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TAMARA KEITH, HOST:
Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. Throughout the spring and summer, we will be taking you on the road to meet the 2020 presidential candidates. We're doing these special episodes in collaboration with New Hampshire Public Radio and Iowa Public Radio, which is where Clay Masters comes in.
CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Hey, Tam. So great to have you back in Iowa. We go way back.
KEITH: We go way, way, way, way back. And Clay, I should say, welcome back to the podcast.
MASTERS: Thank you.
KEITH: So for everyone who doesn't know you, you work for Iowa Public Radio.
MASTERS: I do. I'm the Morning Edition host for Iowa Public Radio. I am also the lead political reporter. So I spend a lot of time covering the Iowa caucuses.
KEITH: Yeah (laughter). And you and I spent a lot of time at the back of ballrooms, halls.
MASTERS: Sitting on the floor, yeah.
MASTERS: Filing stories.
KEITH: Clay and I were at the back of a steamy and packed room at the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union Hall in Des Moines, Iowa, for a book club meeting. And this isn't just any book club; they are reading books written by the Democratic candidates running for president. A reminder - as of today, there are 23 of them.
I can't decide if this is the best book club ever or the worst book club ever.
MASTERS: That's a lot of books.
KEITH: There are a lot of candidate books to read.
MASTERS: I can't - I don't know if I've ever read 23 books in this short amount of time.
KEITH: Because this is Iowa and its first-in-the-nation caucuses have an outsized role in deciding the nominees, some of the candidates are actually attending book club meetings. On this night, the book was "Shortest Way Home," written by South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
MASTERS: First time I covered him was in early February at a little house party, where there were about a dozen people there. And a month ago, he was speaking outside to about 1,600 people in Des Moines. So he's kind of come out of nowhere, and he's turning heads. He's a Afghanistan War veteran. He's openly gay. His husband campaigns with him quite a bit. He's also a Rhodes scholar. And the list goes on and on.
KEITH: His husband's name is Casten. They got married last year. Mayor Buttigieg is 37 years old and is campaigning on the idea of generational change, which Mary Vander-Salazar (ph) brought up at the book club.
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MARY VANDER-SALAZAR: And I was reading, and I was reading more, and I was like, well, I mean, we're the same age. And I had this moment of, like, consciousness that people that are in our generation are eligible to run to become the president of the United States of America.
PETE BUTTIGIEG: A little spooky, isn't it?
VANDER-SALAZAR: I mean - no, honestly, it wasn't. I was calling my friends, and I was like, you guys, like, we could do this.
KEITH: That teed him up to launch into his stump speech.
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BUTTIGIEG: And while I think anybody of any age can serve, I think there are some virtues to having a personal stake in what that future is going to look like. It's one of the reasons I talk a lot about what America will look like in 2054. So that's the year that I'm planning to retire. It's also the year that I would reach the current age of the current president. And I want to be able to say in 2054 that we've got to a good place.
KEITH: After Buttigieg answered a few more questions and autographed the last book, he sat down with Clay and me in a conference room across the hall.
So we have discovered that the three of us have something in common, which is that...
BUTTIGIEG: All right.
KEITH: ...We were all in garage bands in high school.
BUTTIGIEG: Really? All right. Do we have enough players for a band here? Would everybody...
MASTERS: I think we could probably do that.
KEITH: I think we wouldn't have any percussion, probably. But...
BUTTIGIEG: Ah, OK.
BUTTIGIEG: Well, you always go to the drummer's garage, anyway, so.
MASTERS: That's right.
KEITH: (Laughter) Exactly. So what was the name of your band?
BUTTIGIEG: Turkish Delight.
MASTERS: Who came up - did you come up with the name?
BUTTIGIEG: To be honest, I can't remember how or why we had that name (laughter). But that's what we went with.
KEITH: My band spent more time working on the name than...
KEITH: ...Working on the music.
BUTTIGIEG: What was it?
KEITH: Spamicide (ph).
