WASHINGTON – As a high school senior, Pete Buttigieg won a national essay contest extolling Bernie Sanders as a “profile in courage” for daring to call himself a socialist and for being a “powerful force for conciliation and bi-partisanship on Capitol Hill.”
“I like to say, 'I’m like a hipster,’” Buttigieg said when asked about that essay in a 2017 podcast interview. “I like to say that I knew about (Sanders) before he was cool.”
Now, the two are top rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination with Buttigieg warning the opposite – that the Vermont senator is a divisive figure who insists on ideological purity.
That essay is just one reason the ongoing battle between the top finishers in Iowa and New Hampshire is unusual.
It also pits the oldest candidate, 78, against the youngest, 38.
A democratic socialist is competing against a more nuanced progressive Democrat who has long studied ways to reclaim from Republicans terms like freedom and security.
Sanders is the favorite of the youngest voters. Buttigieg’s earliest fans were the older voters.
Sanders argues he’s the best general election candidate because of the enthusiasm of his base and an appeal to new, younger voters including voters of color. Buttigieg says he’s demonstrated the broadest coalition, including winning the votes of moderates and Republicans turned off by President Donald Trump.
As Trump did in 2016, Sanders is running as an outsider candidate and a combative populist who appeals to those wanting to shake things up. Buttigieg is running as a calming figure who often talks about the need to heal a divided country after Trump's defeated.
A long history
But the two have a long history, starting with that 2000 essay, which Buttigieg hinted at after coming in a close second to Sanders in New Hampshire Tuesday.
“I admired Sen. Sanders when I was a high school student,” Buttigieg said, before congratulating Sanders on his victory. “I respect him to this day.”
Later in his remarks, however, Buttigieg alluded to Sanders when he asserted that the “politics of 'my way or the highway’ is a road to re-electing Donald Trump.”
“Vulnerable Americans do not have the luxury of pursuing ideological purity over an inclusive victory,” he said.
In Sanders’ victory remarks, he took a jab at Buttigieg for accepting campaign contributions from wealthy contributors.
“We are taking on billionaires and we are taking on candidates who are funded by billionaires,” he said. “We are going to win because we have the agenda that speaks to the working people of this country.”
Not his first choice
Sanders had not been Buttigieg’s first choice for the subject of his entry for the contest sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. But after nearly finishing an essay on Carolyn McCarthy – a New York Democrat who had run for Congress after her husband was shot and killed on the Long Island Rail Road – Buttigieg realized shortly before the deadline that McCarthy had been the subject of the previous year’s winning entry.
So he turned to someone he found “even more interesting, if a little more edgy politically.”
In the essay that beat out more than 600 others, Buttigieg wrote that "it may seem strange that someone so steadfast in his principles has a reputation as a peacemaker between divided forces in Washington.”
“But that is what makes Sanders truly remarkable,” Buttigieg continued. “His energy, candor, conviction, and ability to bring people together stand against the current of opportunism, moral compromise, and partisanship which runs rampant on the American political scene.”
The high school senior didn’t meet Sanders when he traveled to Boston – wearing his first-ever suit – to receive his prize. But Buttigieg did get personal congratulations from Sen. Ted Kennedy who offered him a summer internship in his Washington office.
“I felt like I had been handed a ticket to the major leagues,” Buttigieg wrote in his memoir, “Shortest Way Home.”
Picked Clinton over Sanders
Sixteen years later, when Buttigieg was mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he had to choose between backing Sanders or Hillary Clinton for the party’s presidential nomination. He chose Clinton.
But he describes in his book how, at the campaign event he helped organize at a local Humvee plant, he was struck by what seemed a “fatal lack of enthusiasm” for Clinton among the factory workers.
By contrast, campaign stops in South Bend by Sanders and Trump had an almost party-like atmosphere, Buttigieg observed.
After Clinton’s loss to Trump, Buttigieg wanted to lead the Democrats’ efforts to recalibrate. He entered late the race to head the Democratic National Committee that was being dominated by former Labor Secretary Tom Perez — a favorite of the Barack Obama and Clinton camps — and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who had the backing of Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The contest was seen as a replay of the 2016 interparty battle between Clinton and Sanders. Buttigieg attempted to squeeze right through the middle of that establishment vs. insurgent divide.
At one point, Sanders called Buttigieg to unsuccessfully urge him to drop out to make room for Ellison.
Perez won and Buttigieg went on to run for president.
Battling for the nomination
In that contest, Warren’s poor performance in Iowa and New Hampshire has made Sanders the undisputed leader of the most liberal wing of the party. He could also be unstoppable for the nomination if Buttigieg – or another center-left candidate – is unable to coalesce that larger segment of the vote.
Their next battlefield is Nevada where Buttigieg is betting his more gradual approach to expanding health coverage will win over the state’s powerful labor unions whose members might be worried that Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal wouldn’t deliver health insurance as good as they have now.
Sanders hopes the extensive outreach his campaign has made to Latino voters since 2016 will give him a second-straight victory when Nevadans caucus on Feb. 22.
Sanders has said he likes Buttigieg, calling him a “smart guy” and a “nice guy.” Some of his supporters, however, have taken a more aggressive approach to their rival, including booing and chanting “Wall Street Pete!” when television screens Tuesday night showed Buttigieg’s post-primary remarks.
For his part, Buttigieg says he stands by his old essay, even if he emphasizes the passages about Sanders’ courage of his convictions instead of the praise he had for Sanders’ ability to work with others.
“What I really admired about Senator Sanders – and still do – is his consistency and willingness to say exactly what he believes,” Buttigieg said when asked about the essay at a CNN town hall in New Hampshire last week. “And I think everybody, left, right, and center, ought to come into the public square making the case for what we think is right.”