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Buttigieg Advocates Boldness But His Policies Are Timid

When it comes to basic issues like health care and education, Buttigieg’s policies are anything but bold.

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at a campaign phone bank on February 9, 2020, in Somersworth, New Hampshire.

In the leadup to Tuesday’s primary election in New Hampshire, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has sought to claim that he gained momentum by narrowly winning the most delegates in the Iowa caucus, even though Sen. Bernie Sanders won the popular vote and the whole process has been overshadowed by ongoing reports of errors. (Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren came in third, ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden.)

At the New Hampshire state McIntyre-Shaheen dinner, Buttigieg declared, “If you believe in an American politics defined by boldness, this is our chance.” But a close look at Buttigieg’s policy proposals shows them to be anything but bold, especially when taken in comparison to those of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Saturday, Buttigieg told a story of a 10-year-old whose family can’t afford insulin, and insisted we “make sure there is no such thing as an unaffordable prescription.” Attendees in the Sanders and Warren sections of that dinner immediately challenged Buttigieg by chanting “Medicare for All.” The episode embodied the left’s intense skepticism of Buttigieg’s health care approach. The former mayor’s plan promises a Medicare opt-in but preserves the private insurance industry, prompting questions about how the health insurance industry may chase the remaining uninsured for profits.

By contrast, Sanders and Warren have embraced a Medicare for All model, though they differ on implementation details. Sanders proposes a four-year transition period where the Medicare eligibility age is lowered by 10 years each year. Sanders wants to drop a bill in Congress on week one, and dispatch his supporters nationwide to try and overcome opposition by Republicans and moderate Democrats. Warren has outlined a two-part plan to tackle that same political opposition: First, pass a filibuster-proof reconciliation bill to create a public option, and use executive action to make cheaper prescription drugs, both of which will weaken the private insurance market’s political power. Then, pass a complete Medicare for All bill. Unlike the plans of Sanders and Warren, Buttigieg’s plan has no final step that would establish universal health care.

Abortion is health care, and Buttigieg has drawn fire on that subject, too. In December, speaking on medication abortion, he said “more research into the pros and cons and unintended consequences” is needed. But these medications, misoprostol and mifepristone, have been in use since 2000 in the United States. People who need to use medication abortion often the only option for those who have difficulty managing medical care should be protected from any criminal consequences, not have their access restricted or questioned. By comparison, Warren has committed to making these medications available over-the-counter; Sanders did not respond when asked about this question by The New York Times.

Buttigieg’s disability plan also lacks key changes both Warren and Sanders have committed to. There is currently an explicit marriage penalty for U.S. residents receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a program for people who are blind, disabled and/or over 65 years old. If two SSI recipients get married, their benefits are cut by 25 percent. If an SSI recipient lives with another person and shares their household expenses, it’s considered an “in-kind” source of income, and benefits are reduced. Both Warren and Sanders have proposals that would tear down these barriers to marriage and living together; Buttigieg’s disability plan doesn’t.

There are also stark contrasts between Buttigieg and the more progressive candidates on immigration enforcement and criminal legal reforms. Buttigieg, unlike both Sanders and Warren, doesn’t support full decriminalization of border crossings, nor a smaller budget for immigration enforcement agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection. Sanders and Warren both want to end cash bail and solitary confinement; Buttigieg merely advocates for both to be reduced. Buttigieg, like Warren, hasn’t committed to stopping deportations; Sanders is currently the only candidate to call for a complete moratorium on deportations.

Both Warren and Sanders support universal, free public college, treating it as a public good. The taxes they propose elsewhere would seek to make the wealthy pay their fair share to support it (Warren through a wealth tax on the richest 75,000 households, and Sanders through a tax on Wall Street trades). Buttigieg, on the other hand, opposes universal free public college, arguing it should be restricted to households making less than $100,000. He also promises “substantial tuition subsidies,” which aren’t further defined, for families making up to $150,000. But this approach ignores the fact that families who can pay for their children’s education don’t always do so; consider, for example, the possibility of a well-to-do family disowning their LGBTQ child. (Financial aid applications are based on an expected family contribution.) Further, income-capped programs are more vulnerable to reactionary forces like class resentment and racist backlash than popular, universal ones are.

Sanders and Warren want to cancel student debt; Sanders has a proposal to cancel all of it, assuming it can make it through Congress. Warren wants to cancel up to $50,000 of federal student debt on Day 1, using authority the Secretary of Education has and that advocates have been urging the use of since 2015 for defrauded students of predatory, for-profit colleges. Buttigieg, despite owing $130,000 in student debt, opposes wide-scale cancellation of it.

