During his seven months serving in Afghanistan, Pete Buttigieg, who joined the Naval Reserve in 2009, worked for the Afghanistan Threat Finance Cell. His duties included blocking funding flowing to the insurgency from narcotics activities. Buttigieg, who took a seven month leave from his job as mayor of South Bend, Indiana to serve in Afghanistan, has been careful not to call himself a combat veteran, but his experience in the military informs his opinions on the war, military spending, and foreign policy.
During an Exchange 2020 forum, the Democratic presidential candidate discussed his time in Afghanistan and addressed questions about his work at a controversial consulting firm for nearly three years (he has since released a summary of his activities there). Buttigieg also defended aspects of his mayorial record and his proposals for “Medicare for all who want it” and free public college targeted at income groups he considers to be lower or middle-class.
Buttigieg acknowledged he has work to do when it comes to making inroads among African American voters – a major voting bloc of the Democratic party. Buttigieg has faced criticism for his handling of racial tensions in South Bend, even as he has sought to address the problem. Buttigieg also said he has yet to fully introduce himself to African American voters across the country.
“For example, a majority of black voters in South Carolina have said that they have no opinion of me," he said. "Obviously, that means I've got a lot of work to do to make sure that I've explained who I am as well as what I plan to do."
In response to a listener who said she is hesitant about electing another “highly privileged caucasion male" and asked how he would ensure a “balanced perspective in the White House,” Buttigieg said "balance" is already a priority -- that his campaign staff is majority women and more than 40% people of color.
"And I will build a cabinet that reflects the diversity of experience in our country, that includes racial diversity, professional diversity, regional diversity, not only because it's the right thing to do from a justice perspective, but because we will make better decisions and it will serve the country better."
He also called attention to the historic nature of his presidential run. "I also think that there is something to be said for being not only somebody who'd be the first LGBT president, but the first elected official ever to make the attempt – someone who's told at the beginning of the outset of my time in elected office that I should never even dream of national office," he said.
"And while I'm mindful of the privileges that go with never having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, while I am mindful of the role of sexism in our politics today, I also hope that the historic qualities that so many of the candidates in the race today can bring are not overlooked.
(SEE BELOW FOR MORE EXCERPTS FROM THE CONVERSATION, EDITED SLIGHTLY FOR CLARITY. TO WATCH OR LISTEN TO THE FULL CONVERSATION, VISIT HERE.)
What did you do while serving in Afghanistan?
Probably the most important responsibility I had was driving a vehicle. I was one of a couple of people in Kabul with my unit who was qualified with a long gun. And in order for my commander to go anywhere, there had to be at least two in a vehicle. And so we joked that I was military Uber. So by night, I'd be doing a lot of work with message traffic or analysis, because that was my training as an intelligence person. But by day, a lot of the time, over 100 times, my job was to just get somebody outside of the wire and back in, from point to point, either around the city of Kabul or occasionally traveling between Kabul and Bagram on the open road.
What would be your plan for Afghanistan if president?
We're leaving. We've got to leave. And the one thing I think that Republicans, Democrats, the Afghans and international community can all agree on is that the U.S. needs to move on. The question is, do we do it well or do we do it poorly? We need to leave sooner rather than later. I thought I was one of the last guys turning out the lights when I left, and that was years ago. Now we also have to do it in a responsible fashion. I don't think that we can accept responsibility for Afghanistan becoming a thriving Western style democracy anytime soon. But we do have a responsibility to make sure first of all it can never again be used as a place for an attack on the American homeland. And secondly, that there is not an immediate collapse of the gains that have been made.
What it means is a negotiated settlement that involves the Taliban, but also, crucially, that involves the elected Afghan government, which is sometimes being left on the sidelines of this conversation. It means drawing down our large-scale presence. But honestly, it is likely going to mean, for some time, a minimal, highly capable presence of special operations and intelligence personnel to ensure that there is not an attack on the homeland.
How, as president, would you determine the adequate level of military spending? And do you think we need to increase or decrease the current Department of Defense budget?
It has to be suited to our security needs. So it's not just how much, it's where's the spending going. Right now, there's a lot of evidence that China's being a lot more intentional and putting more resources, for example, into artificial intelligence than we are. If they get ahead of us on artificial intelligence, then some of the most expensive bases and ships that we're building are going to just be bigger targets.
Now, the president's idea of security priorities is mostly 17th century. He's talking about a moat full of alligators. He's talking about building a big wall. These are the security technologies of the Middle Ages. We also need to make sure that it's rational, based on what we need to do across the board as a country to be competitive and to be successful and to be secure. Education, funding public education, is a national security imperative. You don't get to be at the Manhattan Project without having a superior level of education in the United States.
There's a lot of evidence, and you see this when you're in uniform, that spending is not aligned around top priorities. And when it comes to contracting and the interface with the military, what President Eisenhower called the military industrial complex, it's also clear that there needs to be stronger mechanisms to make sure there's actual value for taxpayer dollars.
Give two reasons why Medicare for all who want it is better than Medicare for all.
