Tonight was Pete Buttigieg’s turn to experience the unique treatment a front-runner receives during a presidential-primary debate.
Buttigieg’s Democratic rivals greeted the co-winner of the Iowa caucuses with a pile-on as the race shifted to New Hampshire. Multiple candidates onstage belittled his relative lack of governing experience as the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us,” Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said in one of the big early moments of the debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. She suggested that Buttigieg was childish for joking about how President Donald Trump’s “exhausting” impeachment trial made him want to change the channel and “watch cartoons.”
“It is easy to go after Washington, because that's a popular thing to do,” Klobuchar said. “It is much harder to lead and much harder to take those difficult positions.”
Stuck in fifth place, Klobuchar has tried—with mixed success—to use the platform of the debates to challenge Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden in the moderate lane of the Democratic primary. A few minutes earlier, she called out Buttigieg for dialing back his support for Medicare for All only after joining the race for president.
Klobuchar was not alone in seeking to take the former small-city mayor down a peg and slow the momentum he’s found since Iowa. An undercurrent of the Democratic primary campaign has been the resentment Buttigieg engenders among progressives, especially those of his generation, who see his bid for the presidency as presumptuous, even privileged. It’s a view that, judging by the attacks on him tonight, his rivals seem to share. “Mayor Buttigieg is a great guy, and you’re a patriot,” Biden said at the outset, using a backhanded compliment as a rhetorical wind-up before adding: “He’s the mayor of a small city who has done some good things, but has not demonstrated his ability to—we’ll soon find out—to get a broad spectrum of support.”
Later, Biden took offense at Buttigieg’s calls to “turn the page” on the broken politics of the past. “The politics of the past, I think, are not all that bad,” the former vice president said, touting his legislative record and accusing Buttigieg of besmirching the legacy of Barack Obama.
Even two candidates who have less governing experience (none, to be exact) than Buttigieg, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer, joined in the chorus against him. Steyer implied that Buttigieg wasn’t tough enough to defeat Trump. “We need people with experience,” he said, without defining what kind of experience he meant. “That’s why I’m worried about Mayor Pete. You need to go toe-to-toe with this guy and take him down on the debate stage or we’re going to lose.”
Yang faulted Buttigieg for misreading the causes behind Trump’s election. “Pete, Pete, fundamentally you are missing the lesson of Donald Trump’s victory,” he said. “Donald Trump is not the cause of all of our problems, and we’re making a mistake when we act like he is.”
Buttigieg largely deflected the attacks, declining to respond with jabs of his own and sticking to his message instead. And to be sure, he was not the only candidate targeted. Biden focused as well on Senator Bernie Sanders, criticizing him for not detailing the full cost of his expensive progressive vision and suggesting that his identity as a “democratic socialist” would hurt Democrats down the ballot.
But like Biden, and Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren before him, Buttigieg found himself under siege. Those early front-runners all faltered to some extent. On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, there’s no place Buttigieg would rather be.