Pete Buttigieg Spent His Younger Days Pushing Democrats Off Middle Ground As a college student, the 2020 presidential candidate was deeply frustrated with the Democratic Party during George W. Bush's presidency. He joined friends to redefine party values in bolder terms.
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Pete Buttigieg Spent His Younger Days Pushing Democrats Off Middle Ground

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Pete Buttigieg Spent His Younger Days Pushing Democrats Off Middle Ground

Pete Buttigieg Spent His Younger Days Pushing Democrats Off Middle Ground

Pete Buttigieg Spent His Younger Days Pushing Democrats Off Middle Ground

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/784151111/784284399" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg was on a quest to reform the Democratic Party nearly 15 years ago while at Oxford University in England. He opposed centrism at the time, a political space he has moved into as his 2020 presidential campaign has taken off. Lucy Hewett for NPR hide caption

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Lucy Hewett for NPR

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg was on a quest to reform the Democratic Party nearly 15 years ago while at Oxford University in England. He opposed centrism at the time, a political space he has moved into as his 2020 presidential campaign has taken off.

Lucy Hewett for NPR

When Pete Buttigieg arrived in England, he was a curious, bookish 23-year-old known to his friends as Peter.

The year was 2005. The Iraq War, unpopular among Buttigieg's college peers, was raging with no end in sight. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president, had lost the 2004 election to an increasingly unpopular Republican president.

And Democrats, like Buttigieg, were soul-searching.

"It felt like a pretty dark moment," said Dan Weeks, one of Buttigieg's friends from Oxford who now lives in New Hampshire and is active in Democratic politics in that early nominating state. They were eager, Weeks said, to find like-minded progressives who were not "content with the 'Clinton Third Way' status quo that had defined the Democratic Party for basically our lifetimes."

The Third Way refers to the moderate Democratic politics of the Bill Clinton era that sought to reconcile centrist economic ideas with progressive social ideas.

Weeks said the Clinton model had failed their generation. And he, like Buttigieg, was searching for a way out of that centrism.

He met the future mayor of South Bend, Ind., then a newly minted Harvard graduate, while at Oxford. Buttigieg was studying politics, philosophy and economics on a Rhodes scholarship.

And it was during this time that some of the seeds of his political ambitions took root.

In deep conversations in college dorms — nearly 15 years ago — the future presidential candidate joined friends to create an informal group with a mission: rebuild the Democratic Party that had suffered from repeated election losses.

The Democratic Renaissance Project

Weeks, right, said Buttigieg helped convene their political discussion groups but didn't dominate the conversations. Courtesy of Dan Weeks hide caption

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Courtesy of Dan Weeks

Weeks, right, said Buttigieg helped convene their political discussion groups but didn't dominate the conversations.

Courtesy of Dan Weeks

Every week or two, Weeks met up with Buttigieg and another dozen or so friends to debate and discuss politics. "We were nerdy types, I suppose," Weeks said.

Their group was like a book club but without books.

"We were students. It was our full-time job to try to think big thoughts and understand how the world works," Buttigieg said, recounting his Oxford days in an interview with NPR.

Together, they called themselves members of the Democratic Renaissance Project.

The name was kind of tongue-in-cheek, according to Sabeel Rahman, another member of the group.

"I certainly didn't think that we were actually remaking progressive politics," said Rahman, Buttigieg's roommate at the time. "It was more just a way ... for us to work through our own thinking."

Sometimes the friends met in common rooms in the ancient ornate colleges around Oxford; other times they gathered at a local British pub that had been frequented by a former Rhodes scholar whose reputation loomed large in their academic circles: Bill Clinton.

"It was very informal," Rahman said. "We would take turns hosting, and we'd bring some snacks or something. We'd rotate who would tee up a different topic of conversation."

But as ad-hoc as it seemed, there was also a clear sense of generational urgency; if these brainy, young Ivy League-educated students wanted to live in a better country, it seemed they had to fix it themselves. They felt obliged to prepare for public service.

"It was something more than just the camaraderie, which counted for a lot," Weeks said. "We were looking to challenge each other's thinking, especially at that moment, when after almost eight years of George W. Bush, a lot of us were feeling like the country was almost unrecognizable."

Sometimes the group would circulate writings by modern day political theorists about citizenship or progressive values.