BUTTIGIEG: All right.
MASTERS: We were The Outset in high school.
BUTTIGIEG: The Outset - ooo (ph), I like that.
MASTERS: It was the beginning.
BUTTIGIEG: It's very hip - The Outset.
MASTERS: So first question here - wanting to ask what's the exact moment that you decided that you needed to run for president in 2020?
BUTTIGIEG: So I'm not sure a decision that big ever has an exact moment. A decision like that makes itself known over time. And I think what I saw around me was that there was something happening in the country that was a lot more profound than just one election, and that it called for something very different - a different approach, different style, different background and a different story. Not different values, though. I believe in the values of my party. And I began to feel that I might have something to offer.
And as I started floating it, talking to different people, speaking to different kinds of groups, watching faces rise and fall, I came to really believe that what we had was not like the others. And then it just became a personal question of whether Chasten and I were really up for this. And after a few of those gut checks around the holidays, we decided we were.
KEITH: So one of the things that makes you not like most of the others is that you're a millennial.
KEITH: You're even proudly millennial.
BUTTIGIEG: You bet.
KEITH: (Laughter) So the millennial generation is by far the most diverse generation in American history. What makes you the right candidate for that incredibly diverse set of voters?
BUTTIGIEG: Yeah. You know, rather than focus on the minority I belong to, I would mostly answer in terms of the fact that our generation is in a position to find unity through diversity. In other words, each of us has different sets of experiences. Most of us have experienced some pattern of exclusion in our lifetime. But that also means all of us have a common interest in belonging. And I think that precisely because we're the most diverse, we might be the generation best positioned to bring a kind of American unity that we haven't had in a long time.
And there's not a moment too soon because we have a White House that specializes in dividing us and finding all the different ways to pit one group of Americans against another. And within our generation, I think there's a model for how to do something different.
KEITH: How do you define identity politics?
BUTTIGIEG: Well, I think it's a word that - or a term that escapes definition. Usually, when it's used, it's by somebody who's trying to devalue or wave away the way that a lot of us talk about how a particular experience or a particular exclusion matters. I think identity politics in its worst sense is what's being practiced by this White House, which is mastering what I would call white identity politics.
But I also think you can build a politics that accounts for identity as a source of solidarity, that doesn't pretend to align everybody's experiences with each other - that I would say, you know, as a white gay guy that I have any clue what it's like to be a DREAMer or a woman of color - but that takes all the different pieces that each of us has and uses it as a foundation for not only recognizing difference but resisting the different forms of exclusion, knowing that when somebody else, for totally different reasons than me, is on the short end of some kind of discrimination, that I could always be next.
MASTERS: There had been some criticism for a while that you weren't getting specifically into policy. And you've released some policy ideas on your website, and we wanted to run down a few of those right now.
KEITH: And one that our listeners have - bring up to us all the time is climate change.
MASTERS: When we talk to farmers in Iowa, regularly there's a concern about more regulation on the farm.
MASTERS: How do you implement a Green New Deal policy that farmers don't see as more regulation while they're dealing with low commodity prices, with a trade war and tariffs and intense flooding that we've been seeing this year?
BUTTIGIEG: First of all, it's got to be part of a bigger picture where rural America feels supported. Sometimes I feel like when Democrats are asked about rural America, we just - we panic and say broadband. And don't get me wrong, I'm for rural broadband. But you can see how if that's all we have to say, it leaves a lot of rural Americans cold. And the reality is we need to have credible policies, for example, on consolidation so it isn't so difficult that you have so few buyers for your product. But also connect the dots, that the extreme weather that is making it more and more difficult to be a grower in this country is probably not unrelated to these climate concerns that we've been talking about all along.
We've also got to invite them to feel like they're part of the solution. If climate policy feels like this cudgel that you're beating growers over the head with or farmers and saying, you're part of the problem, then of course they're not going to feel very motivated to come on board with our efforts. But if we're saying, for example, that the effort to create a net-zero emissions farm through things like soil management - and maybe other technologies we haven't even developed - is just as important as the effort to get more people using electric vehicles, then we can build up rural America as a big part of how we do this and create a lot of pride in that, too. And that's the kind of frame I think we need to have.
MASTERS: Sticking with an agricultural theme here, the trade war with China. Iowa has had a really good, long relationship with China regarding exports of things like soybeans. How would you navigate yourself out of the current trade war that we're seeing the U.S. have with China?
BUTTIGIEG: So the China challenge is a 50-year problem that's being dealt with by a very short-term thinking administration. They're thinking, I think, in a very, frankly, 20th century way about what's at stake in trade with China. They're thinking about how many dishwashers we're buying from China versus selling to China. I'm thinking about the future of artificial intelligence, and the fact that 5G networks around the world are being built to Chinese specifications that make us completely interdependent. And not necessarily in a good way, when you think about how Chinese approaches to technology are often about the perfection of modern dictatorship, especially the things they're doing with stuff like facial recognition and artificial intelligence.
So what I feel like is happening right now with this trade war is you have this massively consequential and long-term issue, and the president's just poking the Chinese in the eye to see what will happen, in place of having a real policy. And of course, when you do that, when you don't have a plan, it comes down on the backs of American workers and American farmers. If you're growing soy in this country, it's hard enough with what's going on with the weather right now; a lot of folks haven't even got to plant it. And you can see it right now in the fields around us in Iowa, how waterlogged they are, and I think that's got something to do with climate.
But now between what's happening with weather and what's happening with trade, you are increasingly squeezed. And I just don't think we have a White House that really cares that much. They just want to look good. They want to say they got some kind of win. But they entered into this trade conflict without a plan, and it is making farmers worse off.
If this next round of tariffs kicks in, it's going to make consumers worse off. And it ignores the bigger issue in the China challenge, which is not about the export-import balance; it's about whether the rest of this century happens on terms that are favorable to the American model or the Chinese model. And obviously, I've got a pretty strong sense of which model is best. But you see the Chinese model being held up as a credible alternative to ours because ours looks chaotic and unstable, and there's has generated such growth.
KEITH: So this week was a big week in abortion-related developments. You had the governor of Alabama signing a six-week abortion ban. Missouri Legislature passed an eight-week ban. Obviously, a lot of people, especially Democrats, feel that that's, like, excessively restrictive. Are there any limits on abortion that you think are appropriate?
BUTTIGIEG: Look - states in the past have been able to find some balance, right? What we have now, though, is states effectively just criminalizing abortion, making it illegal before most women even know that they're pregnant. And it's creating an environment where, you know, in the absence of exceptions, even things that almost everybody agrees on, are not accommodated. You could be - a woman could be raped and seek abortion care, and the doctor who takes care of her, under this Alabama law, as I understand it, could be in prison for longer than her rapist.
Of course, this isn't just about policy; this is about bringing - launching a fight that will go all the way to a Supreme Court that has just been changed by a Republican Senate, among others, in recent years. They're setting up...
KEITH: And a Republican president.
BUTTIGIEG: Yes. But also under a Democratic president, when the Republicans decided to effectively steal a Supreme Court seat until they took power. So what you have here is an agenda that is radical, that is out of step with what most Americans, even Americans in conservative states, believe is the right thing to do. Most people in Alabama don't favor criminalizing abortion outright with no common-sense exceptions. It's disturbing. I think it amounts to an assault on freedom. And I say this as somebody who comes from a conservative state, where people I respect and love and care about and even some of my supporters view the issue of choice differently than I do, and I get that.
But at the end of the day, we now have a reduction in American freedom at the hands of people who have pretty extreme views, what most Americans would consider to be extreme views. And it's one more reason why we need an election that's about common-sense issues and not about the crazy show that's going on in Washington.
KEITH: These abortion laws are inevitably going to go to the Supreme Court; that is part of their purpose.
BUTTIGIEG: That's right.
