Election 2020

Mayor Pete Punches Back: Biden Reducing Small-Town Americans 'to a Punchline'

Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks to supporters at a caucus night campaign rally, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

On Saturday, former Vice President Joe Biden released an ad slamming former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, contrasting Biden’s national record in Washington, D.C., with Buttigieg’s small-town record in South Bend, Indiana. Later that day, the former mayor shot back, accusing Biden of turning American towns like South Bend and Manchester, N.H., into a “punchline.”

“I know some are asking, what business does the South Bend mayor have seeking the highest office in the land,” Buttigieg said at the McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner, the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s biggest annual fundraiser. “You don’t have an office in Washington,  you don’t have decades of experience in the establishment, the city you are the mayor of isn’t even the biggest city in the country.”

“It is more like Manchester, New Hampshire,” he said, to applause. Manchester is roughly the same size as South Bend, a city of just over 100,000 residents.

“To which I say, that is very much the point, because Americans in small, rural towns and industrial communities and yes, in our biggest cities, are tired of being reduced to a punchline by Washington politicians, and ready for someone to take the voice to the American capital,” Buttigieg quipped. “And that is how we are going to defeat Donald Trump.”

Biden’s ad touts the former veep’s role in passing Obamacare, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act bailouts. The video contrasts this with Mayor Pete’s record — installing decorative lighting and sidewalks in South Bend and loosening up regulations on pet-chip scanners.

Some have suggested Biden’s ad was homophobic — slamming the openly gay mayor as effeminate and being too concerned with “decorative” public spaces. Buttigieg was smart not to engage on this level. His decision to twist the former veep’s attack into an attack on small-town Americans was genius.

Buttigieg trounced Biden in Iowa, pushing Obama’s former vice president to a distant fourth place. Biden seems not to have handled it well. He began the New Hampshire debate by conceding the race — essentially telling voters in the Granite State, “Vote for me, I’m going to lose!” (my paraphrase) — and on Sunday, he called a female New Hampshire voter “a lying dog-faced pony soldier.”

Democrats often appeal to the elitists on the coasts, overlooking and occasionally mocking the millions of Americans in the middle of the country. The “forgotten men and women” supported Trump in 2016, and Mayor Pete seems to be making a move for them. It will be a big reach for the openly gay former mayor, whose radical positions appeal to the coasts. Even so, Buttigieg flipped Biden’s strong attack on its head.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.