a part of the national conversation. Tulsi Gabbard has far more to offer than the conventionally hollow Mayor Pete.
Gil Barndollar is a New Hampshire native and a fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.