First off, my apologies for not putting anything out on Friday. When I heard that T.J. Sjostrom — a friend and former colleague from BMB Russia — had passed away, it shook me and I had a hard deadline for a project and just couldn't get myself to write. Yesterday, I learned that one of my grandmother’s dearest friends — Emma Bruk — passed away from complications due to COVID, an infection she contracted leaving Moscow to get treatment for serious medical problems in Maryland. Anything I can say feels cheap, especially after seeing the outpouring of stories about T.J. on Twitter that often managed — often unintentionally and from a good place — to put those who barely knew him or didn’t know him in the spotlight instead. It’s been a long, stressful, too often terrible year. I hope you’re close with your loved ones, or at least as close as you can be. Life is short and unbearably random and we could all use a little light right about now.
Today’s piece isn’t on Russia as my brain is simply not responding to Russia stories or analysis at the moment. I opted to finish something that had been percolating since Pete Buttigeig gave his “acceptance” speech for the nomination to be Transport Secretary under Biden. It’s a digression, but closer to stuff I’d like to make more of an effort to put out semi-regularly next year compared to the analytic work usually featured here.
Two rules of the literary American political imaginary that, no matter how much one brays and caterwauls, remain inviolate: only the dead know Brooklyn and O’Hare International knows no romance. Now that Pete Buttigeig belongs to Joe Biden’s cabinet of curiosities, a crew of team players brooking no challenge to Kamala Harris’ path to the future nomination, he’s gone and broken that unstated law Midwesterners unfussed about their coastal kin know too well. No living thing speechifies that hopeless concrete jungle haunted by the spirits of those dead Union soldiers relocated by the grace of that bastard Richard Daley the Younger. Then again, Mayor Pete is no living thing.
Just look at his acceptance speech for his nomination to be America’s darling, our transport secretary, after turning down a chance to run the Office of Management and Budget in order to land ‘a real cabinet position’ and not a ‘staff-level position’ in the administration. It’s not just that he did small, important work in a town with a bus fleet comprised of a whopping 60 vehicles with precious little oversight or executive influence over relevant regional transit systems, including my beloved South Shore Line. He’s earned the role because he really loves planes, trains, and automobiles:
“I’ve also had a personal love of transportation ever since childhood. More than once, as a college student, I would convince a friend to travel nearly a thousand miles back to Indiana on Amtrak, though I know that in this administration, I will at best be the second biggest train enthusiast. I spent a spring break in graduate school studying on board a cargo ship. Travel in my mind is synonymous with adventure, growth, and, even love, so much so that I proposed to my husband, Chasten, in an airport terminal. Don’t let anyone tell you O’Hare isn’t romantic.”
This is not the lover’s discourse of a living soul, but the yawping of an author who’s clearly dead inside. Thank god he slummed it with normies on a cargo ship for spring break. I once took a Joyce pub crawl through Dublin with a friend for spring break. Make me the Education Secretary. Hell, I’ve got professor parents who made sure travel was synonymous with discovery, foods I didn’t like at first, and family fights.
Pete’s the guy in countless midwestern high schools who, in place of a personality, live and die by their CV, debate or model UN, the score on that Mandarin test, whatever it takes to make it into that first choice school that gets you into the Ivy League or, if they want the pretense without losing the chip on their shoulder, the University of Chicago. Naked ambition only works when the Little Napoleon’s wearing clothes. Like so many valedictorians, the shock of failure stung all the more harshly because sometimes being the smartest guy in the room — on paper at least — doesn’t actually win first prize. They say some men lead lives of quiet desperation. Others scream it out loud onstage for all the world to see when they don’t get what they want.
“My view of this opportunity is also shaped by being the youngest member named so far to this cabinet, and the first Millennial to be at that table. Newer generations have a lot at stake in infrastructure policy that, by its nature, must contemplate both the immediate and the long-term. The question of how America will look by the middle of this century — the competitiveness of our economy, the security of our climate — for me this is not academic, it’s personal.”
It would be a bit more believable if there were consequences for failure in Buttigeig’s political world, but he’s a Democrat. Like Harris, he failed upward. Biden gave him the gig to reward him for dropping out and endorsing rather than giving what could be a serious role in any energy transition strategy to someone deserving who goes beyond the robotic platitudes of “smooth-talking” the Washington set and its Boomer worldview love to see, an honor bestowed to teacher’s pets and the masters of 60-40. Of course it’s academic. Harvard gave his husband a fellowship after the campaign in the usual game of cat and access. Pete joined the Notre Dame faculty without earning his PhD. Sinecures await for those who have rich friends who’ll pony up.
“At its best, transportation makes the American Dream possible, getting people and goods to where they need to be, directly and indirectly creating good-paying jobs.
At its worst, misguided policies and missed opportunities can reinforce racial and economic inequality, dividing or isolating neighborhoods, undermining government’s basic role of empowering Americans to thrive.”
Good thing transport is now confined to concerns about neighborhoods, further evidence that Pete’s default setting is to think in terms of cities and not, perhaps, the role that regional bus and rail networks play in making large swathes of the country more economically competitive. To say government is about empowerment is to slap on a Bill Clinton mask and shout “hallelujah, amen” in a poor Arkansas drawl. Governments spend money, build things, provide things. The language of empowerment is a hop, skip, and a jump from saying “we want to help you help yourselves.” It may well be true, but you sound like a prick. Given Buttigeig’s campaign dressed itself as a sort of Latter Day Third Way, it’s not surprising that its next iteration would do the same.
Rounding out the nomination speech was what we’ve come to expect from the Biden team’s comms strategy — an appeal to breaking barriers:
“I am also mindful that the eyes of history are on this appointment — knowing this is the first time an American president has ever sent an openly LGBTQ cabinet nominee to the Senate for confirmation.”
We need diversity in our boardrooms, in city halls, on city councils, in state houses, in Congress, in the cabinet. But it’s a dodge here, a handy punchline to underscore that Pete’s frantic lobbying failed and the transition team needed to save face. If only he could profess the importance of infrastructure with the same poll-tested tones he uses for foreign policy, his truest love.
This billet will be a continuation of his campaign as he prances off to ribbon-cuttings and takes credit for what his deputies do, but he’ll be facing fire from Republicans through the nomination process and beyond worse than anything he saw driving SUVs “outside the wire” in Kabul. The same people who cringe at Dan Crenshaw, Tom Cotton, and countless other Republican rogues wrapping themselves in the flag think we ought to defer to the service of a political figure with two weeks’ training under his belt who was a driver with some language skills who worked as a briefer in a green zone. There’s a reason reserve officers deploy while serving as mayor of a city with a nice posting in a safe compound at a time when attacks in Kabul had quieted down post-surge, and it comes down to having friends in the right places and a dream of higher office. You can’t say “I’d never call myself a combat veteran” and then expect us to believe that “I’ve seen a lot worse ‘incoming’ than a tweet full of typos” isn’t suggesting otherwise. When he says he loves transport, I’d just as well believe that he loves gas-guzzlers but has learned to do without for propriety’s sake.
When Pete found his footing as a DNC insider finally getting a national look, he wanted to brand himself as the foreign policy candidate. That’s why he lobbied so hard for UN Ambassador, a fitting capstone on a career built on taking the shortest way home. Fans of his rhetorical style, akin to watching a mannequin rigged with Nixon’s brain that has pored over days’ worth of Obama footage in hopes the people will love it, don’t seem to care much for parsing the actual meaning of his words. It’s a faith that comes down to trusting that his heart’s in the right place and nothing wrong was said. Consider his foreign policy address from early June 2019, his most transparent attempt to position himself as a veteran with foreign policy know-how others lacked:
“When America acts alone, it can only be because core interests are at stake and because there is no alternative. Notably, this is not currently true of the situation in Venezuela. It is not currently true of the situation around Iran. It is the difference between the necessary response to 9/11 after Afghanistan and the self-defeating invasion of Iraq. It is, in short, the difference between Normandy and Saigon.”
Iran was conveniently framed as a matter requiring allies to help, something that Germany for one has been quick to jump on after Biden’s victory to push for a more comprehensive Iran deal Tehran can’t accept that would presumably include ballistic missiles. His donors let him know what to say. He also conflated the rightful decision to invade Afghanistan with staying there 20 years, as if the mission did not become self-defeating once the JCPOA was broken and Iran could not play a regional role in stabilizing Afghanistan for an eventual exit or viable equilibrium. Finally, it posited Normandy in terms of America acting alone — a hilarious oversight — and Iraq, but not Kabul, in terms of Saigon. One wonders how the mistake was made, but not for long given that Tarek Ghani, the son of Aghan president Ashraf Ghani and direct and indirect beneficiary of the United States’ presence, was advising him on the campaign trail. “Our legitimacy abroad rests on our democracy at home.” The donors have spoken.
Rolling out Pete’s nomination tells us what we all knew, but the Biden campaign hid as best it could during the race. Biden will be a weak figure within the Democratic Party and the political landscape. He’ll be hamstrung by the donors he’s served for decades, his fawning admiration for ambitious Ivy League graduates with personal agendas and little vision, his belief in institutions that have fundamentally changed, and his refusal to update his worldview to where a growing number of Americans have shifted, especially during the COVID crisis. He’s blowing his limited political capital he’s gained in the opening salvo, even in places that better align with voter preferences like General Lloyd Austin (a welcome change, even if one I wish didn’t require a former general to pull off). It’s loyalists, figureheads, and people who can pass the senate confirmation process now. Say what you will, but it’s not looking great in Georgia at the moment. A mass of votes against Trump didn't suddenly produce content people watching a 78-year old walk into the White House who appears to be getting the band back together whenever he can. The popular vote doesn’t suddenly bestow legitimacy onto a clearly defined political agenda on Joe’s part — his climate plan is probably the only thing with meat on it we can scrutinize immediately — just as it doesn’t correspond to political capital when it comes to votes in the House and Senate.
Biden is setting up to be a transitional figure, and transitional figures are weak if everyone knows that’s the game. They have a short shelf life and bleed credibility, influence, and power at a faster clip than ones who can win re-election. It’s almost inconceivable that he’d run again in 2024 given how much he visible declined between 2016 and 2020, but if he does, it won’t be pretty. The cabinet has now been stuffed with people who have no inkling to run the next two cycles for dogcatcher, let alone president. We’re being handed a clear lane for a Harris-Buttigeig ticket. It’s a duo led by an heir apparent who dropped out of the race before Iowa at 2% nationally after saying she believed Biden’s accusers and implied he was a racist over a policy she herself would not support and rounded out by a guy who polled near 0% with black voters, very low with Hispanic/Latino voters, and relatively poorly with anyone under the age of 45-50. Biden’s forced Pete’s hand. He can’t challenge Harris and he now gets lumped in with her success or failure in the next term. He can’t wait longer to run unless he has a federal post outside of Indiana in the works. Given that I don’t think he’d be caught dead in Gary, I can’t imagine there’s a plan for that. That ticket will lose a national election, especially if they keep their soporific bromides and ‘both handsism’, the stuff that the sad sap junior in high school demanding to bump a test score from an 89 to a 90+ serves up once he makes it onto the national stage.
The Democratic Party is falling apart, slowly but surely. Justice Democrats and progressives don’t care about winning rural seats or state houses unless it’s by their dogma, centrists and Blue Dogs are ignoring the fundamental economic shift taking place that Trump and Trumpist Republicans are tapping into, and identity narratives for positions of power have overtaken honest conversations about policy intended to actually fix the problems this cabinet of firsts is proof of. The DNC was headed by dilettantes this cycle, and there’s going to be a leadership scramble in 2022. So long as Biden and the party elders keep offering bobbleheads like Buttigeig handouts for sticking to script, there’s trouble ahead. This is not a confident staffing job on the part of Biden’s team, and a troubling portent for just how neutered much of his presidency is likely to be, even with possible control of the senate.
In a year of terribles and terror, anxiety and loathing and anger, I’m not resting easy at night knowing that Pete’s on the case for Transport. It’s the same as it ever was, a perch for a party hack who would have lost electorally against Donald Trump in the midst of the worst economic crisis in strictly numerical terms we may have ever seen. If you want to ride coattails, it takes a giant to keep you out of the mud. Biden’s no giant. Time will tell if Harris has a use for Pete. Lord knows I don’t. And while I made my peace with that army of the soulless and undead — management consultants — while studying at the LSE, I much prefer the living. Too many of us voted for narcs in student government. Look how that turned out. If he runs in 2024 or 2028, you better kill me for Pete’s sake. I know where I sign up to volunteer and there’ll be plenty of not-so-friendly fire.
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