Pete Buttigieg Keeps Popping the Fox News ‘Bubble’

AP Photo/Matt Rourke
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

If there’s one person who can get liberals to (at least briefly) enjoy watching Fox News, at the moment it appears to be Pete Buttigieg.

In recent months, the former South Bend mayor and 2020 presidential candidate has been the most high-profile Joe Biden surrogate to regularly appear on a network most left-leaning politicians typically attempt to ignore or avoid. Democrats have seemingly delighted in Buttigieg’s appearances, videos of which have become increasingly popular online because of the 38-year-old’s deft deflections of the pro-Trump talking points posited by Fox News hosts.

As such, his interviews have gone viral on social media among left-leaning resistance types, and caught the eyes of political pundits, Democratic consultants, and extremely online celebrities.

Before Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate, Buttigieg appeared on Fox News with anchors Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier, who asked him about a Democratic proposal to include aid for undocumented immigrants in a new financial stimulus package—an idea that would bring horror to many Fox News viewers.

Buttigieg, whose Democratic primary debate performances were occasionally criticized as lackluster, smoothly turned the argument around, noting that immigrants deserve humane treatment, too, during a worldwide pandemic, and then reminding the hosts that Donald Trump had paid less income tax than many immigrants who have worked for him.

“When you have employers like the Trump Organization that have a history of hiring illegal immigrants, you still want to make sure that they don’t get COVID,” he said. “You saw the group of undocumented immigrants, for example, who worked for Donald Trump and paid more in taxes than he did. The workplaces they’re in are workplaces where all different people are and customers too. I think we would all agree we want everyone, regardless of their immigration status, to be free of this deadly virus.”

But a particular moment seemed to resonate with Democrats online in which Buttigieg swatted away MacCallum’s question on how Harris squares her previous support for Medicare for All with Biden’s stated opposition to the idea. “There’s a classic parlor game of trying to find a little bit of daylight between running mates,” the ex-mayor began, taking a jab at the stereotypical “Dems in disarray” premise underlying her question. “And if people want to play that game, we could look into why an evangelical Christian like Mike Pence wants to be on a ticket with the president caught with a porn star; or how he feels about the immigration policy that he called ‘unconstitutional’ before he decided to team up with Donald Trump.”

He continued: “If folks want to play that game, we can do it all night. But I think what most Americans want to hear about is: Are our families going to be better protected than they have been by this president who’s failed to secure America in the face of one of the most dangerous things ever to happen to our country?”

That moment received widespread plaudits from Democrats and celebrities online, including filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who called his performance a “thing of beauty.”

Buttigieg went deeper into the hornet’s nest on Thursday morning—appearing on Fox & Friends, the president’s favorite morning show—and calmly rattling off arguments about Trump that would normally seem verboten on such an unabashedly pro-Trump program.

“We know he’s lying,” the ex-mayor confidently declared after host Steve Doocy interrupted him to insist that Trump has denied calling U.S. troops “losers” or “suckers,” as The Atlantic reported last month. Buttigieg reminded Fox’s viewers that Trump publicly called the late John McCain a “loser,” and faked an injury to avoid serving during the Vietnam War. “If you really believe the president now on this kind of stuff, I’ve got a bridge to sell you,” he said, smirking into the camera.

“Sure you’re more likely to have a back-and-forth on Fox since it’s not preaching to the choir, but Pete enjoys that… especially after spending the past few weeks getting into character as Mike Pence. He knows it’s a valuable way to connect with voters who might not otherwise hear our message,” Buttigieg spokesman Sean Savett told The Daily Beast. “Reaching out to swing voters and future former Republicans is something Pete did throughout his own campaign, and it’s what he will continue to do when he goes on Fox as a Biden surrogate and in his interviews with outlets across the spectrum. As Democrats, we can’t afford to miss an opportunity to meet voters where they are to make our case for why Joe Biden is much better equipped than Donald Trump to be President of the United States.”

The appearances have impressed life-long mainstream Democratic operatives like Ben LaBolt, a former national press secretary for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, who told The Daily Beast: “He is particularly skilled at bursting the filter bubble of the network, and doing it with Midwestern charm and a smile and completely breaking down the lie of the day that Fox’s programming is premised on.”

