Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg (AP Photo/Matt York/Christopher Victorio/imageSPACE/MediaPunch)

Pete Buttigieg attacks a straw-man version of Bernie Sanders, and media plays along

Buttigieg consistently calls Sanders a purist who drives people away. But who or what is he really talking about?


Dan Froomkin
February 19, 2020 11:00AM (UTC)

This article was co-produced with Press Watch, a new website that monitors and critiques American political coverage. Please consider supporting Press Watch by making a donation.

It seems to me that a good measure of politicians' fundamental character is how honestly they portray the views of their opponents.

Do they describe those views accurately, and then make good-faith arguments against them? Or do they engage in hyperbole and knock down straw men? I think that's a lot more telling than, say, fact-checks of minutiae.

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Pete Buttigieg is increasingly attacking a straw-man version of Bernie Sanders — indeed, making that a central pitch of his campaign.

The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor routinely portrays Sanders as a "my way or the highway" absolutist who turns away anyone who doesn't agree with him "100 percent of the time" and rejects any progress short of revolution.

Corporate-media political journalists have been lapping this stuff up — after all, they don't much like Sanders' tone, either, especially when it comes to his rhetoric about a system rigged by the big corporations.

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But what they ought to be doing is asking Buttigieg exactly who he thinks Bernie Sanders is excluding and why he's so upset about it. Because the only people Sanders is actually rejecting from his campaign are billionaires and influence-peddlers.

Buttigieg could legitimately argue that Sanders' views are too radical and are driving moderates away — and he does, in fact, make that argument as well.

But his main complaint is that Sanders's campaign is not inclusive enough – and that's fundamentally dishonest.

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What Buttigieg says

In the Feb. 7 New Hampshire debate, Buttigieg accused Sanders of "dividing people with a politics that says, 'if you don't go all the way to the edge, it doesn't count' — a politics that says, 'it's my way or the highway.'" It's a politics, Buttigieg said, that "beats people over the head and says they shouldn't even be on their side if we don't agree 100% of the time."

During a Feb. 8 rally, he argued against the "risk of excluding anybody from this effort, of saying that if you're not either for a revolution or status quo then you don't fit. I think we are going to defeat this president by inviting everybody to be at our side."

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"I certainly think there's a very clear contrast between my approach and my friend Sen. Sanders' approach," he told ABC News on Feb. 10. "He's talking about either a revolution or status quo and there's nothing in between."

In his post-election speech in New Hampshire on Feb. 11, Buttigieg said, "We can't defeat the most divisive president in modern American history by tearing down anybody who doesn't agree with us 100% of the time."

In an op-ed headlined "Nevadans do not have to choose revolution or the status quo" in the Reno Gazette-Journal on Monday, Buttigieg wrote:

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This election season, some have told us that this choice comes down to revolution or a return to the broken ways of the past. Either we tear down the entire system or we resign ourselves to the Washington status quo that has failed too many of our communities. I reject that false choice — and Nevadans should too.

Ironically enough, it's Buttigieg who's posing the false choice.

Who Sanders rejects

Sanders is refusing to take money from billionaires, corporate or super PACs, or fossil fuel, drug or insurance companies. He won't do closed-door high-dollar fundraisers for his campaign. But pretty much everyone else — and this has occasionally been the source of controversy — is welcome to participate..

What's really going on is obvious, if you stop to think about it. Sanders has been highly critical of Buttigieg's fundraising appeals to the ultra-rich, mocking him for taking money from "40 billionaires" and "big-money interests."

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Buttigieg, who refuses to indulge in what he calls a "purity test" with regard to donors, is trying to twist that to his advantage.

In effect, and without quite saying so, he casts his willingness to accept contributions from billionaires and influence peddlers as an example of how inclusive his campaign is.

That's pretty cynical.

But so far, it's mostly working. Journalists repeatedly quote Buttigieg's straw-man argument without any pushback. They should instead ask for examples of when Sanders has turned away people who don't agree with him "100% of the time" — and who those people might be.

