Transcript: Pete Buttigieg talks with Ed O’Keefe on “Face the Nation”, January 26, 2020


ED O’KEEFE: Mr. Mayor, thanks again for doing this.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Sure thing.

O’KEEFE: At this point, what qualifies as success in Iowa for you?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, I’m not going to set a goal post, but clearly it’s important for us to do well here in Iowa because this is our first opportunity to actually show versus tell about our ability to earn the support of voters. And we’ve got a fantastic organization here on the ground, more than 100 organizers filling those slots for precinct captains and the organization that’s really going to move people to the caucuses. Now, what I think is all different this year is a lot of folks have really been waiting until these last few days to make their decision. And so that creates the opportunity for us one more time to talk about the kind of president I seek to be, what it would mean to have a president focused on unifying the country, but also why my approach is the best to win and to defeat Donald Trump. 

O’KEEFE: Our a- I’ll let you in on a little secret. Our CBS News Battleground Tracker poll out tomorrow puts you in third just behind Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. And it’s- as with just about every other poll these days, very, very close, within a point or so. So it’s essentially statistically tied. If you don’t get a top three finish in this state, do you still have a path to the nomination, in your view?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, again, I’ll leave it to the pundits to compute all the different outcomes. What I know is we’ve got to do well and we’ve got to demonstrate that we can earn that kind of support. And in particular, we’re trying to build the broadest possible range of support in not just the- the cities where we think we can attract a lot of support, but we’re go into some of these counties that voted heavily for Trump, but are full of people who are just sick of what this president is doing. And part of how we demonstrate that I’ll be the right candidate to beat him in the fall is to make sure that we’re competing in rural and urban areas alike right now going to the caucus. 

O’KEEFE: On Saturday, your campaign sent at least two fundraising emails about Bernie Sanders. One of them said Bernie Sanders could be the nominee. That was in the subject line and the body it read, in part, “if things stay steady until the Iowa caucuses, Bernie Sanders could be the nominee of our party.” What would be so bad about that?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, our supporters want me to be the nominee. And so we’re reminding them of what’s at stake, of how many resources are coming into this state in order to make sure that the different competing camps do well and to motivate those who want to see us turn the page, those who believe in my message of unifying the country to do bold things and making sure that we’re not leaving anything on the table. 

O’KEEFE: Can he unify Democrats? 

BUTTIGIEG: Well, as you might expect, I believe I’m the best candidate to unify Democrats and unify Americans. Look, we can’t go on like this as a country. And one of the reasons I always start out by reminding voters of what it’s going to be like that first day after Donald Trump leaves office is that this is an election about how to turn the page and move America forward before it’s too late.

O’KEEFE: So if somebody sees this polling result that continues to show him, Senator Sanders leading here in Iowa, and they’re getting nervous and they think I’ve got to find one of these more moderate Democrats but there’s Joe Biden, there’s Amy Klobuchar, and there’s Pete Buttigieg. What is your sales pitch to that person?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, here’s what I’d say. If you’re focused on winning, remember this.  Every time my parties won in the last 50 years, it’s been with a nominee who is new to national politics, had not run for president before, did not have an office in Washington, or at least hadn’t had one for very long and was opening the door to a new generation of leadership. That’s how we win. The other thing we’re going to need, I think, in order to win is to be clear about how we’re going to govern, to earn that win by coming forward with a message about unifying the American people to do big things. In other words, you don’t have to choose between your head and your heart. You don’t have to choose between unity and boldness. You don’t have to choose between winning and governing. I’m here to lead America in turning the page. I think it’s why we’ve gone over the course of the last year from our very humble beginnings as a committee to the position that we’re now in. And now it’s my job, of course, to go out there in front of Iowans and voters and all of the early states and close the deal.

O’KEEFE: You mentioned being a fresh face the next generation. There was a scuffle in recent days, so to speak, between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Is Hillary Clinton still relevant to the conversation and to the Democratic Party? 

BUTTIGIEG: Well, of course, I respect what any leader in our party has to say. I’ll also say the less 2020 resembles 2016, the better. We are at a moment when we have got to recognize what we share as a party, the shared values that motivate us and that’s what my campaign is about. I’m speaking to fellow Democrats and to independents. I’m speaking to progressives, moderates and some folks who might lean right in the past but are sick with what’s happening right now. They’re what I call the future former Republicans, and they are welcome to be part of this coalition.

O’KEEFE: And they wouldn’t find favor with someone like Bernie Sanders then, most likely? 

BUTTIGIEG: Well, again, I’ll leave it to the pundits to talk about how the polling is going to work out. But what I know is that there are a lot of folks who are ready to consider voting Democrat for the first time in a long time. But we got to make sure that they feel welcome in that coalition we’re building. And what I’m saying is, you don’t have to give up on our progressive values or water them down one bit to have a message that is inclusive and drawing as many people as possible in. We’ve got to not just beat Donald Trump. We got to beat him big so the Trumpism goes into the history books, too. Unless we have that experience of the loss of power of the Republican Party, I think it’s going to be very hard to ever reunite Republican senators with their conscience.

O’KEEFE: Our new poll also finds 56 percent of Iowa Democrats think you’re qualified to be commander in chief. It’s a good number, but some of your opponents had better numbers, about 86 percent for Joe Biden, in the 60s for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. If there are people that are out there still skeptical about whether a 38 year-old war veteran who ran a small town can step into the Situation Room and run things, what do you tell them?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, what I would say is that there’s no job like the presidency, but when you’re coming into that job, having the experience of governing on the ground as a mayor where we don’t just debate issues or- or approach them legislatively, you have to actually get stuff done. Coupled with the experience of serving in uniform is as good a preparation as you get. I’m encouraged that a majority of Iowans believe that I’m qualified to be commander in chief. But the important thing to add to that is that I bring a different perspective. Look, let’s be honest. If your number one thing you’re looking for is the number of years spent in Washington, then you’ve got your pick and it’s not going to be me. What I’m offering is a different perspective. It’s not that I don’t understand the ways of Washington. It’s that I don’t accept them. And I’m here to offer a way to turn the page.