Reason number one is that it respects people's ability to make their own decisions. So Medicare for all who want it means we take a version of Medicare, something like a public alternative, and we make it available to everybody. We auto enroll anybody who is uninsured, so there's no such thing as an uninsured American. But I'm going to allow Americans to decide whether they want it one at a time, because I don't think it is the right thing to do to kick people off of their private plans.
Reason number two is it's much easier to pay for. We estimate that the total cost of my plan over the course of the decade would be $1.5 trillion, not exactly a small amount of money. But some of the others that have been proposed are 20, 30 trillion, plus.
How will you pay for this plan?
We've got to reverse the corporate rate cut in the Trump tax cuts. That move alone would raise $1.4 trillion over the next decade. A second thing is that we will gain hundreds of billions of dollars simply by allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices with companies selling prescription drugs.
We're also going to be candid about revenue. We don't have to go back to Eisenhower era levels of taxation to pay for these initiatives, but we are going to have to raise more revenue from corporations and the wealthy, which we should do because the share of tax revenue and tax burden on corporations and the wealthy has gone down over the years.
Your higher education plan would make public tuition free for families earning up to a $100, 000 and provide substantial subsidies for students from families earning up to $150,000. Some in your own party are criticizing this approach.
Where I differ with Senator Sanders and Senator Warren is when you do get north of that $150, 000, when you're in that top 10 percent, that's where I think it's okay to ask people to pay their own tuition. And I would rather use those dollars in other areas, like some of the plans I put forward around supporting the trades and apprenticeships and workforce development and education for folks who won't get a four-year college degree.
We can pay for these things with some commonsense changes. We've got to reform capital gains taxation in this country, taxing those profits in a way that's consistent with how we tax income.
One concern about your plan is that 100,000 goes further in some parts of the country than others. We heard from a voter at one of your events who said she worries her family's income wouldn't quite qualify for aid under your plan, but she said her family still struggled to afford college.
I do think that as part of the policy design, we should look at regional differences. It's also worth mentioning that there are a lot of things we can do to make college more affordable. So for those who are taking on loans, we could have a more generous program for forgiving loans for those who go into public service, for example. And we're going to continue with income-based debt repayment. All of that stays in place. This is about making college dramatically more affordable than it is today.
You hardly talk about your work for McKinsey & Co, the consulting firm that has been at the center of several news reports about controversial contracts.
I talked about it. I wrote about it in my book. But look, the bulk of my experience has been in public service. So I worked at a consulting company, McKinsey, for about two and a half years after I finished school. I learned a lot there but walked away knowing that my call, what really fired me up, was public service. And that's what I chose to do for our city as mayor and and in military service as well.
What did you learn at McKinsey?
I learned a lot about how to organize teams to to get work. And I also frankly learned a lot about the amoral turn of mind that increasingly dominates corporate America. At least four times I can think of, in the decades since I left that company, I've opened up the newspaper and seen an infuriating story about something that they did with one of their clients, where it's clear that they didn't seem to feel any moral weight to the decisions they were making.
There have been calls from other candidates that you're not being transparent because you're not talking about the clients that you worked with. Do you feel that's a fair criticism?
I strongly believe in transparency It's one of the reasons why I have released tax returns from when I got back from school. And not all of my competitors have been willing to do that. And I also believe that McKinsey should release the list of the clients. It's something they can do. They know I made a promise to keep client information confidential. I keep my word. But right now, I am calling on McKinsey to release that information. Maybe they're not used to doing that, but they're not used to having somebody who used to work there being seriously considered for the American presidency. This information should come out, and I'm happy to speak about it when it does.
When it comes to climate change, your plan focuses a lot on carbon capture technology. This has been called promising but unproven. Why do you think this is a good idea?
We need to do everything we can to mitigate carbon, to get to be a carbon neutral society by 2050.
Let's be clear, this does not mean, 'Don't worry, we can keep putting carbon in, because we'll just figure out a way to take it back out.' We cannot let ourselves off the hook, especially because that technology is unproven. But we know there are things that we can do right now that take carbon out of the atmosphere. A good example is the original carbon capture technology, which is plants and soil. And this is one of the reasons why it's so important to include rural America and agriculture as part of the solution.
And nuclear energy?
It's definitely going to be in the mix in the medium term, but I don't think it's the way out.
Democrats in Congress appear to be trying to get a vote on impeachment by December. Do you believe this trial has further divided the country?
I think that most people, for better, for worse, have made up their mind about this already. It is a painful process. But the President has left Congress with no choice but to go through this painful process, even if the outcome is likely predetermined in the Senate. You still have to do it because this is a statement that will reverberate through history. This is a statement to future presidents about whether or not Congress and America care about abuses of power.
But I do believe that at the back end of the impeachment process and the end of the election, no matter how we envision the election playing out, we're going to be even more torn up than we are now as a country. And that will be a big part of the task of the next president.
A big part of what I am seeking to address is a country that needs to be unified, not in the sense that we'll agree on everything – we never will – but that there's an understanding, even among those who disagree over party or politics, that this country belongs to all of us and that it's a better country when all of us know that we belong.