You claim Buttigieg doesn’t have any policies. That’s not true. Indeed, during the same town hall you cite, Anderson Cooper had to backpedal a bit and announce that, in fact, Mayor Pete’s policy section on his website had just gone live. But even if a policy page hadn’t gone live that night, we already knew that Buttigieg supported Medicare for all and would prefer to begin the implementation process by offering a public option. And again, during the very same town hall meeting where you claim he didn’t discuss policy he said he supported a path to citizenship for the so-called “dreamers” and announced he disagreed with Senator Sanders when it came to extending voting rights to those serving time in prison but agreed with Sanders when it came to restoring voting rights to those who had done their time. We may like all of these policies, disagree with all of them, or fall somewhere in between but we can’t deny they are policy positions.
But more importantly, Buttigieg gets it right when he says drowning voters in policy “minutiae” is not a very wise campaign strategy. First of all, it creates a list of promises that a president or congressperson later may not be able to deliver on. Elizabeth Warren came out for a wealth tax recently, which I believe she argued for during the same CNN town hall meeting. Unfortunately, the 16th Amendment to the US Constitution grants the government the right to tax income, not wealth, so it’s not at all clear she can do it. Kamala Harris promised that evening that she will give Congress 100 days to enact reasonable gun legislation. Once that deadline has passed she said she will take executive action. Now I’m not a fan of the 2nd Amendment, but whether I like it or not it’s there and it’s not at all clear to me just how far an executive can go unilaterally on an issue like gun control.
If voters really loved big policy announcements like this, why is Buttigieg leading both Warren and Harris by fairly wide margins when he is discussing the values and personal attributes he would bring to the table (as well as some policy) while they produce long lists of policies and make bold promises? Democrats have a history of thinking that if they just educated the electorate enough, voters would see the wisdom of their policy ideas and vote for them. Instead, every four years or so we have an election where Democrats end up asking themselves “why do voters keep voting against their self-interest?” It’s because voters don’t just care about policy. Indeed, most voters aren’t policy wonks at all. They have day jobs and leave serious policy questions to other people. They judge candidates by what they perceive to be their character. Sometimes, as in 2016, a great many of them treat their vote as an opportunity to express their rage.
Voting is an emotional act. We need to stop making the same mistake economists keep making when it comes to consumer spending behavior. People are not primarily rational actors. Reason is informed by emotion, desire, longing, anger over injustices both real and perceived, etc. Buttigieg is right to recognize that policy alone focuses just on reason and largely ignores just about everything else. I suspect he’ll continue to be a contender as a result.