KEITH: Would you have a litmus test for your Supreme Court nominee or nominees that says something like - that they have to support Roe v. Wade?
BUTTIGIEG: The way that I would ensure that is to make sure that any justice I were to appoint had the same philosophy around freedom that I do, or at least broadly was compatible with that. You can't necessarily do it by setting up hypotheticals, but believe me when I say that the vision of freedom that will get me elected president and that will be the basis for my interviews of judicial nominees would not leave room for the kind of assault on freedom that we're seeing in these states today.
MASTERS: Another issue that a lot of potential caucusgoers say is important when I talk to them is the issue of health care. And we have a lot of candidates who are talking about a "Medicare for All" idea. On your policy platform, you said, Medicare for all who want it. Can you explain what that means?
BUTTIGIEG: Yeah. So I think that any politician who says they want to get to Medicare for All, as I do, has a responsibility to talk about how you're actually supposed to get from here to there. You know, the Affordable Care Act was pretty much the most conservative thing you could have done to health care in this country besides leave it alone, and even that had massive implementation challenges. So we got to think about what the glide path from here to there actually looks like. And I think the way to do it is to take some flavor of Medicare and make it available as this kind of public option on the exchange, based on the idea that it is going to be more cost-effective and more efficient and, therefore, probably more competitive on the market than any of the corporate options out there.
And if people like me are right that that's the case, then more and more people will buy into it, to the point that it becomes almost a default, that it's the natural glide path to a single-payer environment. But if I'm wrong, if the corporate alternatives can somehow step it up and be more affordable and more comprehensive and more inclusive than they've been, well, that's not the worst outcome, either.
KEITH: So those were our questions about policy. But all of you, our listeners, have questions for these candidates, too, including this one from Dan Browning (ph) from Decatur, Ga.
DAN BROWNING: Mayor Buttigieg, as president, what would your specific foreign policy priorities be, starting on Day 1?
BUTTIGIEG: The foreign policy priorities that confront the next president are, one, establishing the threshold for the use of U.S. force. This administration has been really careless in how it even talks about force, from Venezuela to Iran. And there's an expectation and a need that we clear this up, and to me, the bar has got to be a lot higher. Two - establish U.S. credibility around the world, at a time when our credibility has been deeply undermined. And to do both of those things right, I think we need to lay out a policy framework that integrates American interests with American values.
So often there have been leaders in the U.S. who think that you can act in the U.S. interest in a way that trades away our values. And what we've learned is over time, it may skip a beat, it may even skip a generation, but sooner or later, that catches up to us. So I think the relationship between interests and values - especially at a time when our values, at best, around everything from human rights to climate protection, could help us to create an international framework where countries like China are compelled to explain themselves - instead of right now where it seems like we're on the defense - is possible, but only if we're actually living out our values.
MASTERS: And how did your time as - in the military affect the way that you think about foreign policy?
BUTTIGIEG: Well, it helped me to understand why American moral authority is so important. I could feel that the flag that was stuck to my shoulder represented a country that was viewed as keeping its word, but - by our allies and by our enemies. And when I was working with international partners, when I was working with Afghans, I could be more convincing because America was credible. Even then, our credibility had taken some hits, but I leaned on it just as much or more as I leaned on my body armor in order to get my mission done, in order to be, frankly, safe. And so it taught me that there is a kind of moral armor around America, which has an awful lot of chinks in it. It was never perfect. But I think a big part of what got us through the Cold War was that more people wanted to be American than wanted to be Soviet.
And if we lose that, if we lose our grasp on that - whether it's the extent to which our social mobility has fallen behind that of Europe, or the extent to which our technological capabilities are falling behind China, or the simple fact that we seem, in the wake of everything from the Khashoggi killing by the Saudis to the internment of Uyghurs in China - to be incredibly reluctant now to voice those values that are both human and American around democracy and freedom, that comes at an unbelievable cost, and that was driven home to me when I was abroad as part of a coalition that really consisted of countries depending on each other to keep our word.