"A lot of times we'd think through some of the policy debates of the day. The Iraq War was one that came up a number of times," said Rahman, who now serves as president of the progressive group Demos.

NPR contacted more than half a dozen former Democratic Renaissance Project members. Most declined to be interviewed on the record for this story. Buttigieg's friends are a high-achieving crew: They now work at elite universities, law firms and hedge funds. They didn't want to discuss campaign politics given their professional ties. Some are now financially supporting Buttigieg's campaign. Others certainly would vote for him. Weeks recently officially endorsed Buttigieg.

But, in a strange twist, at least two members have also worked for another 2020 presidential candidate: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

That includes Ganesh Sitaraman, a Buttigieg friend from his undergraduate days at Harvard who originally conceived of the Democratic Renaissance Project with him. In addition to the Oxford branch, the group had an outpost in Cambridge, Mass., where Sitaraman was studying.

Sitaraman is a close longtime adviser to Warren.

Pete Buttigieg (far right) arrived at Oxford in 2005 as a bookish 23-year-old deeply unsatisfied with the rhetoric of the Democratic Party. Courtesy of Pete Buttigieg campaign hide caption

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Courtesy of Pete Buttigieg campaign

Pete Buttigieg (far right) arrived at Oxford in 2005 as a bookish 23-year-old deeply unsatisfied with the rhetoric of the Democratic Party.

Courtesy of Pete Buttigieg campaign

Centrist critic

During his Oxford days, Buttigieg felt there was a faulty theory circulating among Democrats — an assumption that in order to win elections they had to contort their values, work within the Republican framework and put a conservative spin on their message.

"There had been a smallness to the aspirations of our own party," Buttigieg said. "Because it felt like all those years, the whole first decade of this century, it felt like all that Democrats were doing was responding to Republicans."

There's an echo of this you hear from Buttigieg on the campaign trail, that includes a critique of his own party.

"If we want to win, we can't look like we're the party of 'back to normal,' " Buttigieg told Iowa Democrats earlier this year, in a version of a line he has repeated throughout the campaign. "What we have now isn't working, but 'normal' wasn't working either. That's part of how we got here."

Buttigieg said he was frustrated during the Bush years that the GOP seemed to have a monopoly on family, patriotism and morality. He felt like his party was focused on policy, and he wanted them to think more about values and philosophy.

"A big part of what we were doing was studying the right," Buttigieg explained. "One of the things that we had noticed was that it was actually the American right wing that had built the strongest relationship between kind of ideas and politics."

Buttigieg and his friends were obsessed with reforming the Democratic Party.

Rahman says he remembers one particular example in which they staged a debate at Oxford. The prompt was: "The Third Way Is Good For The Democratic Party: Yay or Nay."

"Pete spoke up. I remember he was against that Third Way approach," Weeks said. "He was a strong, and, I thought, certainly pretty compelling critic of that way."

And yet, ironically, Buttigieg's current critics accuse him of being a modern Third Way politician, a candidate overly focused on rhetoric rather than ideas.

When Buttigieg began his presidential campaign, he suggested some radical changes such as scrapping the Electoral College and reforming the Supreme Court. Now that he's seen as a more viable candidate, he's not as vocal about those ideas.

"I think over time, I've come to appreciate more the policy work that comes out of moderate organizations," Buttigieg said in trying to explain how he reconciles how people see him today with his vocal opposition to centrism while in graduate school.

Those friends who formed the Democratic Renaissance Project never came to a consensus on ideology among themselves. Most returned to the United States. Some joined universities; Buttigieg joined the consulting firm McKinsey. But every year they would still gather, sometimes in Washington or Cambridge, Mass., and debate ideas, often with a formal agenda and guest lectures.

At one meeting, they brainstormed where the country's politics would be in 10 years. The predictions were remarkably prescient: a country with worsening income inequality and tribalism. Around 2010, the group fizzled out. Today, some of the former members are more centrist, others more liberal.

But Rahman says there was something that united them.

"We came into that space not just with a sense of crisis but with a sense that progressive politics as it was being practiced in the post-Clinton era was not up to the task of what we needed progressivism to do," he said.

Many friends agree the focus on freedom, values and generational change Buttigieg speaks about on the campaign trail trace back to those days of soul-searching as liberal millennials living in a George W. Bush world.