At the start, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s quest for the presidency seemed like something only read about in comic books.
He hasn’t been a governor, U.S. senator or a member of the Cabinet. He is the mayor of a city with a population that doesn’t even crack the top 300 in the United States in population. He’s from a state with only 11 electoral votes – and those 11 electoral votes rarely go to a Democrat, which Buttigieg is.
To increase the odds against success, he’s also the first openly gay and married presidential candidate in American political history.
Yet, he continues to climb.
The most recent polls in Iowa, where the presidential nominating process will start in just a little more than three months, show that Buttigieg has moved into third place. He now sits in the top tier. Most national polls also have him either third or a close fourth – and gaining. National oddsmakers have him as the third most likely candidate to claim the Democratic presidential nomination.
And early head-to-head polls have Buttigieg beating President Donald Trump in the 2020 general election.
Suddenly, the stuff of comic book stories now seems possible, even real.
How did it happen?
Have the rules governing politics and the trajectory of political careers been suspended or even completely rewritten in this era when reality TV stars can become president?
The things that make Buttigieg distinctive among presidential candidates – his sexual orientation, that he’s the mayor of a relatively small community – have drawn disproportionate attention. Many observers – me among them – have focused on the ways that he marks a departure from days gone by to the point that many of us (again, me included) have missed the ways that he fits into a long tradition of successful political candidates.
For one thing, there’s his military service.
For more than two centuries, we Americans often have looked to our fellow citizens who have worn the nation’s uniform for leadership. Time spent in the service demonstrates not just courage, but also devotion to country and a willingness to make sacrifices in pursuit of the greater good.
In fact, for periods of our history, it was almost impossible to be elected president if one had not served in the military. Every president – Democrat or Republican – from Dwight Eisenhower through George H.W. Bush served in the military during World War II.
That was an unbroken 40-year stretch.
Although the period after the Civil War wasn’t quite as spotless, every president from U.S. Grant to William McKinley – with the sole exception of Grover Cleveland – fought for the Union. That was more than 30 years.
The other thing that connects Buttigieg to a long-established stream of presidential candidates is his Harvard education.
James Madison, who had a degree from Princeton, was the first U.S. president to attend an Ivy League school. He was far from the last.
In fact, the last five presidents have been products of the Ivy League.
Even Donald Trump, who loves to tout his populist, anti-intellectual, anti-elitist credentials, has a diploma from the University of Pennsylvania.
There’s a reason so many presidents come from such schools. In addition to the traditional forms of learning, the elite colleges and universities also provide their alumni with access to invaluable networks for fundraising and talent recruitment. Such schools see themselves as cradles of leadership and do everything they can to foster successful political careers.
Does all this mean that Pete Buttigieg is an inevitable future president?
No, but it does mean that his candidacy isn’t quite the departure that many of us – again, guilty here – thought.
If he aspired to a career in politics and public service, Buttigieg has made all the right moves and walked a well-worn path.
In some ways, his candidacy is as new and fresh as a morning’s first light.
But, perhaps in even more ways, it’s as old as the country itself.