KEITH: All right, we are going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we talked to Buttigieg about his biggest failure - love and what he can't let go of.
And we're back. We spent the first half of the interview going deep on South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg's policy ideas, and for the second half, we wanted to better understand Pete Buttigieg the man, not the politician.
MASTERS: Much has been made about your resume - going to Harvard, speaking a lot of languages, your time as a veteran. What do you find, personally, is obscured by your resume about yourself?
BUTTIGIEG: Well, sometimes some of the shiny objects on my resume may distract from the experience that I had just growing up in a community like South Bend, an industrial Midwestern community grappling with so many of these economic forces that I didn't understand growing up. I didn't realize - I don't even know that it was unusual to have empty factories and empty houses all around you growing up; it's just part of the furniture. Then I moved out and realized that that was kind of a defining feature of my part of the country. And then, of course, I felt motivated to come home and do something about it.
I'm proud of things that I can't even measure, like the way that South Bend believes in itself at the end of this decade, compared to how it felt at the beginning of this decade, when I first ran for mayor and took office. And so I hope that those things come through in addition to the kind of brand names that are on my resume. And even the military service - I hope that I get a chance to convey not just the fact of it but what I actually learned and how that motivates me on issues ranging from national service to foreign policy.
KEITH: Wait - what did you learn?
BUTTIGIEG: Well, first of all, I learned about how radically different Americans can come to trust each other by virtue of working hard under pressure together. And I think you shouldn't have to go to war in order to have that experience, which is why I believe so strongly in national service. I learned a lot about how complicated the government is and also an appreciation for the role that only a president can play in establishing culture that then propagates through every part of the government, from the U.S. Navy to the Census Bureau, and why all of that matters.
KEITH: President Trump was asked about you and your husband Chasten being up on stage together, and he said, I have no problem with it whatsoever. I think it's good. What did you think of that?
BUTTIGIEG: That's nice. I'm more interested in policies that affect LGBTQ people. You know, this is during the same week, maybe the same day that that came out, that we - at least that I learned about this State Department policy that effectively alienates the children of same-sex couples from their parents by saying that they were born out of wedlock, if you're doing surrogacy or adoption abroad, which is discrimination. The Equality Act has moved through the House. I doubt that this president will champion the Equality Act. And that's a shame because if he really believes in equality, then he has a chance to make it so that you can't be discriminated against in this country based on who you are.
You know, what somebody says in an interview is one thing; how they govern is another. And whether it's that issue or any other issues, you know, so much attention is given to whatever remarkably outrageous and vicious and insulting thing that the president said. Or I suppose, in this case, expectations are so low that he made news by saying something that wasn't viciously insulting. And that's not what matters. The spectrum of whether he was outrageous or not is - in his tweet or in his comment is not what matters; what matters is how the policies of this administration or any administration make our everyday lives better or worse. And everyday lives for lots of Americans, including LGBTQ Americans, have not gotten better on this president's watch.
MASTERS: What's a moment in your personal life where you have failed?
BUTTIGIEG: Well, I could point you to a couple of elections that didn't go my way (laughter).
KEITH: That's not your personal life.
MASTERS: Personal life.
KEITH: Personal life.
BUTTIGIEG: I mean - wow. Well...
KEITH: I mean, we're not asking about your marriage. Anything else.
BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, I was going to say. Well, that's the biggest thing that comes to mind, actually, right? I mean - is when you think of yourself as a good person, and you say or do something that hurts somebody you love. I think that's what I hold in mind when I try to remember that politics - your politics doesn't make you a good person. I'm not sure anything makes you a outright good person or bad person; that we're all capable of doing good or bad things. And if you want to know how much good you can do and how much hurt you can do, just ask somebody you love.
KEITH: You have said that your marriage brought you closer to God, and I would love for you to explain what you mean by that.