And, ultimately, Buttigieg’s Fox News hits are part of the Biden campaign’s decision to opt for a lighter touch with the network.

The former vice president himself has not appeared on the network since March, when he sat down with Chris Wallace, and has rebuffed numerous interview requests, frustrating some employees at the right-leaning cable news network. As The Daily Beast previously reported, while Biden has appeared on other television networks, the campaign has focused much of its attention on local news, granting interviews to non-national outlets in key battleground states including Arizona, Wisconsin, and Florida.

But the campaign has maintained a presence on Fox News via the network’s paid Democratic commentators, a handful of campaign staffers, and national political figures like Sen. Chris Coons and Rep. Tim Ryan, who has been a regular on Fox News for years. Biden’s surrogate and communications shops have worked with these politicians to coordinate appearances on the network, preferring to stick largely to the more straight-laced daytime news programs.

The former mayor became a target of ire on the progressive left during the primaries for overtly tacking toward the center, seemingly altering or obscuring his positions on issues like Medicare for All and playing up his suit-and-tie moderation to contrast with the “social justice warriors” to his left.

But he has continued to endear himself to Bidenworld by being willing to go on Fox News, emerging as the campaign’s go-to on-air cable surrogate.

Multiple Biden campaign sources said they have been thrilled with the South Bend mayor’s recent performances on the network, noting that his Midwestern demeanor and military background have allowed him to flip the script on anchors unaccustomed to regularly sparring with a Democrat with his biography.

In several recent Fox News appearances, he’s used his Christian faith to question the religious convictions and hypocrisies of Vice President Mike Pence, invoked his own military record as a backdrop for criticisms of Trump’s treatment of the military, and even cited his own failures in the 2020 Democratic primary as a testament to Biden’s resilience as a candidate.

A source familiar with the Biden campaign’s strategy said Buttigieg’s recent interviews have been the result of coordination between the mayor and the campaign’s comms and surrogate teams. The campaign has encouraged the mayor to appear on outlets including Fox News, and has often worked to coordinate the logistics of his interviews, working to provide space for Buttigieg this week at the Salt Lake City hotel where the campaign had set up a studio for remote TV appearances.

But despite his recent spate of viral clips, Fox News actually isn’t unfamiliar territory for the former South Bend mayor.

During the 2020 Democratic primary, Buttigieg was one of just a handful of candidates, including Sens. Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar, who agreed to participate in standalone town-hall events with the network. The mayor’s camp has long tried to compete for viewers on Fox News, clearly avoiding the bombastic right-wing primetime hosts but trying to craft a message and strategy appealing to centrist and center-right voters who may tune into its “straight news” programming.

Buttigieg’s enthusiasm for appearing on the conservative network—which has, throughout the Trump presidency, often appeared to be almost an arm of the White House communications team—hasn’t been shared by many other Democrats.

Liberal watchdogs like Media Matters have sought to actively dissuade Democrats from appearing on the network, arguing that such interviews legitimize Fox News, which they said should be treated like an informal arm of the Republican Party. Sen. Elizabeth Warren notably embraced this view, making the network—which she deemed a “hate-for-profit racket”—a regular punching bag in campaign speeches, and using her opposition to appearing on the network as a tool to build her virtual email list.

Still, critics on the left aren’t the only ones who haven’t taken kindly to Buttigieg’s past appearances on Fox News.

During the Democratic presidential primaries last year, Trump complained about the airtime Buttigieg had received on the network, and lamented the praise anchor Chris Wallace had for the mayor’s background.

“Hard to believe that @FoxNews is wasting airtime on Mayor Pete, as Chris Wallace likes to call him. Fox is moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering the Dems. They got dumped from the Democrats boring debates, and they just want in,” he wrote in one such Twitter tirade.

“They forgot the people who got them there. Chris Wallace said, ‘I actually think, whether you like his opinions or not, that Mayor Pete has a lot of substance…fascinating biography.’ Gee, he never speaks well of me – I like Mike Wallace better…and Alfred E. Newman will never be President!”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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