Facing questions on the trail about whether his campaign has put forward enough big ideas, Pete Buttigieg plans to make one area his own: foreign policy.
The South Bend, Ind., mayor will give a major address on his national security and foreign policy platform Tuesday morning at Indiana University, delving into details on a policy front that offers presidents wide latitude but which has gotten relatively little attention from Democratic 2020 candidates so far.
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It could be a standout issue for Buttigieg, a former Navy intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan and is the only veteran polling in the top half of the Democratic presidential primary. And it’s also a topic that Buttigieg can frame in general election terms by contrasting himself with President Donald Trump, whom Buttigieg has criticized for “making up a disability” to get out of serving during the Vietnam War.
“To my surprise, nobody’s given a real foreign policy address that I’ve seen in our field,” Buttigieg said at a recent campaign stop in Iowa, after a voter questioned why he wasn’t “rolling out policy proposals like Sanders or Warren.”
“I’m looking for areas where we can talk about things that haven’t been talked about much,” Buttigieg continued.
His Tuesday speech is expected to touch on a range of issues that the young mayor has addressed at different times on the campaign trail, including removing American troops from wars abroad, reengaging in the Iran nuclear deal and prioritizing climate change as a security issue. Leaning into these themes, particularly restoring America’s credibility in the world, plays up the contrast with Trump, who critics say has routinely alienated the United States’ allies and flattered dictators.
Of late, Buttigieg has turned up his criticisms of Trump’s record. He called it “an assault on the honor of this country” that Trump faked an injury to avoid serving in Vietnam, Buttigeig said in an interview with ABC, adding that Trump took “advantage of his privileged status to avoid serving.” He also accused Trump of “eroding the integrity of the military” in another interview with CNN.
“Trump is a man without a plan, so the president is actually vulnerable on these issues because voters are nervous about him,” said Brian Katulis, a foreign policy fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Buttigieg “has great potential to distinguish himself from the pack,” Katulis continued. “Given that he served in the military and served as a mayor, I think he’s more likely to make a connection between Americans’ daily lives and global issues, and that’s the sweet spot for voters.”
Buttigieg has already built a foreign policy brain trust, which includes more than 100 experts, largely working in a volunteer capacity. The group is led by Doug Wilson, who served as the assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs during the Obama administration. Several other top experts advising Buttigieg include Ned Price, a former National Security Council special assistant, and Tarek Ghani, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
Among the keystone policies Buttigieg has indicated support for is a repeal of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was enacted after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and has since become the legal justification for a wide range of military actions beyond the war in Afghanistan. In a tweet about two veterans groups, Concerned Veterans of America and VoteVets, backing the repeal of that act, Buttigieg posted: “Remarkable alignment from conservative and progressive vets on this: The time has come for Congress to re-assert its war powers.”
Buttigieg doesn’t have the foreign policy space to himself in the campaign: Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Seth Moulton both served in Iraq, while Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders laid out their vision for foreign policy in speeches in 2018. Former Vice President Joe Biden has touted his relationships with foreign leaders and experience around the world at the beginning of his campaign.
Moulton, who served four tours in Iraq and was awarded the Bronze Star, has also sharpened his differences on foreign policy, criticizing Biden for his Iraq War vote, calling it a “mistake.”
“I do think that it’s time for the generation that fought in Iraq and Afghanistan to step in for the generation that sent us there,” Moulton said in an interview with CNN.
But Buttigieg, unlike Moulton and Gabbard, is among the top-tier of presidential candidates. This weekend, a CNN/Des Moines Register poll in Iowa showed Buttigieg leaping to 14 percent support in the first caucus state — a 13-point bump since March. Gabbard, meanwhile, received 1 percent and Moulton, who will likely not qualify for the Democratic National Committee’s debate stage in June, received less than 1 percent in the same poll.
“It’s absolutely a way for him to distinguish himself, given his unique perspective as someone who served, along with Gabbard and Moulton,” said Jon Soltz, founder of VoteVets, a progressive veterans group that has not endorsed a candidate in the presidential primary. “Buttigieg, who was never in Congress, can lob some pointed distinctions at those candidates who served in Congress, but haven’t done anything to end these wars.”
It could also help to head off criticism over Buttigieg’s age, using his youth as proof that he’s unprepared for the job as commander in chief. By tackling foreign policy, “it’s an opportunity to show broader expertise and experience than people might necessarily attribute to him,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. “It could show his maturity, his thoughtfulness.”
Strategists warned, though, that for Buttigieg to break through, “he needs to offer more than a critique of the president,” said Stephen Miles, director of Win Without War, a progressive foreign policy coalition.
“Donald Trump does have his thumb on the pulse of the American public that said: end the war in Afghanistan, engage in talks with North Korea. So that’s going to be a challenge for the Democrats to navigate,” Miles said. “Does Mayor Pete offer a return to the status quo pre-Trump, or is he offering a different path forward altogether?”
A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll released last week found that more than half of the participants said it wasn’t important for the Democratic Party’s nominee to be a veteran, but it’s still appealing for some voters to imagine the contrast between Trump and Buttigieg in the general election.
“His military service matters when you’re taking on Trump,” said Ben Stein, a 44-year-old teacher who heard Buttigieg speak at a Des Moines meet-and-greet last weekend. “I want to see that on the debate stage next fall. Can you imagine?”