Last night, Axios reported that President-elect Joe Biden is considering Pete Buttigieg for the position of US ambassador to China. As a supporter of Pete Buttigieg during the Democratic Primary — and someone who was bitterly disappointed when he dropped out and supported Biden, effectively clearing the path to the nomination for the former Vice President — I feel conflicted. The Beijing posting might be a smart move for Buttigieg and the country, but it also feels painfully inadequate for a rising player in the Democratic Party.
Joe Biden promised that he, and by proxy his administration, would be transitional. That is, Biden was a bridge from the Democratic Party’s past to its future, and his administration could be seen as a symbolic passing of the baton from one generation of leaders to the next. So far, that has not happened. With Antony Blinken at State, Janet Yellen at Treasury, Tom Vilsack back at Agriculture (reprising the role he played in Obama’s cabinet), the Biden cabinet is beginning to feel like the third term of Barack Obama’s presidency.
There are many reasons I find this troubling, but the one I am focused on here is that Biden isn’t keeping his promise. So far, the future of the Democratic Party has been shunted in favour of Obama-era operatives. None of this is to say these folks aren’t qualified or won’t do a good job, but rather that they are not the future. They are, quite literally, the recent past.
Pete Buttigieg, however, is the future of the Democratic Party — or at least part of it. He has his detractors — who never shy away from telling me all the reasons they hate him — but no serious political commentator or operative can deny that he has proven himself throughout the campaign. He has a bright future, whether his haters like it or not.
There are many rising stars within the party, though, any of whom you could argue deserve a shot at leading. Pete, however, is unique in many respects. He is a relatively young man, from a part of the country where Democrats struggle to win, with a proven track record of economic revitalisation and incredibly effective communication in even the most hostile environments (Indiana, or Fox News). He is also an openly gay combat veteran.
What Pete doesn’t have is foreign policy experience. A posting to Beijing would certainly correct that. What’s more, with his background in military intelligence and demonstrated knowledge of international politics, no one could in good faith argue that he isn’t qualified — though doubtlessly his most rabid detractors will, and already have begun to try.
Ambassador to China is not an inconsequential position. In fact, with an ascendant China and an escalating Cold War between Beijing and Washington, it might be the single most important diplomatic job that isn’t at Foggy Bottom or in New York. Pete has written insightfully about China policy before, and with increased Chinese espionage and disinformation a problem for America, someone with his background in military intelligence could excel there.
That does not mean it is the right fit though. There are several reasons that, were I Pete Buttigieg, I would be a little bit salty about being asked to pack my bags and fly across the Pacific.
To begin with, there is every indication that it isn’t the job Pete wanted. From what has leaked, he had his eye on being Ambassador to the UN. Instead, Biden selected the eminently qualified Linda Thomas-Greenfield. No one can argue against her nomination, and I won’t do it here. She will excel as UN Ambassador. With the UN position being filled, perhaps Ambassador to China is Pete’s second choice. If so, fantastic. He will do an excellent job and I wish him well.
Let’s assume for a moment that it isn’t, though. Anyone with loved ones in the diplomatic corps or military knows the toll an overseas posting can take on a family. Pete and his husband, Chasten, have expressed a desire to start a family. Working in Washington or New York makes that much more feasible than a foreign posting does, especially for a gay couple. On a purely personal level, it might not be what Pete and Chasten want for their future.
That is, of course, speculation. There are political considerations to sending Pete overseas, as well. Had Pete been appointed UN Ambassador, he would have lived in New York City. There, he could network with donors and power players in the Democratic Party, making connections and building his profile not just with the party establishment but with voters. It would be nothing for him to hop on a train to DC to do Meet the Press on Sunday and be back in New York that evening, ready for Monday at the UN. The same is true should he be given a cabinet position in DC.
Remaining stateside also gives Pete a chance to spend the next four or eight years making inroads into communities with which he underperformed. It is no secret Pete struggled with Black voters (though arguably no more than some other candidates, despite the media narrative). If he ever hopes to launch a successful presidential campaign, he has much work to do to gain their trust. Sending him to China for four years all but makes that impossible. He might come back as a bona fide foreign policy expert, but he will be right where he started with what is arguably the base of the Democratic Party.
Sending him to China also means that Pete is out of the spotlight. While other rising stars are building their reputations and getting their names out there here in the States, Pete is working behind-the-scenes to keep the peace and improve relations with Beijing. That is extremely important, but it does put him at a disadvantage in the future. Whether it should or not, name recognition means a lot in primary politics, and with four years out of the country, Pete risks losing some of his name recognition, which could hinder any future bid for the nomination.
And then there is the elephant in the room, the thing people get upset at me for saying but that I will continue to say. Joe Biden owes Pete Buttigieg.
Pete dropping out of the primary effectively cleared the path to the nomination for Joe Biden. With him, he brought millions of loyal voters who switched from Team Pete to Team Joe without so much as a second thought. Those voters, and Pete himself, then spent countless hours campaigning for Biden, becoming some of his most enthusiastic and effective surrogates and supporters. Many, me among them, expected Pete to play a prominent role in this administration. And to be clear, by “play a prominent role,” I mean sit in Joe Biden’s cabinet.
It is disheartening to think that might not happen, especially when Biden has made so much of having an inclusive, diverse cabinet that represents Americans from all walks-of-life. There has, to date, never been an openly gay cabinet secretary. Pete could be the first, and what a wonderful and fitting achievement that would be for the first gay person to win a state in a presidential primary.
The thought that he might be shut out of the cabinet altogether is deeply frustrating. There is still talk that he might end up as Commerce Secretary or possibly heading the VA — a poison chalice, though I wish it weren’t — but both of those possibilities are looking less and less likely.
I have no way of knowing where this leaves Pete, or how he feels about it. I know where it leaves me though: stewing in a cauldron of bitterness and disappointment. It does not, however, leave me surprised. I have watched for weeks as people who criticised Pete tweeted and wrote articles about how great he is on Fox News, but who now are back to wanting him to quietly go away.
As a gay man, this is something I am used to. Straight people love us when we’re useful to them — say, giving them Queer Eye makeovers or effectively refuting Republican propaganda on Fox News — but when we try to assert some autonomy or claim a bit of power for ourselves, they blanch. I hope that isn’t what is happening now, and I admit it is entirely possible I am projecting my own neuroses from growing up gay in America onto this situation. But, at this moment, that is how it feels.
Finding a position for Pete was always going to be difficult, in part because Democrats are spoilt for choice. There are just so many talented, qualified people ready to fulfil a finite number of positions. Finding somewhere for Pete to shine, that is high profile enough to appease his supporters like me, that plays to his strengths but also sharpens his skills, but that doesn’t infuriate his many detractors (such as putting him at HUD would have done — fairly or unfairly), is an unenviable task.
Whatever the case may be, and wherever Pete ends up, I know he will do the job with grace and grit, humility and tenacity, and he will do it exceedingly well. That is why I supported him for president, and it is why I am championing him now. It is also why Joe Biden — and America — needs Pete Buttigieg.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan