Just Break the NDA, Pete

The worst that could happen is actually a best-case scenario.

Pete Buttigieg
Gregory Reed / rafapress / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Before he became mayor of his hometown of South Bend, Indiana, the Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg worked for the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. He has used this brief experience to distinguish his record from that of longtime politicians such as Joe Biden and critics of private-sector excesses such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

But voters have no idea what kind of work Buttigieg did, or who he worked for, during his three years at McKinsey. And he won’t tell us. The candidate says he signed a nondisclosure agreement, from which the company has not released him.

“This is not a tenable situation,” the New York Times editorial board declared this week, calling his silence “inconsistent with the manner in which Mr. Buttigieg has chosen to present himself to voters.”

The Times is right. And I’ll go even further. Buttigieg not only has an obligation to come clean about his corporate experience. Unless the work he did at McKinsey is utterly vile, it would be strategically wise to break his nondisclosure agreement and dare McKinsey to censure its most public alumnus.

What’s the worst that could happen? McKinsey’s PR team could release a statement expressing deep disappointment, or declare that it is considering legal action, or even announce immediately that it is suing for a nondisclosure violation. Buttigieg should welcome the showdown.

By casting himself in a theatrical confrontation against McKinsey at a low point in the company’s reputation—the Times reported this week that the company helped Donald Trump’s administration carry out its immigration policy— Buttigieg would be angling for a classic role: the plutocratic traitor. Openly confronting McKinsey while calling for moderate economic solutions on the stump would let Buttigieg have it both ways: He would be a capitalist moderate who’s also in defiance of one of America’s most occultly elite firms.

The three most obvious lines of attack against Buttigieg are that he lacks experience; that his South Bend record is spotty; and that his calculated shift toward the center is the latest piece of evidence that he’s just another inauthentic suit, a wrinkle-free machine for amassing power.

Buttigieg already has a good response to the first attack: that Washington’s brokenness requires a fresh approach. He can’t do anything about the second, at least not from a debate stage. To answer the third, Buttigieg could use a confrontation with McKinsey to argue that that he has emerged from the chrysalis of the private sector having seen both the light and the darkness, and that now he is ready to fight on the side of light. Authenticity might be an illusory sham, but nothing seems more authentic than playing the underdog to an overdog. And it’s hard to imagine a more useful overdog in the Democratic primary than a company that helped Trump put kids in cages.

Finally, the confrontation might win over young voters, his worst-polling demographic. Buttigieg’s young life has so far been a kind of presidential advent calendar, counting down the days to the inevitable Washington inauguration. Harvard, check. Rhodes scholar, check. Military veteran, check. Hometown mayor, check. This sort of conspicuous precocity is an old person’s idea of a successful young person. But it’s not a young person’s idea of an actual human being. It is more like the corporeal actualization of outsized ambition. By attacking McKinsey, Buttigieg might appeal to young voters by embracing the most relatably Millennial ambition of them all: sticking it to your boss.