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Buttigieg is probably safe from such probing questions, however. Sanders's repeated insistence that the system is rigged in favor of the rich comes with an implicit — and sometimes explicit — critique that the corporate media has been too stupid or corrupt to speak the truth. Our elite political reporters feel scolded by Sanders, and Buttigieg knows it.

No pushback

So here are Washington Post correspondents Matt Viser and Sean Sullivan reporting, without any qualification, that "Buttigieg praised Sanders but also referred to his polarizing movement, suggesting that it spurned anyone who didn't agree '100 percent of the time.'"

Here are New York Times correspondents Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns reporting, without any pushback, that Buttigieg, "without naming Mr. Sanders … urged voters to reject a political approach that demanded revolution or nothing."

And here are Allan Smith of NBC and Sean Sullivan and Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post quoting, without any caveats, Buttigieg's critique of Sanders as a "my way or the highway" leftist.

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The Sanders response

Buttigieg's most explicit critique of Sanders as exclusive rather than inclusive came during the Feb. 7 debate in New Hampshire, which was also notable for Sanders's forceful response. The exchange was as follows:

Buttigieg: So the biggest risk we could take at a time like this would be… trying to unite this country… when our nominee is dividing people with a politics that says, if you don't go all the way to the edge, it doesn't count. A politics that says, it's my way or the highway.

George Stephanopoulos: Are you talking about Sen. Sanders?

Buttigieg: Yes. Because we've got to bring as many people as we can into this process. Look, all of us have been saying that we can build the majority that it's going to take in order to win. But the process of actually proving it is now underway. And now it comes to New Hampshire, a state that thinks for itself, is not going to be told what to do by anyone and that has a very independent streak that is going to respond to those who are reaching out in a politics of addition and inclusion and belonging. Not one that beats people over the head and says they shouldn't even be on their side if we don't agree 100% of the time.

Stephanopoulos: Sen. Sanders, your response.

Sanders: Needless to say, I've never said that, but let me tell you what I do say. The way you bring people together is by presenting an agenda that works for the working people of this country, not for the billionaire class. The way you bring people together, Republicans, independents, Democrats, progressives, conservatives — you raise the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour. The way you bring people together is to make it clear that we're not going to give tax breaks to billionaires and large corporations. They're going to start paying their fair share of taxes. That's what the American people want.

And I'll tell you something else, the way you bring people together is by ending the international disgrace of this country being the only major nation on Earth not to guarantee health care to all people as a human right. And you bring people together by telling the pharmaceutical industry they're not going to charge us 10 times more for the same prescription drugs as the people in Canada that borders on New Hampshire. That's how you bring people together and you defeat Donald Trump.

Buttigieg used to aim this same critique at Elizabeth Warren as well as Sanders, specifically on the basis of their embrace of a "Medicare for All" plan.

As Amy B Wang wrote for the Washington Post back in November, Warren had a pretty forceful response as well.

"I'm not running some consultant-driven campaign with proposals that have been carefully crafted not to offend big donors," Warren said at a town hall in North Las Vegas on Sunday, in a comment seen by many as a shot at Buttigieg. "I passed that point a long time ago."

She added that the Democratic nominee needed "big ideas" to inspire voters and to help those who need it most. Buttigieg, like Biden, has proposed a government-run health plan as an option, rather than making it universal and mandatory, as under Medicare-for-all.

"I get it. It's easy to give up on big ideas. You can make yourself so smart and so sophisticated," Warren said. "But here's the thing: When we give up on those big ideas, we give up on the people who would be touched by those ideas."

If reporters want to quote Buttigieg's straw-man arguments about Sanders, they should put them in their proper context.

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Specifically, they are a cynical response to Sanders' critiques of Buttigieg's susceptibility to special interests and billionaires.

More generally, they are an example of how, as New York Times reporters Matt Flegenheimer and Katie Glueck recently observed, Buttigieg "has often leaned on tone as much as substance — Democratic elevator music, some critics suggest — presenting himself as broadly palatable to less ideological voters."


Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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