By John Krull
NASHVILLE, Tennessee – The guy who asked me about “Mayor Pete” wore a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt.
We were standing near the concession stand at a park filled with baseball fields here on the outskirts of Music City. His son was playing in a peewee game, mine in a high-school one.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
He’d asked where I was from. When I told him I was a Hoosier, his eyebrows lifted.
“That’s where that guy Butta-something is from, right?” he asked.
Yes, I said.
“I like that guy. He makes sense,” he said, then added, “Even if I can’t say his name to save my life.”
We both laughed.
Moments later, when we’d headed back to watching our sons play ball, I marveled at the unlikely rise of Indiana’s own Pete Buttigieg.
Somehow, this gay, 37-year-old mayor of a city that isn’t even in the top 300 in the country in terms of population has captured the nation’s attention and established himself, at least for the moment, as a serious presidential contender. He’s coming in third in some polls of Democratic White House hopefuls. He raised a stunning $7 million in his first two months of campaigning.
And he provoked partisans of 2016 Democratic standard-bearer Hillary Clinton to offer snarling responses from on high when he suggested, oh so mildly, that her campaign might have been the least bit flawed. Buttigieg said Clinton’s assertion that America is already great in the face of Donald Trump’s spurious crusade to “Make America Great Again” might have come off as just a bit complacent.
That’s all impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the barriers Buttigieg has breached in the process.
Witness my new-found acquaintance in the Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt.
A couple of minutes of conversation confirmed what I already suspected. This guy who couldn’t pronounce Buttigieg’s last name but likes him anyway is a Republican by birth who voted for Trump, with some uneasiness, in 2016. But he’s sick of what he calls “the clown show” the Trump White House has become and he’s looking for other options.
Like Mayor Pete.
But why Buttigieg and not someone else?
My new buddy says he likes Buttigieg because Mayor Pete talks about things that matter in ways people can understand.
That pretty much sums it up.
Buttigieg clearly is a talented and smart guy. He’s a Harvard grad who speaks eight languages, can perform piano solos with symphony orchestras, has served his country in the military and written a well-received book.
But his greatest gift seems to be arriving at seemingly simple and yet fundamental insights before almost every other smart and talented person does.
He’s said that Democrats spend too much time talking about Donald Trump.
It’s a simple observation, but a brilliant one.
Democrats aren’t going to sway Americans one way or the other by attacking Trump.
Polls reveal that.
A little more than two years into his presidency, Trump’s numbers have remained remarkably consistent. A little more than 40 percent of the country really, really likes Donald Trump and will support him, regardless of what he does, good or bad. And a little more than 50 percent of the nation can’t stand Donald Trump and won’t vote for him regardless of what he does, good or bad.
Americans know how they feel about President Trump.
What they don’t know is how they feel about any potential Democrats who might run against him.
That’s why Buttigieg’s insight is instructive.
Trump’s 2020 opponent won’t have to make the case against the president. That case already has been made with all the people who are open to being persuaded by it.
What the 2020 Democratic candidate will have to do is what Buttigieg is doing – convince people like my fellow baseball dad in the Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt that Democrats provide a credible and even attractive alternative.
They can win, as my new buddy says, by talking about things that matter in ways people can understand.
If they do that, Americans will pay attention to the candidate doing the talking, even if they can’t pronounce his name to save their lives.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.