It’s rare these days for a viable presidential campaign to believe that prolonged proximity to reporters is to a candidate’s benefit. But that's the bet the campaign of South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg is making. For the past three days, Buttigieg has been traveling New Hampshire by bus – a la John McCain and his fabled Straight Talk Express of 20 years ago – accompanied by reporters invited to ask the candidate whatever they chose. NHPR’s Josh Rogers rode the bus for a day and has this story.
In an age where no mode of campaign transport can outrun the flow of news, inviting a dozen reporters on what amounted to a multi-day press conference might, at a minimum, seem a hassle. But if Buttigieg showed any sign of strain as his bus rolled out of Manchester Friday, it wasn’t because of all his microphone-wielding travel companions. It was because a pair of socks he’d planned as a gift had gone missing.
“Does anyone know where my Frida Kahlo socks got to that I bought at that shop?" he wondered aloud. “I got them for my mom.”
Buttigieg’s manner -- mild, solicitous, and somehow both open and opaque -- never wavered as he settled in for question after question.
Question: “Can I get your reaction to Michael Bloomberg jumping into the race?”
Answer: “Welcome to the race.”
Question: “Other candidates have put out very specific proposals of what a wealth tax would look like. I mean do you even support a wealth tax and what kind of percentages are we talking about?”
Answer: “So, it’s not the first place I would look to fund our priorities, but I would not take it off the table.”
On it went. Quotes were gathered, tweets were tweeted. And trays full of mostly untouched fried food eventually gave way to tubs of hot chocolate. At intervals, reporters were ushered off the bus so Buttigieg could take the stage before crowds of voters that grew as the day went on. At each stop, Buttigieg asked his audience to envision what it will be like when Donald Trump isn’t president, but the nation still remains divided.
“Think about what we are about to go through a country and on that day it will be a tender moment, for a country very much needing to be brought together and unified,” Buttigieg told a crowd in Salem.
But on the bus, it was all questions. For Buttigieg, whose academic credentials -- Harvard, Rhodes Scholar -- are a selling point for some voters, the queries were opportunities for seminar-style discourse. What does he think of ethno-nationalism, or reviving regional economies? How will he appeal to non-white voters? What does he think about whiteness itself? What’s he reading?
To that last question, Buttigieg offered that his husband had recently given him a volume of writing by the Stoic philosopher Seneca.
"There's a lot going on there. He’s talking about how life is plenty long enough if you know how to live it. How you spend your time, it’s very quotable. There is a bit on how you store up all your attention, especially if you’ve been in public life.”
But all day long the conversation returned to the question that’s so far defined the Democratic presidential primary: Will voters back Democrats if they push for Medicare for All, as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren want, or should the party back retaining the private insurance market with a public option for Medicare as Joe Biden and Buttigieg would?
“If there is a way to deliver healthcare that every American can access and afford for 1.5 trillion dollars and allowing people to choose, why would it be so important to do it for 20 or 30 trillion dollars and not allow them to choose," Buttigieg said. "I think there are a lot of issues where it’s going to be really tough to rally the American people around those kinds of issues and to me it’s not just a political question to win an election, it’s a governing question how to hold a country together.”
By day's end Buttigieg had spoken for hours, taken every question, and scattered seeds for what in theory could be dozens of potential news stories. According to his campaign, a similar bus tour with reporters in Iowa earlier this fall boosted Buttigieg’s news coverage there. But on this day the news, such as it was, was mostly the trip itself. To hear Buttigieg tell it, spending time with reporters hones his answers – which is predictable enough. He says it also helps keep his bearings as he navigates the sometime dizzying realities that modern candidates must.
“It’s important to kind of oscillate between the dialogue of the worlds mediated by the media and the dialogue you have with the voters face to face, and what we are doing of course is having an awful lot of both of those things," Buttigieg explained. "So you see the range that’s out there”
And plenty of left-over bus food.