October 16, 2019 at 7:31 am EST | by Chris Johnson
Buttigieg delivers forceful performance on debate stage
Pete Buttigieg (left) delivered a forceful debate performance on stage with Andrew Yang (center) and Beto O’Rourke. (Photo via CNN)

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg delivered a forceful performance during the Democratic debate Tuesday night, demonstrating a rare knack for both rising above the fray and engaging in it.

The contradictory — but effective — approach from the gay candidate during the debate in Westerville, Ohio, was seen in particular toward the end when Joseph Biden and Elizabeth Warren were quarreling.

Buttigieg responded, “For every argument that I’ve witnessed like this I could pay for college for everybody,” then knocked Biden for calling President Trump an “aberration” and accused Warren of fostering “infinite partisan combat.”

“We have to fight for the big changes at hand,” Buttigieg added. “But it’s going to take more than fighting. Once again, I want to take you back to that day after Trump has stopped being president. Think about what the president can do to unify a new American majority for some of the boldest things we’ve attempted in my lifetime: Medicare for All Who Want It, actually getting something done on immigration for the first time since the 80s, an assault weapons ban, which would be a huge deal, making college free for low and middle income students. Yet there’s some here on this stage who say it doesn’t count unless we go even further.”

At other times during the evening, Buttigieg engaged with his competitors for the Democratic nomination with a ferocity that showed the passion of his beliefs and desire to build a consensus to get things done.

When Buttigieg was asked about Beto O’Rourke’s proposed mandatory buyback for assault weapons, he said the plan was insufficiently fleshed out at a time when action is needed.

“We can’t wait,” Buttigieg said. “People are dying in the streets right now. We can’t wait for universal background checks that we finally have a shot to actually get through. We can’t wait to ban the sale of new weapons and high-capacity magazines so we don’t wind up with millions more of these things on the street. We can’t wait for red flag laws that are going to disarm domestic abusers and prevent suicides, which are not being talked about nearly enough as a huge part of the gun violence epidemic in this country. We cannot wait for purity tests. We have to just get something done.”

O’Rourke responded his plan was “not a purity test” and those other proposals aren’t mutually exclusive from his plan, but Buttigieg would have none of it.

“I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal,” Buttigieg said. “Everyone on this stage is determined to get something done.  Everyone on this stage recognizes, or at least I thought we did, that the problem is not other Democrats who don’t agree with your particular idea of how to handle this. The problem is the National Rifle Association and their enablers in Congress, and we should be united in taking the fight to them.”

Amid an unfolding crisis in Syria after President Trump green-lit an invasion by Turkey, Buttigieg also came out on top in an exchange with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

Gabbard, who has called for an end to “regime change wars,” urged the audience to “understand the reality” the situation is the result of American presence in the region.

Channeling bipartisan anger over the worsening situation, Buttigieg said the only reality was Trump’s failure.

“Well, respectfully, Congresswoman, I think that is dead wrong,” Buttigieg said. “The slaughter going on in Syria is not a consequence of American presence.  It’s a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values.”

Buttigieg, who has also called for an end to endless war, said he didn’t think the Iraq war was right in the first place and the time has come to leave Afghanistan, but the small number of U.S. special operations units in Syria were keeping peace in the region.

“Meanwhile, soldiers in the field are reporting that for the first time they feel ashamed — ashamed — of what their country has done,” Buttigieg said. “We saw the spectacle, the horrifying sight of a woman with the lifeless body of her child in her arms asking, what the hell happened to American leadership? And when I was deployed, I knew one of the things keeping me safe was the fact that the flag on my shoulder represented a country known to keep its word. And our allies knew it and our enemies knew it. You take that away, you are taking away what makes America America.” 

Gabbard responded Buttigieg was supporting U.S. presence in Syria for “an indefinite period.” That presence, Gabbard said, has caused refugees to flee Syria, undermined U.S. national security and fostered terrorist groups in the Middle East.

Buttigieg’s response: That’s Trumpian.

“You can put an end to endless war without embracing Donald Trump’s policy, as you’re doing,” Buttigieg said.

Gabbard continued to interject about endless war, but Buttigieg kept with the refrain about the United States keeping its word.

“Part of what makes it possible for the United States to get people to put their lives on the line to back us up is the idea that we will back them up, too,” Buttigieg said. “When I was deployed, not just the Afghan National Army forces, but the janitors put their lives on the line just by working with U.S. forces. I would have a hard time today looking an Afghan civilian or soldier in the eye after what just happened over there. And it is undermining the honor of our soldiers. You take away the honor of our soldiers, you might as well go after their body armor next. This president has betrayed American values. Our credibility has been tattered.” 

In contrast to Buttigieg, Warren and Biden — the two frontrunners in the Democratic primary — didn’t have as good a night. Warren faced heavy questioning on whether her plan for Medicare for All would result in a middle class tax hike and didn’t provide a definite answer, while Biden was on defense following an interview his son Hunter Biden did on “Good Morning America” in which he admitted he shouldn’t have been on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

A recent poll in Iowa that showed big gains for Buttigieg may be responsible for bolstering his debate performance. 

A CBS News poll revealed he has support from 14 percent of Iowa Democrats, which puts him in striking distance of Biden and Warren, who were at 22 percent, and Bernie Sanders, who was at 21 percent. For Buttigieg, that’s a growth of seven percentage points since September.

No mention of LGBT issues came up during the debate. (The exception being a question that referenced the controversial friendship revealed last week between Ellen DeGeneres and George W. Bush).

Kasey Suffredini, incoming CEO of Freedom for All Americans, said in a statement last week debate moderators missed an opportunity to discuss the Equality Act.

“Just one week after the Supreme Court heard arguments in three LGBTQ workplace discrimination cases –  in which the court will decide whether to make it legal to fire LGBTQ workers just because of who they are – it was disappointing to hear no mention during tonight’s debate of the Equality Act, which would provide express and enduring nondiscrimination protections for all LGBTQ Americans in all areas of daily life,” Suffredini said. “With nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ Americans reporting having faced some kind of discrimination just because of who they are, and 70 percent of Americans from all walks of life supporting nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people, the time to act is now.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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