Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book, “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success,” and co-author with Peter Eisner of “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As Americans are finding out, and Hoosiers have known for some time, Pete Buttigieg is a walking, talking repudiation of Vice President Mike Pence. Yes, both men are clean-cut fellows from Indiana. But the similarities end there.
At a CNN town hall on Sunday night for Democratic presidential hopefuls, Buttigieg, in reference to Pence, asked, “How could he allow himself to become the cheerleader for the porn star presidency?” On a night when three presidential hopefuls fielded questions, it was the most memorable line spoken by anyone. However, it takes a thorough knowledge of both men to understand all that Buttigieg was saying.
Pence wears his religion on his sleeve and has used it to divide people. In 2006, Pence opposed marriage equality for gay people by linking it to a “societal collapse.”
As governor he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, a law that could be used by individuals and businesses to discriminate – particularly against members of the LGBTQ community – based on religion. Pence reversed himself amid a public outcry and permitted the law to be ineffectual by amendment.
Pence also opposed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” particularly significant given Buttigieg’s time in the military. And he opposed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community.
Buttigieg was adamantly opposed to RFRA and its passage contributed to his decision to come out as a gay man. He is married and takes second place to no one on matters of faith and morals.
As he told CNN Sunday night, “My understanding of scripture is that it’s about protecting the stranger and the prisoner and the poor person and that idea. That’s what I get in the Gospel when I’m at church. …”
Different as they are when it comes to religion, Pence and Buttigieg are more widely separated when it comes to their approach to government and politics. Pence campaigned three times before he won election but once he got into his first office, Congress, he did little active governing.
Indeed, during 12 years in office he didn’t author a single successful bill. His single term as governor of Indiana was noteworthy mainly for the RFRA debacle and his inattention to problems, including a water pollution crisis in East Chicago and an HIV outbreak in the rural southern part of the state.
In contrast to Pence, Buttigieg has been an active, ball-of-fire mayor who built and refurbished more than 1,000 abandoned homes in 1,000 days and then led the rebirth of a dying downtown. South Bend became a Rust Belt success story. An old Studebaker plant is a center for high-tech start-ups and Buttigieg is trying to bring the train line that connects South Bend airport to Chicago into the city center.
During a campaign day in January, he waxed poetic on the global need for longer-lasting asphalt, and detoured to inspect a business that’s a combination thrift store and restaurant.
If you have trouble imagining Mike Pence getting excited about highway paving materials or soul food sold alongside used suits, you are not alone. Pence is a careful politician who guards his image and rarely leaves his lane.
Joining Donald Trump’s ticket in 2016 marked an unusual departure as the pairing aligned him with a man known for profanity, three marriages, and awful talk about sexually assaulting women. (Only later was it revealed that Trump had allegedly paid hush money to an adult film actress who alleged she had an affair with him. Trump denies the claim.)
Pence’s choice to join the ticket, and the hypocrisy it suggests, is what Buttigieg was referencing as he wondered what prompted Pence to become a “cheerleader for the porn star presidency.” The vice president’s cheerleading has been consistent, even as Trump’s scandals have accumulated. And even when Pence is silent, he practically beams with apparent admiration when he is in the President’s presence.
In choosing to poke at Pence, Buttigieg clearly took a cue from fellow Democrats who objected when former Vice President Joe Biden called him a “decent guy.” After some pushback on social media about his comment, Biden tweeted that he “was making a point in a foreign policy context.” RFRA and Pence’s commitment to an especially conservative form of Christianity that condemns gays and nonbelievers, are not, in the eyes of many liberals, signs of decency. They are, instead, indicators of intolerance at a level that cannot be obscured by a soft voice or a warm smile.
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When Pence was governor of Indiana, he visited South Bend a few times and met with Buttigieg, but the two did not have a close working relationship. Indiana-based political writer Adam Wren told me the two other Republican governors who have worked with Buttigieg got along very well with him. He explains this by noting that the mayor is, in fact, a more authentic Hoosier than the Bible-thumping Pence.
Buttigieg’s authenticity is the difference between serving in the military, as he did in Afghanistan, and talking tough about defense, as the vice president often does. Wren, who recently profiled Buttigieg for Indianapolis magazine, said he is a practical guy who loves to talk about the gritty value of “smart sewer systems” and believes Christianity is a matter of action as well as belief.
Indeed, the South Bend mayor is direct, hard-working, and practical; he doesn’t just talk about his Midwest values, he applies them. This makes him the anti-Pence.