Buttigieg looks to expand his reach through Fox News town hall

Tyler Pager
Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, center, answers a question during a FOX News Channel town hall moderated by Chris Wallace Sunday, May 19, 2019, in Claremont, N.H.

Pete Buttigieg sought to extend the reach of his Democratic presidential campaign by making his argument for generational change in Washington to the audience of President Donald Trump’s favored television network.

The 37-year-old South Bend, Indiana, mayor broke with some of his rivals for the party’s presidential nomination by taking part in a Fox News town hall Sunday night. He took questions from a largely friendly audience at a high school in Claremont, New Hampshire, on issues including climate change, taxes, abortion and how to handle Trump’s tweets.

“There is a special value to generational change at a moment like this because we’re not just living through another election," Buttigieg said. "I believe we’re living through one of those transitions between moments in American history as consequential as the one that brought us the New Deal."

He was rarely forced to stray from his usual talking points, which focus on big themes and structural changes, and gave little in the matter of policy specifics. He criticized the Republicans’ tax cuts and called for a “reasonable” wealth tax, he repeated his call to abolish the Electoral College and he expressed concerns about National Security Adviser John Bolton’s role in setting U.S. foreign policy.

Top tier

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg takes a selfie with audience members after a FOX News Channel town hall.

Buttigieg’s willingness to take on almost any interview and answer questions from voters in any venue has helped propel his rise from a relatively unknown Midwestern mayor to the top tier of the 23 Democrats running for president. Most recent polls show him in close competition with Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, with all of them behind Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders.

Buttigieg repeatedly dodged questions about his Democratic opponents, in particular those that attempted to draw him out about the age difference between him and Biden, who is 76. The mayor has centered much of his candidacy on the idea that a new generation of leaders is needed because younger politicians will be directly affected by the nation’s long-term debt and climate change.

“These problems will be visited not just on the head of my children and grandchildren,” he said.

Abortion question

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg shakes hands with audience member after a FOX News Channel town hall, Sunday, May 19, 2019, in Claremont, N.H.

One of the most divisive issues looming in the 2020 campaign is abortion, as several states have enacted new laws that would all but outlaw the procedure. Chris Wallace, the Fox News moderator, prodded the candidate on whether he supports banning abortions after a certain number of weeks. He said he does not support any restrictions on late-term abortions, saying, “I trust women to draw the line.”

When pressed on allowing third-trimester abortions, Buttigieg said, “That decision is not going to be made any better, medically or morally, because the government is dictating how that decision should be made,” after noting that abortions performed that late are very rare.

One of Buttigieg’s biggest hurdles has been drawing in minority voters, something Buttigieg addressed several times at the town hall. Wallace cited a Fox News poll showing Buttigieg drawing 1% support from non-white voters, who will play a central role in the Democratic nominating contest. Buttigieg acknowledged the work he needs to do to win over those voters, saying he is trying to engage activists, faith leaders and elected officials in those communities.

"When you’re not somebody that people feel like they’ve known for a long time, nor yourself a person of color, you’ve got to work extra hard to get to know folks,” he said.

Buttigieg’s warm reception on Fox which included a short biographical video that mirrored a campaign advertisement and ended with a standing ovation is sure to fuel the debate over whether Democratic candidates should appear on the network. Sanders and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have already participated in town halls on Fox, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has one scheduled in June.

Warren and Harris announced last week that they wouldn’t participate in a Fox News town hall. Warren denounced the network as a “hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists.”

Buttigieg criticized some of the hosts of Fox News opinion shows, calling out Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham by name for comments they have made about immigrants.

“There is a reason why anybody has to swallow hard and think twice before participating in this media ecosystem,” he said about appearing on Fox News.

But, he drew a distinction between the opinion hosts and the viewers, many of whom he said tune into the network in “good faith.”

“There are a lot of Americans who my party can’t blame if they are ignoring our message because they will never hear it if we don’t go on and talk about it,” he said.

Buttigieg also took jabs at Trump, who criticized Fox News for “wasting airtime” on the mayor. The network, he tweeted, “is moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering the Dems.”

When asked how he would responded to Trump tweets, Buttigieg said “I don’t care,” but added that he understands why people are “mesmerized” by the tweets because "it is the nature of grotesque things that you can’t look away."