This weekend, Buttigieg drew fire from economists across the left for insisting that it was time for Democrats to care about reducing deficits again. Economist Stephanie Kelton of Stony Brook University said Buttigieg is falling for a “bogus argument” that’s long been used to “undermine the progressive agenda.” Economist Dean Baker from the Center for Economic and Policy Research pointed out that this would cause higher unemployment and hit Black and Latino people the hardest. And journalist David Dayen pointed out that the think tank Buttigieg is relying on for fiscal analysis is the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which supported Trump’s cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

Even if the Democrats win the presidency and take back the Senate, without serious democracy reforms, much of their agenda may be stalled by the Senate filibuster, and the 187 judicial appointments Trump and Mitch McConnell have rammed through. Warren has committed to abolishing the filibuster, and has said she’s open to adding justices. This earned her the highest score (93 percent) on the grassroots, constituent-engagement group Indivisible’s “Day 1 Democracy Agenda.”

Early in his campaign, Buttigieg was also in favor of big, bold democracy reforms, like adding justices to the Supreme Court. But when several of his financial bundlers people who commit to fundraising giant sums for a candidate — counseled him that this idea may be unpopular, he dropped it. On abolishing the filibuster, Buttigieg said he would leave the decision up to the Senate. Meanwhile, Sanders opposes both adding Supreme Court justices and abolishing the filibuster, noting he fears Republicans “will do the same thing” should they come to power again.

Buttigieg has also back-tracked on the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge. Warren was the first to sign it for 2020. Sanders signed in 2016 and again when he announced he was running for president in 2020. Both have identified corruption and the massive influence of the fossil fuel industry as central to inaction on climate. Meanwhile Buttigieg has been accused of breaking the spirit of the pledge for his “wine cave” fundraiser hosted by Craig Hall, who made his money investing in fossil fuels, and for using natural gas consultant Adam Barth as a bundler. As for Buttigieg’s climate plan, UC Santa Barbara Environmental Studies Department Professor Leah Stokes said his plan “reads as an extension of all the things we have already tried, but failed, to do federally” like a clean energy standard and carbon tax, rather than taking a Green New Deal approach. What’s worse than backtracking, though, is misrepresenting others’ support for a plan, which Buttigieg did during the rollout of his “Douglass Plan for Black America,” where he included the names of Black leaders who hadn’t actually endorsed the plan.

Buttigieg has drawn criticism not just for changing positions but also for failing to articulate some of them in the first place. On a New York Times foreign policy questionnaire, Buttigieg declined to answer 19 questions, including one on whether he’d end the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Both Warren and Sanders said they’d bring the troops home. When Buttigieg does weigh in, many of his answers are out of step with progressives. For example, Buttigieg has said that he opposes political boycotts of companies. We see this in his embrace of both Chick-fil-A and the Salvation Army, who’ve both faced criticisms for past homophobic policies or donations. Warren wants to “Break Up with Big Tech,” and has even run billboards in the heart of Silicon Valley saying so. Sanders wants to aggressively investigate these companies. Buttigieg seems more comfortable cozying up to tech titans. He criticized Warren’s call to break up Facebook; moreover he is close with Mark Zuckerberg and is funded by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

Even if a candidate doesn’t align with one’s values, if they show the capacity to listen, there’s hope to deploy public pressure to drive change. Sanders has admitted he was wrong on his 2001 vote on the AUMF, and credited Rep. Barbara Lee for her lone, righteous “No” vote. Following criticism and pressure from disabled activists in 2016, he evolved substantially on the issue in 2020, proposing dramatic changes to expand disability rights.

Warren also faced criticism about her disability plan when it was first released. When the disability rights group ADAPT notified Warren that her disability plan did not include elements of the Disability Integration Act, she quickly responded with an amended plan. In response, ADAPT issued a statement saying, “This is the first time that ADAPT has received a response from a presidential candidate with the speed and level of respect shown by Sen. Warren.”

When Warren released her farm plan, over 60 Black farmers wrote an open letter showing how it failed to adequately help them. In response, Warren updated her plan to address their concerns. Warren has also cited her engagement with BlackWomxnFor, an organizing collective of Black women leaders from across the country, saying its members “push me on ideas.But they also call me out when I get it wrong; and they’ve called me out publicly, and they were right to do that.”

Buttigieg, meanwhile, returned some donations following media scrutiny, such as those from Steve Patton, the attorney who helped Chicago Police hide the video of Laquan McDonald’s murder. But previously, when Buttigieg’s own vetting staff had warned about involvement with Patton, they were overruled. When confronted with criticism from LGBTQ media, rather than engage with it, Pete said he stopped reading it entirely.

Buttigieg hasn’t made a big deal about talking about whom he listens to and engages with — apart from the donors that he’s amended positions for. If the most important quality to identify in a political candidate is their ability to be moved, Buttigieg’s most glaring problem for progressives is that he appears primarily to listen to his funders.

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