Pete Buttigieg Has a Secret Weapon

The Mayor has a keen sense of humor, unlike some of his rivals

December 16, 2019

Mayor Pete Buttigieg has several advantages as he runs for President — youth, charisma, a huge campaign chest — but his secret weapon may be a finely honed sense of humor. Unlike most of his rivals, Buttigieg often cracks jokes on the campaign trail, and he seems to make them up on the spur of the moment. This is not just entertaining, though that’s important; voters should have some fun at a political event. The mayor uses humor to connect with voters and to make a point.

At a recent fundraiser in Manhattan, one of the sponsors had an esoteric Mediterranean surname, composed of numerous syllables, which would challenge any politician. But when Mayor Pete bounded onto the stage and thanked his hosts, he stated the sponsor’s name correctly and effortlessly. Then, without missing a beat, he said to that host, “Welcome to the hard-to-pronounce last name club”. The audience laughed appreciatively.

In a flash, the Mayor had established a rapport with the crowd. After all, New York is a city of immigrants, where Smith and Jones are not exactly the dominant family names. Buttigieg (correct pronunciation: BOOT-EDGE-EDGE) is also a Mediterranean name. His father immigrated from Malta, as the mayor later reminded the group.

The candidate was also gently poking fun at himself, acknowledging that many voters struggle with saying his name accurately. Mayor Pete gave the impression that he was not taking himself too seriously, that he was a regular guy. It’s rare to find a politician who can laugh at himself, which indicates that Buttigieg benefits from some humility and perspective on his role. It’s hard to imagine him declaring, “I alone can fix it!”.

The mayor’s rhetorical flourish also reflected good staff work, of course; he was well-prepared. It’s important to keep the donors happy. But another key element was Buttigieg’s flawless delivery; his timing was superb. The candidate may have used the same joke many times on the campaign trail, but it seemed spontaneous.

Buttigieg also used humor deftly during the question-and-answer session. A participant asked, “How will you handle Donald Trump when he comes after you”? Mayor Pete replied, with an astonished look on his face, “Did you hear what Trump said the other day, that he dreams about me?” When the crowd roared with laughter, Buttigieg said, “I don’t know what kind of dreams are coming out of the White House, but I want no part of that!” That triggered more laughs from the audience.

The mayor then spoke seriously, adding that of course he would have to respond forcefully to the President and he was expecting a lot of attacks. Buttigieg pivoted quickly, though, saying that he thought it was critical to focus on what he wants to do for Americans, rather than be distracted by Trump’s taunts.

Bullies like Trump are terrified of being ridiculed, and humor could be a very effective weapon against the President, who is notoriously thin-skinned. That’s particularly true because Trump, an off-the-charts narcissist, lacks the perspective and self-awareness required to be funny. The President’s attempts at making jokes at his rallies may amuse the Base, but they are often creepy and vile. They are likely to turn off many independent voters, who will tune in once the general election campaign begins.

With his talent for lampooning Trump, Buttigieg should be able to fight fire with fire. The mayor is quick on his feet and well-versed on the issues, so he would probably defend himself well in one-on-one debates with Trump. Maybe that’s what’s giving the President bad dreams.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg /photo credit: Win McNamee-Getty Images

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the other Midwesterner in the race, also has a flair for one-liners, and she’s often quite witty. However, Klobuchar’s jokes are sometimes corny, which highlights her difference in age with Buttigieg, who is 22 years younger.

The senator from Minnesota also tends to alert the audience that she is about to tell a joke, saying “My daughter, who’s in the audience tonight, will be embarrassed by this but….” As a result, at times her gags can come across as rehearsed, even forced, particularly during the debates. (Oops, I only have a minute left, I have to squeeze in a joke!)

Still, it’s intriguing that the two candidates from the Midwest seem to have the monopoly on good jokes in this campaign. Sen. Bernie Sanders has a dry, subtle sense of humor, as any kid from Brooklyn should, but he rarely displays it. Instead, the Vermont senator prefers to thunder like an Old Testament prophet, as he calls for punishing insurance companies, drug companies and other miscreants.

By the same token, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is so earnest, so fixated on saving the country from “corruption”, that she rarely lightens up. To paraphrase Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) in “Men in Black”, Warren seems to have no sense of humor that she is aware of. Maybe it’s tucked away behind all those plans.

Joe Biden is easy-going and affable, but he seems to have problems remembering his lines — any lines. Furthermore, Biden’s attempts at humor have already backfired several times, so that approach is not helping him.

Sen. Kamala Harris thought she was funny, but “Dude gotta go!” did not get them rolling in the aisles. In any case, the senator now has more time to work on her act. Maybe she’ll be ready for prime time in 2024.

The State of Our Union is no laughing matter, to be sure. But if Mayor Pete’s ability to crack jokes helps land him in the White House, that might put a lot of Americans in a better humor.

A Wall Street Democrat. Security analyst (financial institutions), former lawyer and banker.