O’KEEFE: You’re a military veteran. You know that the Pentagon has said about 34 service members suffered some kind of either traumatic brain injury or other head injury as a result of those missile attacks into Iraq from Iran. The president kind of dismissed them, tried to minimize the situation — in one case, called them essentially headaches. The VFW has called on him to apologize. I’m curious whether you agree and- and what you make as somebody who served, what your brothers in arms would say about what he had to say about this.

BUTTIGIEG: You know, just at the last event we were at, I met a police officer who had served in the military and lost more of the people he served with in Afghanistan after they came back than while they were deployed. Traumatic brain injury is life threatening, not just at the time, but for the rest of your life. It can completely debilitate somebody who has served this country. And for the president to belittle that kind of sacrifice, for the president who avoided serving because he said bone spurs made it impossible for him to be able to do his part. To turn around and demean the experience of soldiers in harm’s way who were injured, who were very concretely and literally injured by an Iranian missile attack is one more example of why Donald Trump has no business anywhere near the Situation Room.

O’KEEFE: And if you had heard when you were serving that the commander in chief had called the Joint Chiefs dopes and babies, what might have that- what might that have done to, sort of, good order and discipline in the ranks?

BUTTIGIEG: The President of the United States needs to show some basic respect for the American military. And you don’t show that respect by, on one hand, pardoning war criminals. And on the other hand, referring in derogatory terms to members of the military, senior officers who are telling you the truth. Look, you don’t always have to accept every recommendation that a military commander gives you, but you got to just show some respect for the judgment that they are bringing because we’re talking about people who have served this country faithfully and who know the part of their job is not just to put their lives on the line, but to always tell the truth to their commanders. If the commander in chief is too small of a man to listen to uncomfortable or inconvenient advice without turning around and calling them names, then he has no business in that office.

O’KEEFE: This is one of the few issues that really seems to torque you– 

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah.

O’KEEFE: –because you’re somebody who’s been pretty level headed, but this one clearly gets to you.

BUTTIGIEG: Well, it makes my blood boil. The- the President of the United States showing this level of disrespect to everybody from- remember these injured service members that he’s talking about, he is their commander in chief right now. Their lives depend on his wisdom and judgment right now. And he can’t even show a basic level of concern. I’m thinking about the folks I served with who are still serving. Yesterday, I ran into somebody from my old unit. He’s getting ready to go to Iraq. I don’t want him to go to Iraq at a time when his own commander in chief is not willing to support those who were there. And at a certain point, support our troops has to be more than a bumper sticker. Support our troops has to mean listen to senior commanders when they’re giving you advice. And it has to mean respect the sacrifice of some of those soldiers who may be impacted for the rest of their lives by the effect of what has just happened to them. The fact that the president can’t do that, any president, whether I agree with him or not, whether they’re from the same party or not, the idea of a president showing that kind of disrespect to the American military should be an offense not just to veterans, but to anybody who wants to do a little more than just have a bumper sticker when it comes to saying “Support Our Troops.” 

O’KEEFE: Two more quick ones. You’d said this week in South Carolina, you concede that most of the people showing up for your events are white. You’ve got to work on reaching black voters, minorities across the country. Does the way you are approaching winning over minorities in states other than Iowa, let’s be frank, need to change?

BUTTIGIEG: Well we’re doing the work. So we had an event the other day in Moncks Corner talking about the economic empowerment of black Americans with Charlemagne the God, who originally came from- from that area and is now a- a leader in media and in business. It’s why we had a different kind of conversation on the campus of Claflin University, a historically black college. We’re doing the right kind of engagement to make sure we have conversations that are just different from what you can do in a thousand person rally. And we will continue with that, all of the above strategy to reach out to minority voters and reach out to voters in each of the states where we need to earn that win.

O’KEEFE: Would you like to see Mike Bloomberg on a debate stage soon?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, you know, when you’re competing for an office, you- you would want to be debating among everybody who has a shot. I think it’s unfortunate if we don’t have that kind of competition. Look, one of the best things about this early state process is that it forces us to get off of the airwaves and away from the ads and actually look people in the eye. And I think it would be a loss if anyone thinks that they can get the nomination without having to go through that process.

O’KEEFE: What would you want to ask him if he was on a debate stage? What should he be asked?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, it’s up to moderators to decide what to ask my competitors. I do think that each of my competitors should not be afraid to engage voters in the kind of intimate, in-person fashion that happens in these early states

O’KEEFE: And a small city versus big city mayor. If someone is trying to choose between the two of you, the answer is what?

BUTTIGIEG: Well the answer is communities like mine have been overlooked, and my party has struggled to connect with communities like mine. So when people point out that South Bend is not the size of the biggest cities in the country, my response is that’s kind of the point. There’s so many South Bend’s out there, many of them right here in Iowa, but across the country where we’ve got to do a better job of speaking to neighbors, speaking to workers, speaking to diverse constituencies who have so much to lose from the ongoing mismanagement of this administration, but who my party has to do a better job of connecting with in order to win, and in order to govern.

O’KEEFE: Mr. Mayor, thanks again for taking the time.

BUTTIGIEG: Sure thing. Appreciate it.

O’KEEFE: All right. Travel safely.

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