Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg went to East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 23 in a major concession to the Make America Great Again movement. Buttigieg’s trip came three weeks after a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in the town of fewer than 5,000 residents, releasing hazardous materials and forcing a brief evacuation on both sides of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
No one died, people are back home, the Environmental Protection Agency says the air and water are safe, and it’s unusual for a transportation secretary to visit the site of a trainwreck. Yet a savvy MAGA pressure campaign, including an onsite inspection by former president Donald Trump earlier in the week, left Buttigieg no choice. Reluctantly, he traveled to Columbiana County, Ohio, where Trump won in 2020 by 45 points. He donned a hard hat and goggles. And he tried to convey sympathy toward the East Palestinians.
The episode highlighted a dilemma for Buttigieg’s party: The Democrats are led by an 80-year-old president with no clear successor. And while Joe Biden plans to run for reelection, a twist of fate could upend the 2024 race and send Democrats scrambling to enter a primary. The outcome would be unpredictable and potentially unbearable.
Biden is the one person who’s defeated Trump. The rising stars in his party, such as Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro, Maryland governor Wes Moore, Senator Raphael Warnock (D., Ga.), and Representative Abigail Spanberger (D., Va.), aren’t ready for national campaigns. The Democratic bench is filled with retreads—Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—and duds.
Like Buttigieg. He’s immensely overrated. His glib, know-it-all style may impress some in the media, but his crisis management skills are awful. In 2021 he went on paternity leave despite supply chain bottlenecks and negotiations over the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. In the summer of 2022 he went on vacation to Portugal as rail workers threatened to strike. He was out of his depth last December when Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights and scrambled holiday travel plans. In January the Federal Aviation Administration halted air traffic due to a computer glitch. Buttigieg was caught unawares.
His handling of the East Palestine train disaster was just as sloppy and ineffectual. For more than a week, Buttigieg said nothing on the crash, while complaining about the demographics of construction workers. Then he blamed the Trump administration for lessening regulations on rail carriers. Next, he said train derailments happen often, but East Palestine has been getting the attention. Finally, he took a hard line on Norfolk Southern and relented to demands that he go to Ohio.
His shifting responses played right into the hands of Trump, Senator J.D. Vance (R., Ohio), and television host Tucker Carlson. They turned East Palestine into a conservative version of Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi—impoverished and neglected communities whose populations suffer from environmental contamination.
Buttigieg’s aloof sensibility became evidence that the Biden administration is more interested in the goings-on in Ukraine than in what’s happening at home. And his eventual capitulation to MAGA's demands strengthened the perception that his critics were right. Buttigieg might have been the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. But East Palestine mayor Trent Conaway has much better political instincts.
If you compare him with Kamala Harris, though, Buttigieg is another FDR. The vice president hasn’t recovered from a devastating Feb. 6 New York Times story on the "painful reality" that she has squandered her political future. "Even some Democrats whom her own advisers referred reporters to for supportive quotes confided privately that they had lost hope in her," reported Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Katie Rogers, and Peter Baker. Indeed, Democrats are so fearful that Harris will lose the 2024 or 2028 election that they are trying to figure out how to "sideline her without inflaming key Democratic constituencies that would take offense."
Best of luck.
Clumsy Kamala, pedantic Pete—without Biden the Democrats have few good options. Of the senators who have run before, Amy Klobuchar has potential, I guess, but is anyone really excited for her candidacy? The veteran governors are a mixed bag: Gavin Newsom and Jared Polis have strengths and weaknesses, and J.B. Pritzker combines the worst of progressivism and limousine liberalism (he’s a billionaire) with an absence of charm.
Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer, who won reelection last year by 12 points and gained unified control of the state legislature, probably has the brightest future. Biden must regret not selecting her as vice president in 2020. Still, Whitmer is untested.
And no, Michelle Obama is not going to descend from the rafters to save the party.
Biden remains. His approval rating has improved slightly in recent days, he’s favored to win reelection, but he is no sure bet. Trump is knocking on his door. If Biden wants to give the rising generation of Democrats more time to develop, the American standard of living needs to improve and the Ukrainian Army needs to make gains. And he and his administration need to demonstrate the proper concern for the people of East Palestine, and places like it.