On the 30-minute drive across eastern Iowa from Mount Vernon to Cedar Rapids on Saturday afternoon, Pete Buttigieg began (albeit with some prompting) by reciting Robert Frost: “Whose woods these are I think I know.…” He ended our interview with a spirited rendition of the first stanza of “When the Frost Is on the Punkin” by the nineteenth-century Hoosier dialect poet James Whitcomb Riley.
It was an impressive literary trick that few, if any, 2020 candidates could match. But it has scant relevance to the challenges Buttigieg would face in the Oval Office if he somehow managed to succeed Donald Trump as president. In many ways, the same can be said of the controversy surrounding Buttigieg’s client list during his nearly three years working for the blue-ribbon management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company, after he completed his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. Like so many campaign firestorms, it ultimately is far more about symbolism than substance—and has little bearing on Buttigieg’s fitness to govern.
During our interview, which I jointly conducted with Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, Buttigieg seemed exasperated that the press, as well as his opponents, had only homed in on his work for McKinsey once he started pulling ahead in the polls. Before he became a serious contender, he said, “there wasn’t quite as much enthusiasm for finding out [the] details of what I did in my mid-twenties.”
The 37-year-old Indiana mayor, who is indeed the current favorite in most Iowa surveys, has a point. These days, no one is terribly interested in probing the details of the business careers of such also-ran contenders as Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer. As political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavrick theorized in The Gamble, their analysis of the 2012 campaign, all high-flying presidential candidates go through three distinct phases: “discovery, scrutiny, and decline.” Scrutiny of Buttigieg’s activities at McKinsey would have been inevitable even if Elizabeth Warren had not made an issue of the aura of secrecy surrounding his consulting work.