After nearly every election, journalists and pundits bloviate during postmortems at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the Aspen Institute about how there were too many “process” stories in their campaign coverage—too many articles and segments about the horse race, how big the crowds were, and how much money the candidates raised. Reporters promise to do more in-depth reporting during the next cycle, painting fuller pictures of the candidates and the choices Americans will face as they enter the ballot box.
Well, we’re more than a year and a half out from the 2020 election, and they’re already screwing it up—again.
As an example, look at what’s happening with coverage of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s meteoric rise to become a top-tier candidate. Who is Mayor Pete? Voters relying on mainstream coverage to keep them informed probably know only three things about him. He’s a candidate for the Democratic nomination. He has a funny-sounding last name. And he’s gay.
I’ve rarely seen a group of people work harder to find different ways to focus on a single issue. CNBC’s John Harwood asked Buttigieg how he felt “about potentially becoming the first gay president.” “If Elected, Buttigieg Would Make History as First Gay President,” read the CNN chyron as Kate Bolduan asked him, “You represent a historic first in your candidacy. How much do you want it to define the campaign?” Seth Meyers framed a question about his announcement speech by asking if there was “a special, added element” to having his husband onstage with him at the time. I’m just hoping no one decides to lead off an interview by asking for his opinion on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Or the Queer Eye reboot.
Yes, the gender of Mayor Pete’s spouse is remarkable. Just a few years ago, most of America had trouble imagining anyone but a white heterosexual man in the Oval Office. But Buttigieg is a lot more than a symbol of his sexual orientation. He’s a Rhodes Scholar who, unlike most graduates of elite universities, chose to join the military. He’s a veteran who fought in Afghanistan. And he’s a devout Christian who is, quite frankly, more comfortable than most Democrats (and journalists) talking about how faith shapes his perspective on national politics.
But journalists aren’t digging much deeper than his orientation—and I have a theory on why. In the places where they live—in the pockets of the country that the Donald Trump minion Stephen Miller has disparagingly labeled “cosmopolitan”—sexuality is a hot topic. Maybe even the hottest topic. Military service? Not so much. Religious faith? Not at all.
But voters will need a little more information to make informed choices in next year’s primaries and general election. If reporters are going to provide it to them, they need to start asking Buttigieg different questions when they meet him on the campaign trail.
When lots of his peers at Harvard and Oxford grabbed their diploma and headed off to Wall Street or Silicon Valley, Buttigieg decided to serve his country in the military. Why? What spurred that decision? What did he learn from the experience beyond what he saw on the battlefield? Why does he think more Americans aren’t choosing to serve their country in the same way?
Here’s another one: Buttigieg would be the first president to have deployed to a war zone since George H. W. Bush, a man elected more than 30 years ago. What did that experience teach him? How would it affect the decisions he would make as commander in chief?
Need a third line of questioning? How about this one: Mayor Pete was raised in the Catholic Church, and governs a city dominated by the nation’s most prominent Catholic university, Notre Dame. Nevertheless, he now worships at an Episcopal church in South Bend. Why the conversion? Has he ever had a crisis of faith? What does he think about (particularly blue) America’s increasingly secular orientation? What does it mean for our society over the long term?
Finally, they should ask about the professional struggles he’s had to overcome. Every chief executive faces moments of self-doubt. Has there ever been a moment in his military or elected service when faith has filled that void? Moreover, in an era where, per Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, people are desperately searching for community, is his religious faith born more of a search for spirituality or fellowship? Having been a mayor myself—and having spoken with hundreds of other chief executives—I know that, even for agnostics, faith can become a place of comfort. Is there a moment when faith brought him to a different decision than he might have otherwise made?
Will his answers to any of these topics determine who wins the South Carolina primary? Probably not. Will the answers go as viral on Twitter as the answer to a question about how he would handle a foreign leader who refuses to receive his husband, Chasten, on a foreign visit? Without a doubt, no. But the answers will be far more revealing to voters thinking carefully about which presidential candidate deserves their support. And second, as someone who has been there, I can promise that the answers will have much more bearing on his presidency than his sexual orientation.
President Bill Clinton likes to say that the American people hire presidents to solve problems, and whoever next sits in the White House is sure to face some doozies. Abraham Lincoln and other presidents felt at times that they were being tested by God—and every person who has sat behind the Resolute Desk more recently has felt the enormous strain of leading the free world, except, of course, for the present occupant of the Oval Office, a man who has no doubts about his own brainpower and who is self-assured about his capabilities.
The thing the American people ought to learn through the media is what in the candidates’ own life experiences—the good, the bad, and the ugly—has prepared and educated them to solve the problems the country is facing today, and the challenges we will inevitably face in the future. What have they learned from their own failures? Incessant questioning about the prospect of a gay president (let alone a female president, or a Hispanic president, or a female African American president, or, well, you get the drift) won’t do much to provide voters with a satisfying answer.
Why do life experiences matter? I was by President Barack Obama’s side when he was trying to figure out how to address the auto-industry crisis. It was his experience as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side working with communities affected by shuttered steel mills that informed his decision to save both General Motors and Chrysler, not one or the other.
The cultural blinders of many reporters are one reason Trump is president today. If reporters largely focus on the topics most interesting to the people they live among, people who live elsewhere in the country will presume that those are the only issues that candidates care about. Is it any wonder that so many voters wonder about the Democratic Party’s approach to economic opportunity, or national security, or the fraying social fabric? Even when Democratic candidates talk about their approaches to these issues, reporters remain focused on the process stuff, such as fundraising figures and polling data, or on novelties, such as which barrier or glass ceiling any given candidate is poised to break.
Here’s the bottom line: Buttigieg isn’t a gay candidate for president—he’s a candidate for president who happens to be gay. Americans need reporters to explore whether he and the other candidates have the judgment, character, and experience required to do the most difficult job on the face of the Earth. It’s their job to help voters figure that out.
Buttigieg, like several of the other Democrats in the race, may well have the makings of a top-tier candidate. But I’m quite sure we’ll never really know whether he does so long as the American people hear nothing more than that he’s poised to be the nation’s first gay president. (By the way, he might not even be the first gay president—some scholars point to James Buchanan.)
Should Buttigieg become the Democratic nominee, I hope it’s because voters have been convinced that he’s the person best equipped to solve the nation’s problems, lead us on the world stage, and ensure peace and prosperity through the course of his tenure. And what of the fact that he’s married to a man? Well, that sounds just great, too.