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Mayor Pete, Beto, and the All-Too-Familiar Presidential Archetype

In a year when diverse candidates and unlikely figures have sought the highest office, a pair of classically designed white guys—Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke—are dominating headlines and raising cash. Why does the John F. Kennedy–esque vision of the American president persist?

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This feels familiar. Pete Buttigieg is going to run for president. The Democratic mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has raised more than $7 million in the 10 weeks since he formed an exploratory committee, and he’s polling in the middle of the pack, ahead of senators Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand and former HUD secretary Julián Castro. For a Midwestern mayor running against several senators and (probably) a former U.S. vice president, Buttigieg is surprisingly competitive at the national level. He’s extremely mediagenic. In interviews, Buttigieg’s intelligent whimsy telegraphs his pedigree: high school valedictorian, Harvard graduate, Rhodes scholar, McKinsey alumnus, U.S. Navy officer, and now, a wunderkind mayor. Buttigieg speaks eight languages. He plays piano and guitar. If Buttigieg hadn’t already attended Harvard, he’d have an invaluable application on his hands.

Buttigieg is, by conventional measurements, a strong candidate for, well, just about anything. He is the sort of presidential candidate a strategist would dream into existence: an Electoral College heartthrob who might reconcile coastal professionals and the white working class. Buttigieg would be the first openly gay politician to compete for a major party’s presidential nomination. He would hardly be the first white patrician to capture the political imagination with an Ivy League degree and beautiful hair. He isn’t even the only such candidate running in this particular race. Informally, Buttigieg is the indie rock to Beto O’Rourke’s punk appeal—another young, white man so largely and ambiguously defined by his charms. Buttigieg and O’Rourke are specifically dissimilar enough: Buttigieg joined the Navy; O’Rourke joined a band. Buttigieg was an intelligence officer; O’Rourke was a teen hacker. Still, the two men embody a common alternative to the diversity and the left-wing experimentation that otherwise define the Democratic presidential primary season. They are the young, white, well-educated men who might dominate a diverse and competitive primary on the strength of classic focus-group appeal.

It’s a collegiate style: rare but, paradoxically, mass-produced at the so-called good schools. It’s a mode for handsome candidates who no one outside of campaign consultancy would think to describe as any sort of ideologue. The O’Rourke-Buttigieg style, pleasant and fondly reminiscent of Barack Obama’s victorious ’08 energy, does seem fundamentally at odds with a party that is furiously arguing at all hours of the news cycle about diversity and socialism. From John F. Kennedy through Bill Clinton, the archetype endures as a strange export from the nation’s top colleges, which process young, formless, telegenic men who have more or less been running for president since middle school. Clinton, a Georgetown social climber, did at least distinguish himself as a public policy enthusiast with a clearly argued (if disagreeable) outlook on the future of the Democratic Party. But it is tough to recall what was so promising or interesting about, say, Gary Hart, as a presidential front-runner in the 1980s; in retrospect, Hart is largely defined as an attractive man whose hairline never failed him. The deeper logic of Hart’s candidacy, and the more substantial elements of his appeal, are lost to time and larger controversy about his sex life. Indeed, O’Rourke and Buttigieg have barely articulated their logic—their policy priorities, their leadership qualities, their outlook on governance—in their own time. Practically, O’Rourke promises to beat Trump by exciting a broad array of voters, including the disaffected Democrats who defected to Trump three years ago; and he promises to accomplish as much by being the exciting, likable white boy. Buttigieg may surge in popularity as a charming moderate who, even as a gay man, embodies a classic presidential archetype in contrast with, say, the black woman, Senator Kamala Harris, who leads him in polling as well as fundraising to date.

The Democratic contest is diverse and yet, so far, unsatisfying in the grand scheme of identity politics. Former vice president Joe Biden’s prolonged nonentry into the running has stoked the inevitable concerns about white voters, nonwhite candidates, and the double standards applied to women in leadership. The Democratic presidential candidates are all, barring Senator Bernie Sanders, establishment Democrats. Even the leading minority candidates, Harris and Senator Cory Booker, flatter powerful interests. But Buttigieg and O’Rourke idealize the vapid, establishmentarian mode in general terms. Donald Trump, for all his faults as a candidate and a president, embodies extreme distrust of the meritocracy that produces such exquisitely bland and amorphous politicians. It would be a strange year, of all years, for Democrats to renew their faith in this ancient machinery as it’s loudly crashing down all around them.