BUTTIGIEG: Well, my understanding of my faith is that, through a Christian framework, part of what we are called to do is to lay down our own self-interests after the model of divinity that comes into this world in the form of Christ and lays down his life. And in order to do that, you have to care about something or someone more than yourself. So much of the New Testament is about love, the idea that God is love, the idea that the greatest of these - faith, hope and love, right? - is love. And there are a lot of different forms, and we could get into biblical scholarship and talk about a lot of different translations of Greek words that are rendered as love in the English language.
But I think there's a real relationship between romantic love and the kind of love that is talked about in my faith tradition, the kind of love that motivates and animates the kind of sacrifice and the kind of humility and the kind of reaching out to others that I believe my faith calls on me to do, and that that is the way to be nearer to God. And my marriage has done that for me because there's a person in my life who I learned to care about more than I care about myself. And that kind of expansion of your set of things you care about that can only happen - I imagine whenever it is my turn for parenting, it'll blow my mind on a whole new level. But...
KEITH: I can say that it will.
MASTERS: I can, too.
BUTTIGIEG: But just in marriage, too, you experience that. And it's one of the reasons why, you know - and don't get me wrong; this is me talking about my own faith and my own life, and I don't view this as necessarily right for anybody else, and as a civil figure, I have married people in a ceremony that has nothing to do with faith - but in my faith and in my marriage, and one of the reasons it mattered to me to do that in a church, is that I think those things come together so beautifully in that relationship, or at least they can.
KEITH: So this is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
KEITH: Every week, we end the podcast by talking about something that we can't let go, politics or otherwise. It's a thing.
KEITH: So we would like to ask you what you can't let go of this week.
BUTTIGIEG: Well, I don't want to participate in spoiling anything, so I'll be a little vague in this. But I'm really concerned about Daenerys Targaryen's leadership choices. I mean, she - over the years, I felt like she was - you were watching her - yes, even then, there were some questionable decisions, but you were watching her grow as a leader. And I was thinking, you know, here's somebody who's really - you know, she had this thing kind of almost fall in her lap at the beginning, and then she's been empowered with these tools, specifically dragons.
BUTTIGIEG: She recruits a really capable team of loyal and smart people. I'm like, all right, this clearly has a direction. And again, I don't want to spoil it if you haven't caught up because we've been a few days behind on our "Game Of Thrones" lately, too. But let's just say I'm very concerned about her decision-making, and the implications for the seven kingdoms are obviously very serious, and it's hard for me to let go.
MASTERS: How do you watch it? Is it like a watch party, or do you just find time to watch it? Or...
BUTTIGIEG: It's usually Chasten and me and a glass of wine...
BUTTIGIEG: ...And a laptop on the road, if necessary.
BUTTIGIEG: Or if we're lucky, our own TV set. Buddy and Truman are on either side of us, and I think they understand that we need to be left alone during this. And it's our ritual. I also think "Game Of Thrones" is the best TV show about politics, perhaps since "The West Wing," if it's properly understood.
KEITH: You know, sometime in 2030, when I actually finish "The Wire" and start watching "Game Of Thrones," I might understand what you just said.
BUTTIGIEG: Yeah. Actually, I should say "The Wire." It would be more honest to say, since "The Wire," because that's a - obviously, an amazing show about politics. But "Game Of Thrones" - politics.
KEITH: Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
BUTTIGIEG: All right.
KEITH: Thank you so much for joining us on the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
BUTTIGIEG: Thank you.
KEITH: And for all the "Game Of Thrones" fans out there, this was obviously recorded before the finale this past Sunday. Don't worry - no spoilers. If you have feelings about the final episode of "Game Of Thrones," feel free to tweet at Scott Detrow.
For us, this is just Episode 2 of our ongoing series, where we're taking you on the campaign trail to meet the 2020 candidates. It's a partnership between the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, Iowa Public Radio and New Hampshire Public Radio, with new interviews coming out every week this spring and summer. And we'll be back as soon as there's political news you need to know about. I'm Tamara Keith, and thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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