The last time a Democratic presidential nominee was trying to unseat a Republican incumbent, he arrived at the podium at the Democratic National Convention to tout his military service, his strongest credential: “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty.”
Now, Pete Buttigieg, a former Navy intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan, is taking a notably more modulated and targeted approach as he seeks his party’s nomination, reflecting both the experiences of a post-9/11 generation of veterans and the sensibilities of a nation that largely reveres them, even as it is increasingly wary of military adventures abroad.
In the Democratic debate Tuesday night, Mr. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., did not so much brag about his military experience as leverage it to outflank his rivals in a heated exchange over President Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds in northern Syria. He listened as Beto O’Rourke praised his military service, and later told the former Texas congressman not to lecture him on gun control.
“I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal,” Mr. Buttigieg said.
The strong showing in the Ohio debate was in no small part reliant on Mr. Buttigieg’s background as a service member and his ability to unpack questions about foreign policy and military intervention better than his opponents that night. His experience as a veteran, paired with his criticism of American conflicts over the last two decades, has the potential to appeal to a broad cross section of moderates and liberals alike.
“Kerry’s generation had difficulty in separating policies from the troops,” Mr. Buttigieg said in an interview this summer, referring to the 2004 Democratic nominee and Vietnam veteran. “He was an antiwar vet and in some ways I am too. For my generation, it makes total sense that he would be against that war and serve. For his generation, you had to choose a side.”
Mr. Buttigieg’s military record is only one facet of how he is increasingly trying to distinguish himself from liberal rivals like Senator Elizabeth Warren and moderates like former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
At 37, roughly half the age of those other two Democrats, Mr. Buttigieg is running on a message of generational change and arguing that he would bring fresh thinking to economic problems facing middle-class and working-class people. He holds a mix of moderate and liberal views, making him harder to caricature as a leftist candidate. As a Midwesterner, he is trying to appeal to rural white Americans, voters who backed both Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump for president, and others in battlegrounds like Wisconsin and Iowa. And he would make history as the nation’s first openly gay president.
With significant financial resources due to robust fund-raising, Mr. Buttigieg has the money for advertising to highlight his biography as he seeks to become better known among voters and improve his poll numbers, which are still modest.
His service as a Naval Reserve officer — he decided to join the military after a 2008 campaign trip to Iowa for Barack Obama — is one part of that biography that he is weaving into a larger political narrative concerned broadly with public service, America’s inherent inequities and the toxic bifurcation of the nation’s politics.
In many ways, he is the supersized version of the veteran Democrats who prevailed in the 2018 midterm elections. They campaigned as sensible, moderate antidotes to both Republican incumbents and more liberal Democrats, unburdened by the past foreign policy mistakes of either party.
Representatives Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Jason Crow of Colorado, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania and Elaine Luria of Virginia — who were among the new veterans in Congress who wrote an influential op-ed in The Washington Post advocating the impeachment of Mr. Trump over Ukraine matters — all ran in part on their military history.
“We shared many of the same values,” Ms. Sherrill said in an interview, “since we worked in the same types of places and environments and we served the country in similar ways.”
While veterans voted disproportionately for Mr. Trump in 2016 and have generally approved of his performance more than the general population, some support from prominent Republican veterans has cracked in recent days over the Syria policy.
And in the debate Tuesday night, Mr. Buttigieg hammered Mr. Trump for pulling troops out of the country and exposing America’s Kurdish allies to an attack by Turkey. “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,” he said. “Our allies knew it and our enemies knew it. You take that away, you are taking away what makes America America.”
Former Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a Democrat who served in Vietnam, said Mr. Buttigieg’s military service reinforced his credibility among veterans. “For vets, that he has experienced and understands that culture makes him one of us,” Mr. Kerrey said. “There must be millions of veterans who might disagree with everything he supports but might vote for him for that reason alone.”
Mr. Buttigieg’s military service has been a ballast for his candidacy, an essential addition to a biography that, in addition to training on assault weapons, includes a Harvard degree, a Rhodes Scholarship, a stint at a fancy consulting firm and marriage to another man.
It’s a part of his résumé he refers to often, casually but artfully dropping it into conservations on a wide range of policies, generally avoiding the battle bravado of previous veteran candidates and bristling at the suggestion that he had higher office in mind when he signed up.
“I began to feel that I was part of a problem if I didn’t serve,” said Mr. Buttigieg, who has frequently recounted how during his trip to Iowa, he became acutely aware that the burdens of military service were falling too heavily on too small a slice of the population. “It’s something that I want people to know. It’s an important part of my story and how I come at the world. I also don’t want people to think I am flogging it, presenting myself as a Navy Seal or career war hero. My turn came and I did my part.”
Mr. Buttigieg was accepted into the Navy Reserve’s direct commission officer program in September 2009. The program, which was developed during the Cold War to attract applicants with special expertise, draws accomplished private-sector civilians who want to serve and keep their day jobs, and fast-tracks them to officer status.
“It was the most stable moment of my life to date,” said Mr. Buttigieg, who joined when he was working as a consultant for McKinsey & Company. He was elected mayor of his hometown in 2011 while still in the Reserve, and took an unpaid seven-month leave in 2014 to deploy to Afghanistan, where he served as a counterintelligence officer.
“His deployment probably gave him a wake up,” said David W. Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general and former top commander in Afghanistan. “It is a unique place in society where you have a white male who works for someone African-American 10 years older than you from a very different cultural background. He talks about the leveling experience of being in the military.”
It was a theme that would stick, even after Mr. Buttigieg was honorably discharged in 2017.
While in Afghanistan, Mr. Buttigieg spent many days gingerly making his way through Kabul on convoy security in a heavily armed Land Cruiser. “I thought I was sent to Kabul for my experience in bureaucratic politics,” he said, “but because I was rifle qualified, it was my ability to drive a vehicle with two long guns” that got him that assignment he said. “At the end of the day my usefulness was as a driver more than an elected officer.”
Thomas Gary, a senior petty officer at Naval Station Great Lakes near Chicago, who worked with Mr. Buttigieg before he became mayor, said he kept his politics low key. “I didn’t even know he was a Democrat until he won his primary for mayor,” he said. “That wasn’t something he advertised. I do remember when he was sworn in, I wanted to make sure we from the unit showed a little love for this accomplishment.”
Mr. Buttigieg spent his down time in Kabul tooling around the base’s cigar club, playing in a joint division fantasy football league and visiting Afghan orphanages. He would retreat back to his barracks late at night to make calls back to South Bend. “I wanted to be a good enough officer so even my roommate had no idea what my day job was,” Mr. Buttigieg said.
Google made this wish unattainable. “When I got there, I may have had more to prove to demonstrate that I was there to get the job done,” he said.
As a candidate, Mr. Buttigieg does not lead with his veteran status, but rather sprinkles it through his conversation, a hint of flavor that is meant to be noticed, and the result of careful mental spade work meant to extrapolate his experiences into his political identity.
In a January television interview shortly after dipping his toe in the 2020 waters, he referred to himself as “a millennial, Episcopalian Maltese-American gay veteran mayor.” Asked if he was worried about being targeted by conservatives over his sexual orientation, he responded: “I’ve been deployed in a war zone. I am used to dealing with attacks.”
At the end of one debate he summed himself up this way: “Nothing about politics is theoretical for me. I’ve had the experience of writing a letter to my family, putting it in an envelope, marking it ‘just in case,’ and leaving it where they would know where to find it in case I didn’t come back from Afghanistan.”
Mr. Buttigieg was discharged before the Clinton-era policy of “don’t ask don’t tell” was repealed and gay men and lesbians were allowed to serve openly in the armed forces. He refers to the experience of serving without telling as informing his views on the Trump administration’s current ban on transgender service members.
In a Democratic debate last month, Mr. Buttigieg said he had feared that coming out would be a “career-ending professional setback,” but that his deployment had reinforced the notion “that you only get to live one life, and I was not interested in not knowing what it was like to be in love any longer.”
“So, I just came out,” he said.
“A big part of being in the military is the social side,” he said. “Knowing that as we sat around talking about life off base, there was so much I had to filter with people I was learning to trust in some deep ways, there were times I wish I could have kicked back and talked about my personal life in a fuller way.”
“That, I think, creates a level of stress that service people don’t need,” he added.
Some of his policy positions stem directly from his time in the military, he has said. For example, his national service plan would expand voluntary public service programs like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, and add new ones focused on combating climate change, addressing mental health and addiction, and providing caregiving for older people, especially in low-income communities.
The proposal draws from his sense that serving in the military brought him closer to Americans of different backgrounds, and that young people should have those opportunities outside of war zones. “It shapes my take on service and policy,” he said of his time in the military, “but I think it’s important to let people know that’s part of my story without beating them over the head with it.”
He makes clear connections between his time in Afghanistan and his views on American policy in the Middle East, which include support for pulling troops out of Afghanistan but criticism of Mr. Trump’s desire to withdraw from Syria.
His service background “lets us get out of this framework that one party is focused on national security,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “I think even progressive Democrats are excited about the idea of people who have served.”
At the same time, Mr. Buttigieg is well attuned to potential criticism that his service was not steeped enough in conflict. “He spent at least 100 trips outside the wire,” said General Barno, the former top commander in Afghanistan. “He was not a guy who sat behind a computer. He was out of the vehicle. He took some pretty interesting lessons from that. You can say he was not in direct combat, but he was out there where 99 percent of Americans weren’t.”